Ricciardo had been running fifth mid-race when the safety auto was brought out to clear up debris following a clash between the Toro Rosso drivers Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley.
After the criticism of his lack of killer instinct on the final laps in Bahrain last week when he failed to challenge Vettel, the Finn responded to show his class in China with a second place finish.
"I could watch him fighting on the tyres and strove to brake right into the corner and then secured a bit and hit him and that has been of course my error", Verstappen told Sky Sports television. "To be honest I was expecting him to come earlier".
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Hamilton said that was the only time in qualifying his vehicle felt "normal" and could not explain why there was then such a deficit on the ultrasoft tyre. It's not exactly what I wanted.
"We have been underperforming".
And with Mercedes' poor decision-making on not pitting during the safety vehicle, Hamilton had no grip to defend Verstappen and Ricciardo, and subsequently finished fourth.
"I think he got it". However, does this mean I must calm down?
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Asked if Verstappen needs to change his style, Vettel replied: "I think in that situation he has to, otherwise it happens again". It's just very unfortunate those things happening. I had no intention to resist because it was clear with Daniel as well that there was no point doing so - they were just too quick on the fresh tyres.
With Verstappen apologizing for the incident, Vettel revealed what he said to the 20-year-old after the race but doesn't believe age plays a part in the incidents.
"Not anymore, he's done enough races. He apologised. That can happen in racing". Inside the auto, judgements are very hard to make. But you have to ultimately have these things in mind and make sure you don't crash.
"He could easily have taken his front wing off or have a puncture". Then it's game over for both of us in that case. "Obviously, we're both lucky but yeah, that's how it goes". "But that's how it goes".
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The forecast is for a warmer race today and that should be better suited to Hamilton's Mercedes auto, but the Briton, who will have the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo occupying his mirrors, fears he will be looking over his shoulder rather than hunting down Vettel. That good omen may have escaped him, but for now he's still the man to beat.