SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Daniel Ricciardo made a string of thrilling overtaking moves to snatch a surprise Chinese Grand Prix victory on Sunday after a safety car strategy gamble by his Red Bull team paid off handsomely.
The Australian, who started sixth after almost missing qualifying, made the most of fresher tyres to finish 8.8 seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes.
“I don’t seem to win boring races,” he grinned from the podium, before chugging the champagne from his racing boot in a trademark ‘shoey’.
“They are all pretty fun but that was unexpected.”
Kimi Raikkonen took third place for Ferrari but title contenders Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both endured trying afternoons, the four times world champions ending up fourth and eighth respectively.
“I was in no-man’s land today,” said Hamilton. “I had no pace.”
Vettel, who won the first two races of the season for Ferrari, saw his lead over Hamilton slashed from 17 points to nine.
The German’s race unravelled spectacularly, a collision with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen dropping him down the order, after the pre-race favorite had initially made a good start from pole and held the early lead.
Verstappen had a 10 seconds penalty applied post-race for causing the collision, dropping the Dutch youngster from fourth to fifth.
Vettel was also passed by the McLaren of Fernando Alonso two laps from the end.
Ricciardo’s mechanics had performed a minor miracle to change a blown engine after practice on Saturday, getting him out just in time during the first phase of qualifying.
“Putting ourselves 24 hours ago, I thought we might be starting at the back of the grid,” said the Australian. “Today is the real reward for that work.”
Sunday’s win was Ricciardo’s first since a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix last June and it also broke Mercedes’ Shanghai stranglehold, with the champions having won the last six races there.
Mercedes are yet to win this year, the first time since the turbo hybrid era started in 2014 that they have been beaten for three races in a row.
Ricciardo and Verstappen were not early contenders but the deployment of the safety car on the 32nd of 56 laps, after the Toro Rosso pair Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley collided and left debris on track, swung the race Red Bull’s way.
Bottas was in the lead at that stage ahead of Vettel, having overhauled the German during the pitstops, while Verstappen was fourth and Ricciardo sixth.
Red Bull pulled both their cars into the pits, ‘double-stacking’ them and bolting a set of fresh soft tyres on each.
The advantage of fresh tyres allowed Verstappen and Ricciardo to scythe through the field.
“The safety car was so unlucky for us,” exclaimed Bottas over the radio.
Verstappen botched his chances of victory, and a possible one-two for Red Bull, with scrappy attempts to overtake the main title contenders.
The Dutchman ran wide and dropped back behind Ricciardo when trying to pass Hamilton and later spun his Red Bull and Vettel’s Ferrari while attempting to pass the German for third — an error he owned up to afterwards.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg finished sixth for Renault, ahead of Alonso whose aggressive overtaking move on Vettel was ‘noted’ by stewards.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz was ninth for Renault with Kevin Magnussen rounding out the top 10 for Haas.
Editing by Alan Baldwin