Sunday 17 April 2011

Chinese GP Report: Lewis takes Seb down to China town

It just goes to show that nobody knows anything. Or to use the famous Murray-ism: 'anything can happen in Formula One, and it usually does'. And it all happened in the Chinese Grand Prix today.

The expected Vettel-benefit didn't happen in the end, and the race was won, brilliantly, by Lewis Hamilton. Having been a little under the radar for a lot of the way, he came alive in the latter twenty laps of the race. He put in a fantastic, aggressive move on Jenson Button into turn one, passed Rosberg, outmaneuvered Massa on the pit straight and then reeled in and passed Sebastian Vettel into turn seven with four laps left, thus taking a lead which he kept. It was another variable race with plenty of passing, like in Malaysia, but this time with the cars at the front running in closer company, creating a classic race. It's hard to remember a more diverting all-dry weather race in modern times, you may have to go back to the Japanese race in 2005.

The story of the race, strategy-wise, was that a three stop race (used by the McLarens, the Mercedes and Webber) worked much better than a two-stopper (employed by Vettel and the Ferraris). Indeed, in many ways the race was reminiscent of a wet (or wet-to-dry) race, in that being on the correct tyres, and thus being seconds of a lap faster a lot of the time, was worth an extra stop. The two-stoppers were easy meat in the final laps of the race as the three-stoppers reeled them in. The days of drivers 'racing to the final pitstops' are very much behind us, and not before time. Hats off to Pirelli for creating such an entertaining formula - though F1 teams do have a tendency to converge on each other, so we should enjoy this level of variation while it lasts!

Lewis was actually run close for driver of the day by Mark Webber, who astonishingly came home third having started down in 18th place, finishing but seven seconds down on winner Lewis and two seconds shy of his team mate Vettel in second. What made it even more astonishing is that he did it without KERS (which knackered itself, seemingly on both Red Bull cars, yet again) and hardly made up any ground in the first part of the race as he ran on primes. With plenty of new soft tyres at hand he then put on shift on, seeming to be on a different track to everyone else and often lapping seconds quicker, passing car after car in quick time. Given a few more laps he could have won the thing. Great to see Webbo with a smile back his face at the end - to use another Murray-ism it is a much needed 'fillip' for the Australian.

It's also interesting to hear Webber saying post-race that it may be worth writing off qualifying to be in a better position tyre-wise come the race. I'm sure it's an exaggeration, but it shows that qualifying isn't quite the king it has been in recent years. Another thing that's not before time.

It started to go wrong (relatively speaking) for Seb off the line, as both McLarens beat him to the draw as his Red Bull bogged down, short of revs. It was the first time Seb (properly) had been led this year, but he managed to put a move on Lewis and then leapfrog Button in the pits (as we were treated to Jenson having a d'oh moment as he tried to stop in the Red Bull pit rather than his own). Seb then looked comfortable enough out front for a long time, before his two-stop strategy unravelled in the final laps. He'll nevertheless be content with second place in a race where his team took the wrong path (though it seems odd that when Seb clearly has a pace advantage, and some tyre wear issues, they should choose a contrary strategy rather than just cover those around him - though it's easy to say from where I'm sitting of course).

As for Ferrari, Felipe Massa followed up a solid showing in Malaysia with a good one in China. For much of the race he was Seb's closest challenger, before the two-stop strategy came apart at the end which saw him a sitting duck, relegating him to finish sixth. Still, he'll be content that he's beginning to show his old form, just as speculation about his future at Maranello was gathering pace. And the next race up is in Turkey, where he always goes well. Alonso seemed unnaturally subdued in today's race, he missed out position-wise after the first stops, and then lost some time behind Schumacher. But even after he cleared him he wasn't quick, and lost seconds a lap to all others around him (including to other two-stoppers) for a phase mid-race. He finished seventh, 15 seconds adrift of Massa. Both Scuderia pilots will be hoping their Turkey upgrade is a good one, otherwise the championship will quickly become out of reach.

And Mercedes confirmed their step-up, Nico Rosberg looked racy as he ran with the front runners throughout, and was perhaps a bit unlucky to only be fifth in the final reckoning. Schumi also looked a bit more on it than usual, and came in eighth.

But Lewis was the big winner, as was F1, especially if we can look forward to more races like this one.

Race results, courtesy of the Autosport website

Race highlights from the BBC