Sunday 12 April 2015

Chinese GP Report: When the flag drops, the drama starts

Topping all three practice sessions. Pole. Win. Led every lap aside from a solitary tour during the first stops. Fastest lap. It doesn't get much better than that. And the facts as well as being overwhelming also are apt. In China Lewis Hamilton was in absolute command from the very first point that a wheel was turned on Friday. His 25 points from his Shanghai weekend felt long since an inevitability akin to night following day.

Lewis Hamilton was serene in China - in and out of the car
Photo: Octane Photography
In most ways this was much more Australia than Malaysia. Just as around Albert Park things were close. But just like then it was illusory as Lewis had everything under control, and never looked as if he would be usurped.

"I was enjoying myself" he admitted later. It looked that way.

His team mate Nico Rosberg threatened during the first stint, staying within a second or so. But around each pit stop phase Lewis uncorked the bottle, and tore chunks out of his previous lap times. Once it all settled down he was conspicuously farther away. The race ended under the safety car, but at that point Lewis was a positively balmy five seconds up the road. It was another race of one.

Another way that it was more Australia than Malaysia was in the entertainment stakes, with the world feed TV director appearing to agree as from half distance onwards at least as the Mercedes hardly were shown and battles further down the field - sometimes far down the field - were on screen instead in apparent desperation to find something diverting. But after the chequered flag it was like some - and one person in particular - decided to make up for the drama deficit.

As in qualifying Nico showed apparent frustration both during and following the Chinese race. To the naked eye there didn't seem to be much if anything to see, but not that you'd know it from his utterances as he complained on his radio of being 'backed up' by Lewis's (relatively) slow speed during the second stint, bringing Sebastian Vettel behind too close for comfort. He continued the debate (vigorously) afterwards too, describing his race as compromised, that Lewis's end-of-stint pace showed he had plenty in hand, that he couldn't go closer to his stable mate because "after one or two laps my tyres would take such a hit", as well as that it meant his final stint had to be longer than ideal (due to Seb, within range, attempting an undercut which had to be covered). And to top it all Nico stopped a syllable short of accusing Lewis of being selfish at the team's expense.

Nico Rosberg kicked up a stink during and after the race
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis in response to it all appeared as serene out of the car as he had been in it; perhaps even like many of the rest of us rather nonplussed too. "It's not my job to look after Nico's race" he said and it's hard to argue with his logic. "I'm not really quite sure how I ever compromised his race" he went on, "he was never close, therefore I was having no impact on his race whatsoever. If he was right up my tail and I was going at the pace I was going perhaps they could say something."

It's hard to argue with that logic either. Whether the insouciant jibe was intended as such isn't clear. Presumably the Nico camp will interpret it as one though.

I thought too of Monza last season when Lewis mid-race was told that he needed to maintain a gap to the then-leader Nico, and how he reacted then. Perhaps that's the difference between the two. Nico is analytical as we know, but you could wonder if he's too analytical sometimes.

Sure enough also there wasn't much sympathy around for Nico. The various claims including that Lewis isn't there to help him (true); that he's entitled to manage his pace in any way he wants (true); it makes sense to compromise a title rival (also true); that if Nico was really bothered he should have qualified ahead (true); or passed (possibly true too); that Lewis is 'in his head' (arguable); that Nico is a crybaby (again arguable).

More broadly while we can never say for certain what is strategy and what is sounding off, as they usually look and sound the same, it is possible at least that someone somewhere is rattling Nico's cage - telling him to get nasty - and this merely is its manifestation. And let's not forget that when Nico stepped out of the car in Australia and said graciously that Lewis drove like a champion plenty accused him then of being defeatist.

Martin Brundle noted in among it all that it indeed is the job of one in Nico's position to "create as much smell as he can" as well as that it was "categoric" that he'd been told to drop the nice guy act as it wasn't working. Whatever is the case Nico needs something that the modern parlance calls a 'game changer'. Perhaps he thinks this makes one more likely, or at the very least that he has little to lose from it. An auxiliary thought that occurred also is that it all kicking off a la Monaco last season wouldn't necessarily be the worst development for him. After all there, and in the weeks that followed, he gained rather a lot on his team mate.

Ferrari wasn't able to get among the Mercedes this time
Photo: Octane Photography
And what of Ferrari? It was easy to forget amid all of the seethe that before the race all were rather excited at the possibility of the red cars getting among and perhaps even beating the Mercs as in the previous time out. Well, on the evidence of today they can vaguely bother the silver lot, particularly when tyre life comes into play. And as intimated when Nico kicked off it was during a stint in which Ferrari had forced Merc to put on softs for the second time - which according to Nico at least after qualifying it hadn't been planning on in advance.

But in the end it wasn't enough to get beyond an irritation. When the late safety car was deployed Seb wasn't even within ten seconds of Nico let alone Lewis. The Ferraris with Seb ahead of Kimi Raikkonen had to follow home today as best of the rest. Kimi was winding up for a late attack when the safety car neutralisation spoiled his fun.

"They were quite close, but I don't think they were ever within firing range" said Lewis of the two Italian cars later, almost like he hadn't really thought about them. It'll be fascinating to see where between the Malaysia and China (and Australia for that matter) apparent extremes this matter will settle. Next up we have Bahrain, which on ambient temperature at least is more at the Malaysia end of the scale.

Behind, the two Williams were next (Felipe Massa ahead), following at a respectful distance and doing nothing to undermine the idea that they've fallen away this season compared with last. And they weren't too far ahead of Romain Grosjean, who scored his first points since Monaco last year in P7. This weekend therefore Lotus after much promise in 2015 finally came to the party. A few reckon - including in the Williams camp - that perhaps the Enstone machine had more pace than the Williams this time.

Pastor Maldonado would have been in there too, but for a race of two halves in extremis. For much of the way he was brilliant, making good overtakes and actually running ahead of team mate Grosjean. But he fluffed his entry to the pits for his final stop, and from that point on his race (and his head it seemed) went to pieces. In fairness though the clash with Jenson Button that ended his day slightly early was by everyone's admission Jenson's doing.

What was and wasn't Lewis's doing will presumably be the subject of more nuanced debate in the days to come however. But there are some things that definitely are his doing, and not even Nico at rest would credibly dispute as much. Mainly that the Englishman is driving wonderfully, and is already resolutely the guy to beat for this year's drivers' title.

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