A bitter-sweet race embroidered with yet another high speed puncture left Daniel Ricciardo frustrated and downcast on Sunday as his new teenage Red Bull team-mate Max Vertstappen claimed an historic triumph in a sensational Spanish Grand Prix.
Aussie Ricciardo should have been the man beaming atop the victors’ podium at the Circuit de Catalunya, but a team decision to switch him from a two-stop strategy to three stops wrecked his hopes after the Mercedes drivers had collided, and retired, on the opening lap.
His late puncture, on the 65th and penultimate lap, was an extra inconvenience he did not need, but in the end it did not affect the outcome as the Perth racer came home fourth.
The removal of championship leading German Nico Rosberg and his Mercedes team-mate and rival defending three-time champion Briton Lewis Hamilton appeared to hand the race to Ricciardo, who was running third when they took each other off into a gravel trap at Turn Four.
Their extraordinary collision ended Rosberg’s run of seven straight wins, four of them this season, and caused the deployment of a Safety Car. It also handed the race lead to Ricciardo who had started from third on the grid alongside 18-year-old Dutchman Verstappen, making his debut with the team following promotion from Toro Rosso.
Hamilton, back to his scintillating best in Saturday’s qualifying session, made the most of a rare problem-free day to take the 52nd pole position of his career, but he failed to convert into a strong start and lost the lead in the first corner.
When Rosberg, who had selected the wrong power mode for his engine, slowed in Turn Three, Hamilton accelerated and, in Turn Four, attempted to pass him. Rosberg ‘closed the door’, they collided and Hamilton swerved on to the grass where he lost control and then spun back across the circuit taking his team-mate with him.
After the race – and many claims and counter-claims about who was responsible for the team’s loss of both cars – a stewards’ investigation declared it to have been a ‘racing incident’. Nobody was blamed or punished.
The Mercedes’ crash made certain victory would go somewhere else and Ricciardo was favourite until the team intervened and switched strategies, a decision that made Verstappen the youngest race-winner in F1 history and the first Dutchman to triumph.
“It's not so hard to see Max up there on the podium,” said Ricciardo. “But it's hard for me to not be on the podium! That's the biggest disappointment today… We were leading, it was there for us, Mercedes had their mistakes on lap one and the race was in our hands.
“And then we went to three-stop strategy. We did it too late, as well, because Seb (Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari) had already jumped us. So, then, not only was I required to pass Seb, I had to pass three cars -- when we know we are down on speed and it is a hard track to pass on.
“It didn’t make any sense. I thought, at the time, that we did it because everyone else was going to do it, but it's frustrating. I feel and I think we just threw the win away.”
He said he did not wish to sound like a bad sport, or embittered, but admitted he felt bitter about the outcome and did not know why he was the driver to be switched and suffer.
“I don't know why… Everyone went to enjoy the podium celebrations – but I don’t understand why I was the one. Normally, the guy in the lead gets the better strategy. It did not work out that way today…”
His late puncture, picked up when he tried to pass Vettel for third, forced Ricciardo to make a late pit stop, but he came out in time to keep fourth place.
Red Bull team chief Christian Horner insisted that they had switched his strategy to cover moves made by Ferrari.
“We had to cover Ferrari,” he said. “They had probably at least as quick a car, if not quicker, and we needed to cover them. Max did his job, did not make a mistake and we had a great win.”
Ricciardo’s disappointment was an ironic sub-plot on a day of celebrations for Red Bull as Verstappen, in his 24th race, resisted all attacks to win ahead of two vastly-experienced world champions Finn Kimi Raikkonen and German Vettel, who were second and third for Ferrari.
Ricciardo was fourth ahead of Finn Valtteri Bottas of Williams and Carlos Sainz who claimed a career-best sixth on home soil in his Toro Rosso.
Raikkonen’s second place lifted him to second in the drivers’ championship on 61 points, 39 behind Rosberg. Hamilton slipped to third on 57 and Ricciardo shares fourth with Vettel on 48 points.
“If we can do this here, we can go well at the next race in Monaco,” said Ricciardo, looking ahead to the glamorous contest in the Mediterranean principality at the end of May. It is sure to be another spectacle with a likely different ending.