Vettel arrived in China in the best possible form, having capitalised on a Mercedes software glitch to triumph in Australia before Hamilton’s five-place grid penalty put paid to his chances of challenging the triumphant Ferrari in Bahrain.
But the Brit gave notice of his own form on Friday with two timesheet-topping laps, only for it all to fall apart on Saturday.
In colder conditions, Vettel pipped team-mate Kimi Raikkonen to pole position by just 0.08s to break the Finn’s heart once again, while Hamilton could not get ahead of Valtteri Bottas and could only produce the fourth-fastest lap.
Chinese Grand Prix LIVE
Red Bull boss Christian Horner on Daniel Ricciardo: “He’s done a mega job out there.”
Heck yeah. Mega doesn’t even cover it.
10-second time penalty for Max Verstappen. That will probably demote him to around eighth or ninth. Hurts, but it was his fault.
Ricciardo takes the lead! Stunning drive from the Australian who will now coast to the victory you would think, given he is faster than anyone else on the race track.
Oh my goodness. Verstappen dives down the inside of Vettel for third place and the two collide and both go around. Hamilton nips past both of them – although he has been overtaken by Raikkonen.
So much action! The stewards are investigating it but in the meantime, Vettel has been overtaken by Hulkenberg too and is down to seventh.
1st Bottas, 2nd Ricciardo, 3rd Raikkonen, 4th Hamilton, 5th Verstappen, 6th Hulkenberg, 7th Vettel.
Oh dear oh dear. Hamilton gets mugged by Verstappen too and up ahead of him, Ricciardo bombs past Vettel into second!
I reckon this is the Australian’s to lose now! He’s got so much extra grip.
WOW. Daniel Ricciardo comes from so far back at the hairpin and has overtaken Lewis Hamilton. Christian Horner gives it a massive roar on the pit wall – could Ricciardo win this race? He’s only 1.7s off the front and is flying.
Oh dear. Verstappen so impetuous. The Dutchman tries to get round the outside in the middle sector, they touch and Verstappen goes wide. Ricciardo is the beneficiary and he is now up to fourth!
Ricciardo COASTS past Raikkonen at the hairpin. He takes fifth. The Red Bull of course has the freshest tyres of all!
The lapped runners are being allowed to go clear of the safety car so we’re close to a restart. This has worked out quite well for Raikkonen by the way. He’s fifth, on tyres that are seven laps fresher. Safety car in this lap. Bottas gets a good restart and retains the lead.
LAP 31 – SAFETY CAR
There is too much debris on the track from the Toro Rosso incident and Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have taken advantage by pitting. Mercedes have not pitted – is that a mistake? Just might be…
Raikkonen has finally pitted and comes out sixth. He won’t make much progress from there you’d think unless everyone else’s tyres really go to pieces.
Alonso has also pitted and comes out in 13th which isn’t good news.
The two Toro Rossos have just run into each other at the hairpin. Looks like Pierre Gasly’s fault there, diving down the inside when the gap wasn’t there. Hartley is now running 18th and Gasly 16th.
Valtteri Bottas takes the lead in Turns One and Two and Vettel follows him through passed Kimi Raikkonen. He’s back to third and still hasn’t stopped.
Fernando Alonso still hasn’t stopped either so he is up to seventh. When he does stop he’s going to be aiming for 10th place, battling Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen. Three guys who know how to race there – could get tasty.
Kimi is lapping about 1.5s slower than his rivals but presumably because he is committing to the one-stop strategy. He will have fresher tyres at the end of the race now of course.
BOTTAS MAKES THE UNDERCUT WORK!
Vettel does indeed pit and comes out a full second behind Bottas. The Finn has the de facto lead of this race behind Raikkonen, who hasn’t pitted yet.
Hamilton meanwhile has done the fastest lap of the race. Could he get ahead of Raikkonen when he pits eventually?
Verstappen is doing some mega sector times so Mercedes have pitted Bottas to cover him off. He comes out five seconds clear though.
Ferrari will now surely react with a pit stop.
Hamilton pits and gets out just ahead of Magnussen and Ricciardo, which is important so that he can run in clean air.
Verstappen pits from third onto the medium tyre. Is he going to try to go to the end? Maybe. Daniel Ricciardo does the exact same. That is all in from Red Bull.
Great scrap between Sainz Jr and Gasly, albeit for 15th place. Two of the grid’s best young drivers going at it and the Frenchman is coming out on top – until the Spaniard gets DRS on the back straight and moves past. Good little battle though with fine defensive driving by Gasly.
Hamilton is lapping in the 1:39s while Bottas is into the 1:38s, which is slightly odd. Some suggestion it could be because Raikkonen isn’t going flat out ahead of him and the dirty air is backing him up.
The first pit stop of the day is Brendon Hartley in his Toro Rosso, swapping the ultra-soft tyre for the medium. Pirelli reckon there are 35 laps of life in that white-rimmed tyre.
Pierre Gasly was the only man to start on the medium tyre after a very poor qualifying and while he is 18th, he seems to have it in the operating window which is interesting information for the others.
At the front meanwhile, Bottas has stopped the bleeding and is keeping Vettel within the undercut window.
Hamilton on team radio: “Sorry to lose the place, guys. Kimi was quite aggressive.” Sounds pretty downbeat.
Vettel’s lead is pretty stable at 2.5s but Bottas is at least matching his lap times and is moving clear of Verstappen.
Hamilton can’t get up to Raikkonen and is just stuck 1.5s behind without even DRS.
Stoffel Vandoorne is told that he needs to overtake Sirotkin to “get into this race” and he promptly does. The McLarens are still 11th and 16th though.
Just looking at the start again, Hamilton got caught in no man’s land on the outside, Raikkonen was in front of him on the inside and gets mugged by Verstappen in the space.
Vettel has so much pace. He’s just added 0.5s to his lead in the middle sector. That Ferrari is crazy quick and he’s already two seconds out.
TERRIBLE start for Lewis Hamilton. He gets picked off by Max Verstappen into Turn One, and he gets Kimi Raikkonen too after he got squeezed out by his team-mate.
So it’s Vettel, Bottas, Verstappen, Raikkonen, Hamilton. Not good for the Brit.
“See you f***ing later, son,” crows Verstappen on team radio. Well, quite.
7.07am: Three minutes away now. By the way, Marcus Ericsson was handed a five-place grid penalty for ignoring double waved yellow flags – which means he starts last. But then, he’d qualified last anyway.
Drivers firing up on the grid now and they will be off on their formation lap in a few seconds.
Team radio from Lewis Hamilton.
“The rears are going to suffer today. I’d be surprised if this is a one-stop.”
7am: Absolutely disastrous grid walk from Martin Brundle, including calling the expensive seats “corporate hostility”, failing to interview more than one driver in the top six and whipping out the classic “do you speak English, ma’am?”.
Someone has found Toto Wolff though.
“Starting three and four gives you some opportunities to attack from behind,” the Mercedes boss says. They will have to look backwards too. Red Bull think their race pace is perhaps the best on the grid. Could be some early jeopardy.
6.45am: Morning campers! The early and good news for Mercedes is that it is warmer than yesterday by about 12 degrees Celsius. On a track where tyre degredation is so brutal, that could really make things interesting.
A two-stop, according to Pirelli, is the fastest strategy here with two stints on the ultra-soft and one on the medium. But the front four start on the yellow-rimmed soft tyre and it will be intriguing to see how they cope with Red Bull, who are on the ultras in fifth and sixth. Some lovely strategic issues to contend with for the teams.