Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton held off the challenge of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to take his fifth Chinese Grand Prix victory as Max Verstappen claimed his eighth career podium finish after a sensational drive that saw the Red Bull Racing driver rise to third from 16th place on the Shanghai grid.
Hamilton, starting from pole, held his advantage when the lights went out and took the lead ahead of Vettel and Bottas. Daniel Ricciardo passed Kimi Raikkonen for fourth place.
The order swiftly changed, however as first Williams’ Lance Stroll spun off and the Virtual Safety Car was deployed and, soon after, when Antonio Giovinazzi crashed heavily as he crossed the finish line. With his Sauber stranded on the main straight the Safety Car proper was sent on track.
Vettel chose to discard his intermediates under the VSC but that move was penalised when Giovinazzi crashed and the German dropped back. Ricciardo, now on supersofts, rose to second behind Hamilton who had taken on soft tyres during the cautionary periods.
The Australian wasn’t the Red Bull on the biggest charge, however. Max Verstappen lined up 16th on the grid but the Dutchman mad a sensational start and by the end of lap one he was up to seventh.
As the stops played out he rose further and then when the SC retreated he passed Raikkonen and then to cap a remarkable opening spell he passed team-mate Ricciardo to claim second place.
Ricciardo soon came under pressure from fourth-placed Raikkonen and fifth-placed Vettel as Ferrari came back but neither could find a way past the Red Bull across the opening stint, a situation that allowed the front pair of Hamilton and Verstappen to pull away. By the start of lap 20 Hamilton was 3.6s clear of Verstappen, while the Dutchman was 5.1s ahead of Ricciardo.
The pressure on Ricciardo intensified when Vettel got past Raikkonen with a well-executed move at the hairpin. The German closed in on the Red Bull driver and then tried the same move on lap 22.
Ricciardo resisted and they ran side by side through the exit, banging wheels as they attempted to get the upper hand. It was Vettel, though who emerged ahead the Ferrari driver then set off in pursuit of Verstappen.
The Dutchman was 4.9s up the road at that point in the race and within four laps the German had reduced that deficit to 1.8s. Vettel’s pace was irresistible and on lap 29, as Verstappen locked up on the approach to the hairpin, Vettel eased past to claim second place. He was now just under 12s adrift of leader Hamilton.
Further back Alonso’s excellent race, in which he rose as high seventh came to an end soon after he ceded the place to Sainz. The Spaniard slowed soon afterwards and was quickly on the radio reporting a driveshaft problem, which forced him to stop at Turn 9.
Further ahead Vettel stopped for soft tyres on lap 34 in a bid to pressure Mercedes and Hamilton responded, stopping for softs two laps later.
When the order resolved after the stops, Hamilton led from Raikkonen, but the Finn was reporting handling issues with his car saying “there are 20 laps left and I have no front end”. He pitted for new tyres on lap 40 and Vettel once again moved to second place, this time 9.5s adrift of Hamilton. Raikkonen, meanwhile, dropped to sixth behind Sainz.
Vettel was pushing hard to reel in Hamilton but the Briton always had pace in reserve and with eight laps remaining the Mercedes driver was a comfortable eight seconds ahead of his rival.
Behind them Ricciardo began to put pressure on Verstappen and in the closing stages a knife-edge battle developed between the team-mates, with the Australian using DRS to close in hard on the Dutchman and Verstappen not having the benefit of clear air to pull away as Haas’ Romain Grosjean was just over a second further up the track.
A rattled Verstappen complained long and loud about not being able to get past the Haas but in the end he was able to hold off his team-mate’s challenger and soon after Hamilton claimed his 54th career victory ahead of Vettel, Verstappen crossed the line to take his eighth career podium finish in 42 grand prix starts.
Ricciardo was forced to settle for fourth place ahead of Raikkonen and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz. Kevin Magnussen took Haas’ first points of the season with eighth place, while Force India enjoyed a double points finish for the second race in a row, with Sergio Perez ninth ahead of Esteban Ocon.