Formula One finally delivered on its promise of a three-team battle for victory at the Chinese Grand Prix with six of the sport's best drivers in with a realistic chance of winning the race. If things had gone differently any one of the losing five could have beaten Daniel Ricciardo to the win, but ultimately the Australian took a deserved victory.
The fortunes of each of the six contenders are charted below in an explanation of how the Chinese Grand Prix was won and lost.
Grid: Pole position
He had the fastest car around the Shanghai International Circuit, he started from pole position and he barely put a wheel off line, yet Vettel crossed the line as the Chinese Grand Prix's biggest loser. His biggest setback was a collision with Max Verstappen on lap 43, but things had started to go wrong before that. In the opening stint he appeared to have the race under control with a three second buffer to Valtteri Bottas in second -- enough to keep the Mercedes out of DRS range and, he believed, enough to prevent a successful undercut.
Even when Bottas was given the message to push on his in lap, Vettel was matching the Mercedes' sectors, but Ferrari had underestimated the pace of the Finn on a fresh set of medium tyres. Sure Mercedes had a quicker tyre change than Ferrari but between Bottas exiting the pits and Vettel entering them a lap later, Bottas took 3.058s out of Vettel's lead. That was where Vettel lost the lead the race.
With the help of teammate Kimi Raikkonen slowing Bottas after their stops, Vettel closed in on the two Finns but it wasn't enough for him to attempt to retake the lead. Once in clear air, Bottas started to pull a gap on Vettel, and had the race run its normal course there was no reason to believe the Ferrari would have had an opportunity to get back ahead. When the Safety Car came out, Vettel was past the pit lane exit meaning there was no opportunity to adopt a Red Bull-style strategy to the flag.
The race was then all about damage limitation, but Verstappen had other ideas. The collision was entirely the Dutchman's fault and Vettel was ready to concede the place as soon as the Red Bull got a clean shot at an overtake.
"I think he had a bad exit off the corner heading on to the big straight, otherwise I was ready to just let him go," Vettel explained. "He wasn't there, so then you stay in front. I gave a little bit of room just in case he had a tiny lock-up, but then obviously he had a big lock-up, and that's when we crashed."
After the Safety Car restart, Verstappen had the best chance of winning the race. The combination of the Red Bull and fresh soft tyres was the fastest way to the flag when racing got back underway on lap 35, but Verstappen threw it all away with two rash and unnecessary moves late in the race. Up to that point he had looked like the faster of the two Red Bull drivers all weekend, qualifying 0.121s ahead of his teammate and making better use of his ultra-soft tyres on the opening lap to pass Raikkonen and Hamilton and move up to third.
As the advantage of his softer rubber succumbed to degradation, he slipped away from the lead two cars but still had the pace to keep Raikkonen at bay until his pit stop and stay ahead of Hamilton at the start of the second stint. At that point Red Bull was still considering a two-stop to shake things up, and when the Safety Car was deployed the pit wall's mind was made up. Much like the first stop, the two Red Bulls were double stacked and Verstappen emerged from the pits having lost just one place to Hamilton. When the race restarted he had 21 laps to make up three positions, but things went awry just four laps in when he attempted to pass Hamilton around the outside of Turn 7 and ran wide. Ricciardo pulled a similar move on Vettel at Turn 7 last year, but Hamilton was bemused by the attempt on Sunday.
"I don't understand what he was doing there, but it wasn't a problem to me," the Mercedes driver said. Turn 8's a little bit more possible but there's actually a very dirty line on the outside of Turn 7. It's a very very fast corner, very very long. I don't think any top driver has been overtaken on the outside there before."
It wouldn't have been a disaster had he just missed out on passing Hamilton, but he also lost what effectively became the race win to Ricciardo. That appeared to affect his judgement and as he came up behind Vettel on 43 he went for a gap that was always going to close and pitched both cars into a spin. He was quite rightly penalised for the mistake and despite finishing fourth on the road, he dropped to fifth in the final standings.
For all the drama that unfolded in the race, Lewis Hamilton's Chinese Grand Prix was one of the oddest among the top six. On Friday he looked happy in the car, holding a small margin over Ferrari on one-lap pace but a significant advantage over longer runs. So content was Hamilton with his Mercedes on Friday evening that he only made minor changes to the car's setup ahead of final practice and qualifying.
On Saturday he couldn't get enough heat in his tyres as the temperatures dipped to 12C in qualifying and in the race he struggled to keep his tyres cool enough as temperatures rose above 20C. The small operating window of the Mercedes was clear to see, but Hamilton was left with few excuses as teammate Bottas managed the situation more effectively on the other side of the garage.
