A high-speed puncture wrecked Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes of victory and handed another easy win to championship leader Nico Rosberg in Sunday’s wild and incident-filled Chinese Grand Prix.
Aussie racer Ricciardo made a brilliant start in his Red Bull and took the lead from second on the grid, but it was a short-lived run at the front as he ran over debris and suffered a tyre failure on lap three.
That gave the initiative to Rosberg who pulled away in his Mercedes to claim a third successive win, this time from pole position, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who had started from the back of the grid, finished seventh after another challenging contest punctuated by collisions and, remarkably, five pit stops.
It was German Rosberg’s sixth successive win, including three at the end of last season. Rosberg became the 10th driver in F1 to win the first three races of a season and all of the previous nine went on to lift the drivers’ world championship.
He now has a 36-points lead ahead of defending three-time champion Briton Hamilton. Rosberg has 75, Hamilton, 39 and Ricciardo 36.
"The start was not quite good enough with Daniel,” said Rosberg. “But then, I had a really quick car today, really great, attacked straight away and was able to pull a big gap.
“We are going to have a party now in the garage - everyone deserves that - and then straight back home to my family. I can't wait to see them."
Ricciardo, after repairs and a strong recovery, came home a strong fourth – for the third race running -- behind four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel, who was second for Ferrari, and his Red Bull team-mate Russian Daniil Kvyat, but it was hardly serene progress.
“With the puncture and the Safety Car, it was like being punched in the stomach by a heavyweight,” said Ricciardo. “After that, I drove one of the best races of my life!"
It was Kvyat’s second podium and came after a storming start that saw him plunge – “like a torpedo,” according to Vettel – inside both Ferraris at the first corner, causing a ripple of minor collisions that affected half the field including Hamilton, who had roared from 22nd to 17th at the start before being hit by a Sauber.
The German was still complaining about Kvyat’s courageous move an hour after the race having described him as “a madman” and his attack as “suicidal” – the incident having forced Vettel to collide with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen as he avoided hitting the Russian.
Vettel said: "It is difficult to judge how it was from his point of view. Kimi locked up and I went wide to overtake him -- Daniil was trying to do the same thing.
“He was coming with a lot of speed into that gap. I was very surprised and Kimi was coming across. In the end, I was lucky because I could continue and he could continue….”
Kvyat said: “I had a really good start -- you see the gap and you go for it. That’s racing… It's a risky move, I agree with Seb, but I am on the podium and he's on the podium."
Both had damaged cars but continued, Finn Raikkonen pitted for repairs before taking fifth place ahead of Brazilian Felipe Massa of Williams, Hamilton, and the two Toro Rossos of impressive Dutch teenager Max Verstappen and Spaniard Carlos Sainz. Finn Valtteri Bottas was 10th for Williams.
Hamilton had run over debris in the opening skirmishes before Brazilian Felipe Nasr drove into him and damaged his front wing, lodging a part of it under his car. This, on top of starting last after failing to clock a time in qualifying due to power until technical problems, severely harmed his prospects of a charge to victory.
“Another difficult one,” said Hamilton, who has been hit by first lap accidents at every race this year. “I got a good start and I tried to avoid whatever was happening in front of me, but I got tangled up in it.
“Every time I did a stop, I was having to come through again. At the end, there was nothing left in the tyres, but that's racing!
“The car was pretty damaged. I think the suspension was damaged and the car was flexing like crazy. It was like a four-poster bed!"
Ricciardo’s puncture brought a five laps’ Safety Car intervention during which Hamilton pitted twice, for super-softs and then softs – before the racing resumed with Vettel 15th, Ricciardo 17th, Raikkonen 19th and Hamilton 21st.
Rosberg controlled events from the start, made two stops and strolled to victory while behind him, by some distance, the rest were battling with strategy, tyre-choice and track positions to grab the other podium positions and points.
At one point, after 21 laps, Hamilton was up to fourth, but his car’s loss of aerodynamic performance and need for tyres undermined that hope.
Despite the numerous incidents, all 22 cars completed the race.