Red Bull and Ferrari are prising open the Mercedes grip

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LONDON (Reuters) – It may be premature to call the end of an era of Mercedes domination but Daniel Ricciardo’s thrilling win for Red Bull in Shanghai on Sunday marks a clear shift in the Formula One landscape.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo drinks from a shoe as he celebrates winning the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China.REUTERS/Aly Song

Even if Mercedes were back on top of the constructors’ standings, the world champions were beaten for the third race in a row at the Chinese Grand Prix — a first for the V6 turbo hybrid era that started in 2014.

“It’s inevitable in all sports that at some point, the winning becomes harder or stops,” commented Christian Horner, Ricciardo’s team boss, as the celebrations continued.

“Mercedes still have a quick car. It’s incredible that after three races they haven’t won a Grand Prix yet,” added the Briton, whose team won four successive double titles between 2010 and 2013.

The sheer depth of talent and resources at Mercedes’ disposal, and the fact that there are 18 races still to run in this grueling 21-round season, means it is too early to trumpet a changing of the guard.

Gloomy pre-season predictions, based on testing form, that Lewis Hamilton and his Anglo-German team would run away with this championship can be laid to rest, however.

“It certainly does look like the tide has turned… in this turbo-hybrid era,” commented 1996 world champion Damon Hill after Ferrari swept the front row in qualifying for the second race in succession.

ALARM BELLS

Red Bull’s success in the race, following on from two Ferrari victories, emphasized that this will be more than just a two-team battle.

For Mercedes, who for the first time since 2013 also failed to have both drivers appear on the podium together in at least two of the opening three rounds, Sunday’s race will keep the alarm bells ringing.

As a measure of form, Shanghai was more significant than Australia or Bahrain — both won last year by Ferrari’s current championship leader Sebastian Vettel.

Formula One F1 – Chinese Grand Prix – Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China – April 15, 2018 Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo celebrates with a trophy on the podium after winning the race as Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen look on REUTERS/Aly Song

Seen as much more of a Mercedes circuit, the champions had won for the past four years in China while Hamilton boasts an unprecedented five victories there.

While Vettel had looked good for a hat-trick of wins on Sunday morning, Ricciardo cashed in on a safety car period that put Red Bull in the driving seat.

They could have had both drivers on the podium had Max Verstappen not wrecked his chances with some rash overtaking attempts, including a collision with Vettel that ultimately dropped the German down to eighth.

Mercedes might also have won without the safety car, with Mercedes getting Valtteri Bottas ahead of Vettel on strategy, but they know the real score.

“Sebastian in my opinion controlled the race at the beginning, and then the Red Bulls after the stop had just a mighty pace,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.

“The whole weekend we were just not good enough, everywhere,” he added.

“This weekend we were probably third and fourth (behind Ferrari), so we just need to get our act together.”

The trajectory of Hamilton’s season has been downward since Melbourne, with the 33-year-old second, third and now fourth.

He has not won for six races, his last being the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin last October, which represents his longest such run since the end of 2015/start of 2016 when he was off the top step for eight in a row.

“It is clear from this weekend that we are not the quickest,” said Hamilton, who did not spare himself blame either.

“We’ve lost performance since Melbourne and maybe more so this weekend. We are the second, or third fastest team at the moment so we have some improving to do, but that’s not impossible.”

Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge