Sunday 14 April 2013

Chinese GP Report: Red revolution

The Chinese Grand Prix today was, as expected, a whirlwind of overtakes, pit stops, and divergent strategies playing themselves out. There were nine changes of lead. It seemed you couldn't avert your eyes from the screen without missing something. Yet all of that is utterly incongruous with what was the main story of today: somehow at the middle of it all Fernando Alonso almost from the off looked utterly in control to win the race.

The whirlwind battles mentioned were essentially over second place at the very most. Even the haughty Vettel-Red Bull effort at an early stage of proceedings admitted that they weren't in a race with the Spaniard. Alonso was consistent in his pace, smart in looking after his tyres and crisp in the overtake. Even in the modern spiced-up age of F1 there is still an art to bossing a race and Alonso very much demonstrated it today. And it all had a watershed quality about it, for all of the Alonso-Ferrari partnership’s ubiquity it’s actually difficult to recall the last occasion on which it was the quickest in a dry race. You may have to wind back to the summer of 2010 for the previous time; more recent triumphs have either owed something to attrition or had a rear-guard action quality. In perhaps an appropriate place, we just might have witnessed a red revolution in China today.

Fernando Alonso was in control today
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, we need to exercise a little caution as the Shanghai track is an unusual one, particularly in that it taxes the front tyres more than the rears, and we only need to look at the Chinese result from last year to know that it’s not necessarily a reliable guide of what is to happen elsewhere. But no one can doubt that today was an encouraging one for the Scuderia.

As is often the case in Chinese Grands Prix there was a conspicuous split between tortoise and hare strategies today. Some, most notably Sebastian Vettel, sacrificed grid position in order to be able to start on the more durable medium tyre on race day. But the race came to the hares, as Alonso followed by Raikkonen and Hamilton filled the podium, with the lead tortoise Seb narrowly missing out in fourth after a late charge. Indeed, the evidence over time is that while a tortoise approach may help you ghost somewhere into the vicinity of the bottom step of the podium if it all comes together, if you want to win you must be a hare. Which is exactly how it should be. And the implications of it not being that way don’t bear thinking about.

As mentioned, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton finished second and third respectively, with Kimi’s efforts particularly impressive given he ran much of the way with a damaged front wing. Had it not been that way then he’d likely have given Alonso more to think about. Whether he could have beaten him is a matter for conjecture. And Lewis’s run was further encouragement for all at Mercedes that its upturn is indeed a lasting one. As Ross Brawn noted it represents that the team’s got a little way to go to be the very best, but that it’s not far off.

Kimi Raikkonen was impressive in finishing second
Credit: Morio / CC
Jenson Button was next up finishing fifth on a two-stop strategy which Jenson as you'd expect made the best of. However, Jenson also admitted that fifth place is roughly where the car is right now. Given he seems to have spent most of the opening three races roughly halfway up the top ten it’s hard to argue with him.

And Mark Webber's fortunes continue to be in a trough. He started in the pit lane today and then ditched his soft tyres after a single lap. This thinking out of the box looked to have vaulted him somewhere into contention, but then he collided with Jean-Eric Vergne when attempting to pass (earning him a three-place grid drop for Bahrain), and further in the resultant pit stop his right rear wheel wasn't attached which put him out (and as if Webber needs a few more problems there may yet be repercussions for seeking to press on with a loose wheel – Renault oh-so nearly was kicked out of a race for that very thing in 2009).

Indeed it was a race of curious gaps in fortune between team mates. Felipe Massa, despite hounding Alonso in the early laps, finished sixth upwards of 40 seconds shy of his stable mate. Ferrari’s unwillingness to stack its cars at the first stop didn't help as it dropped Massa into traffic. But otherwise it’s hard to explain where the time went. Sergio Perez finished out of the points in P11, close to 30 seconds after Jenson. Romain Grosjean finished ninth after an underwhelming run, a whole 43 seconds after Kimi did. While Nico Rosberg retired after 21 laps with suspension problems.

Daniel Ricciardo impressed again
Credit: Morio / CC
And another worthy shout out to Daniel Ricciardo, who followed up strong qualifying yesterday with an equally strong race today in which he finished seventh. And Ricciardo was another of the ‘hares’, so it was a place achieved with pace rather than with counter-intuitive strategy. Also as noted yesterday it’s a good time to be impressing the Red Bull management. He now must start to conjure up such weekends consistently.

Thus China provided another twist in F1 2013’s corkscrew plot. And just like last year we start the season with a run of different cars and drivers winning each of the opening rounds. Come Bahrain next week would you bet against it twisting again?

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