"Rather than blame it on weather or strategy, or anything else, I just ... I was uncomfortable in the car on Saturday and Sunday," Hamilton said on Sunday night. "To not have the pace, the pace level that I normally have, I've got to take it upon myself to try and figure it out and move forward. Of course it's been a joint effort [with the team], but definitely on my side we struggled more."
Arguably Hamilton could have scored a much better result had he mimicked Red Bull's strategy and stopped for a new set of soft tyres under the Safety Car. The reasoning behind not pitting him was that he would have conceded track position to Raikkonen and Mercedes was concerned he would struggle to pass the Ferrari as he had done in the opening stint.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight the Red Bulls proved just how much performance a fresh set of soft tyres could unlock, but given their position in the championship and their position on the race track, Verstappen and Ricciardo had a lot less to lose. Nevertheless, Mercedes will still be keen to review how it lost a third race in succession through strategy.
From Raikkonen's side there was no explanation for the bizarre one-stop strategy he adopted in Sunday's race, other than to help his teammate. After Vettel lost the lead to Bottas at the first stops, Ferrari appeared used Raikkonen as a pawn to hold up the Mercedes and bring Vettel back into the fight for the lead. The strategy nearly worked from Vettel's point of view, but in the process it demoted Raikkonen from a solid fourth to a lowly sixth, leaving him over 12 seconds off Ricciardo when he rejoined the race on fresh medium tyres on lap 29.
The only benefit was that Raikkonen's tyres were 10 laps younger than the cars in front, although in normal circumstances that sort of advantage on Pirelli's most durable compound would have been scant consolation for the lost track position. It may also explain why Raikkonen didn't pit for new softs under the Safety Car, as his existing mediums were only a handful of laps old at that point of the race. Had Ferrari pitted Raikkonen, he would have been behind Ricciardo on the road and probably still wouldn't have won the race, but second place would have been a realistic goal and he may have acted as a better defence for Vettel by attacking the Red Bulls immediately after the restart.
"The Safety Car gave us back some chances and I think we maybe could have pitted," Raikkonen said after the race. "The Red Bulls on the soft tyres were the strongest and even though I had decent speed behind Valtteri once you get to close you need to have more of an offset to get past and I was kind of stopped there in third place."
Not a bad result, but like all the other drivers already mentioned on this list, it could have been better.
After the disappointment of the opening round in Australia and the 'what ifs' surrounding his final lap in Bahrain, Bottas put in a convincing performance in China. From both a driving and strategy point of view, there is little more he could have done and without the Safety Car he was on course to win the race.
Most impressive of all was his outlap after his pit stop, which earned him 3.058s of the 3.2s he needed to pass Vettel in the first round of pit stops. His Mercedes pit crew did the rest (and more) with a lightning fast stop and that delivered him into the de facto lead of the race by lap 19.
Like Vettel, Bottas was beyond the pit lane entrance when the Safety Car came out meaning a switch to softs in the final stint wasn't possible. He was also the driver least likely to consider the gamble as he had the most to lose in terms of track position.
But Bottas should take a great deal of confidence from the Chinese Grand Prix. For the first time this year, the Mercedes did not have the fastest car on race pace yet he was able to put himself in a strong position challenge for the win. His rewards is that he moves within five points of teammate Hamilton in the championship and back into title contention just 14 off Vettel.
Daniel Ricciardo's victory in China was sublime, but it was only possible thanks to an equally remarkable effort from his mechanics 24 hours earlier. A turbo failure in final practice meant his team had to replace his car's engine in the short break between FP3 and Q1. An engine change in such a short window of time is a challenge in normal circumstances, but it was even more remarkable as Renault, due to a shortage in spares, did not have a completed engine ready to bolt in.
"The boys did an unbelievable job," Christian Horner said on Sunday evening. "I can't express highly enough what they achieved yesterday. They took only an hour to get an engine that wasn't fully dressed, to get that turned around and on the car and get it out of the garage with just 45 seconds prior to the cut off."
Without that remarkable work, Ricciardo would have started at the back of the grid on Sunday and any chance of a win -- even with his considerable overtaking skills -- would not have been possible.
Another factor that helped Ricciardo to victory was the differing track conditions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Big fluctuations in temperatures on all three days meant any data collected prior to the race had little relevance on Sunday and that helped cloud rival team's judgement when it came to the decision of whether or not to pit under the Safety Car.
With the benefit of hindsight, the advantage of switching to the softs was clear as Ricciardo suddenly found a second per lap in performance on the soft compound compared to his laps in clear air on the mediums. That is roughly the pace advantage needed to stand a chance of overtaking at the Shanghai International Circuit and Ricciardo used it to great effect to pull moves on Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel and Bottas in a ten lap window after the restart. He had to get them done as early as possible before degradation set in and his tyre advantage levelled off, making the decisive moves all the more more impressive and the win even more deserved.