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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Daniel Ricciardo proves in China he remains Formula One's ultimate opportunist

A safety car period gave the Red Bull Racing the chance to challenge for victory in Shanghai, and he seized it with both hands

Daniel Ricciardo won the Chinese Grand Prix. AFP
Daniel Ricciardo won the Chinese Grand Prix. AFP

With his smiling personality and willingness to have fun and poke fun at himself, particularly, on social media, Daniel Ricciardo has always been one of the more popular members of the Formula One paddock.

So it was unsurprising that his shock victory in Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix was received so enthusiastically by the Shanghai crowd.

It was another example of the Australian seizing a race victory chance that has come his way.

Ricciardo, 28, has now won six races in his F1 career. A pretty good effort when you consider he has never been in the fastest car in the field.

Red Bull Racing has usually been a podium challenger, but in an era of Mercedes-GP dominance race win opportunities have been hard to come by.

As Ricciardo himself joked in his post-race podium interview: "I don't seem to win boring races, they're all pretty fun."

Like his five previous victories, Sunday was about an opportunity presenting itself and being composed and good enough to take it.

For the first half of the grand prix the fight for victory had been between Ferrari and Mercedes, with Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas duking it out at the front.

But things changed on Lap 32 of the 56-lap event as the safety car came out to allow track marshals to clearly debris left after the two Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley made contact.

Red Bull reacted quickly and chose to bring in both drivers, Max Verstappen and Ricciardo, in for unscheduled second pit stops to put on the soft tyre compound.

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Neither Mercedes or Ferrari pitted their drivers, electing to try and make it to the end of the race on the harder medium compounds their cars were already on.

Ricciardo actually lost a place and was down to sixth, but thanks to the fast thinking of Red Bull he, and Verstappen, had a tyre advantage worth upto a second a lap in speed.

What followed was a masterclass in overtaking, picking the right moments in the process, as Ricciardo went from sixth on Lap 36 when the race restarted to being in front 10 laps later as he passed Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and Bottas to get to the head of the field.

Yes, he had a tyre advantage, but he still had to make it count and he judged his overtakes beautifully.

Verstappen proved doing that should not be taken for granted by his own ham-fisted attempts at getting past cars.

He was over ambitious in trying to get past Hamilton around the outside at the esses complex of the Shanghai International Circuit, running off the track as a consequence and falling behind Ricciardo.

He then locked up trying to get past Vettel at the hairpin and spun the German around, and he was fortunate to escape with no major damage to his car, although a 10-second time penalty was given to him by race stewards meaning that although he crossed the line fourth at the end he was demoted to fifth in the final standings.

It was a disappointing effort from Verstappen, who will know he wasted a chance to triumph, but all it does his highlight just what a good job in contrast Ricciardo did.

Everything we have seen in the opening three races indicate that Red Bull are again the third fastest package on the grid, behind Mercedes and Ferrari.

So, it is crucial that every chance that does come their way is taken advantage of, and that is something that Ricciardo continues to excel at.

The timing of the victory is pretty good for him as well. He is out of contract from Red Bull at the end of the season.

The Austrian team are keen to keep him, but he is on the radar of both Mercedes and Ferrari, who both have potential vacancies coming up at the end of the season.

It is a tricky decision for Ricciardo. Red Bull are competitive, but are limited by a Renault engine that lacks the power, or the reliability, to match those of Mercedes and Ferrari.

Mercedes and Ferrari would have the challenge of also going up against respectively Hamilton and Vettel, both four-time world champions, in the same machinery.

The latter would not worry Ricciardo given he comfortably out-performed Vettel when they were teammates at Red Bull in 2014.

The narrative of where Ricciardo will be in 2019 is sure to be one of the most fascinating topics of the season ahead.

But, he has certainly reminded people with his efforts in Shanghai of just what he is capable of when the chance to win a grand prix comes his way.