Sunday 17 April 2016

Chinese GP Report - Everything's coming up Rosberg

Ground-hog day, this one in China. It had the same winner, yet again. His third from three this year, and his whole sixth on the spin. And his charmed existence as seen throughout the season so far continued without a join. You'll know who I'm on about. The ubiquitous Nico Rosberg.

Everything went Rosberg's way yet again
Photo: Octane Photography 
In many ways today's Shanghai race simply was an extension of Bahrain's two weeks ago. First corner carnage behind him impacted all of Nico's other three nominal closest challengers, and this put the race into the palm of his hand. In a minor variation Daniel Ricciardo led him off the line this time, but on the soft tyres compared with Danny Ric's not-long-for-this-earth super-softs the Australian was was expected to clear out of Nico's way before long. He did so but under unfortunate circumstances as on lap three one of Ricciardo's rear tyres couldn't handle the excitement and went pop on the main straight (a consequence of debris apparently). Nico smartly took a lead he never was to lose.

From then it was a matter of ticking off the laps, smoothly extending his advantage, occasionally setting a fastest lap presumably to keep himself sharp. Only once, a handful of laps from the end, did he have a minor veer from his racing line groove. But that was your lot. Come the end he was a whole 37 seconds to the good. Yet another maximum was his.

Even his car's handling was near enough perfect, him describing the "most incredible balance" he's ever had on his slowing down lap. As mentioned simply everything is going his way right now, time after time somehow. "The way this championship is unfolding it is all falling into Rosberg's lap," said Martin Brundle appositely after those first few laps; "he wins every bloody race and there's nothing more you can say about it" added Niki Lauda inimitably at the end.

By now too Nico sounds used to winning, as well he might given everything outlined in the opening paragraph. And no one's ever done either run that Nico is on without winning the title at the campaign's conclusion.

Daniil Kvyat was at the centre of things,
for more than one reason
Photo: Octane Photography
"Today it was special race for me really" Nico beamed afterwards, "really a pleasure to drive and I was pushing all the way through just to cover all eventualities."

He insisted though it wasn't as easy as it appeared to us outsiders. "You don't really relax in a Formula One race...I was pushing, I wanted to get past him [Ricciardo] and open a gap, I didn't know what the situation was with the Ferraris, and on Friday they were on our pace at times in the race practice so we were expecting them to be a threat, but I couldn't foresee that my car was going to handle so well today".

Again just like in Bahrain there was plenty of entertainment behind the imperious Nico - "I heard it was pretty interesting ...I didn't see anything", added Rosberg with a grin. And it was not least pretty interesting with Sebastian Vettel and Daniil Kvyat, and not just because they were best of the rest in that order behind Nico. It was thanks mainly to that first corner carnage mentioned. It started with Kimi Raikkonen running a bit wide, with his team mate Seb towards his inside also a little delayed by this (or was similarly understeering). Kvyat put a spurt on and helped himself to the inside line; at this moment the two Ferraris collided, damaging both of their front wings while Kvyat carried on serenely.

It appeared one of those things, Kvyat was aggressive but fair, and there was an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances that just as Seb jinked out in response to Kvyat's attack Kimi cut back in, initiating the contact, all too at an opening complex that has been the scene of grief plenty in the past. Yet Seb's reaction was as scathing as it was hard to fathom, stating on the radio that Kvyat was "like a madman", "suicidal" and "like a Torpedo". He added that the Russian would never have made the corner at that speed, when he, um, did. And, his ire apparently undimmed in the proceeding hour-and-a-half, it was a subject he returned to with his antagonist in the podium ante-room then in the post podium press conference, partaking in both instances in what this sport's parlance tends to call 'heated exchanges'.

Sebastian Vettel's complaints seemed wide of the mark
Photo: Octane Photography
We can understand Seb's frustration, plus he would not at that point have seen it from our perspective and the cockpit view isn't always a good one. Hopefully he'll reconsider after viewing a replay, and later indeed Seb showed some signs of relent by calling it "a racing incident" (albeit with still being critical of Kvyat). But the extremity of his reaction, and that he kept it up so long, was extraordinary even with all of this. Critics might say that just as the smiling schoolboy Seb couldn't suppress the rather brattish side of his personality the whole of the time, neither it seems on today's evidence can the more recent mature statesman Seb.

"It was a logical move to do, you see a gap in the inside and you go for it", said Kvyat, in line with most people's reading of the situation, "it looked quite OK...I couldn't see the third car so it was his business to deal with Kimi.

"When the emotions are hot you discuss these kind of things, but in our case to get on the podium we do have to risk these kind of moves in turn one and two that in the end brings you the end it paid off...if I hadn't have gone for it then where would I be?"

It's a pity more broadly too as both drove very well today, and in that fiendish way the sport's fates tend to do the race brought them together later on, though by that point on track at least it was all civilised. Seb came through the pack at breakneck speed after his delay which dropped him first to P9 then P15 after his wing was changed at an early safety car period brought about by Ricciardo's puncture. The only slight wobble was contact with Valtteri Bottas which damaged his replacement front wing a little. He was helped too by creative Ferrari strategy, such as sticking him on the gumball super-softs under that same safety car then putting him on the softs at his final stop when the medium was more the default, which allowed him to vault Kvyat to finish second.

Just like in Bahrain, a damaged car hobbled Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
And for Kvyat it was an especially timely good race, given he's had an iffy season so far and the star of Max Verstappen in the B team continues to rise. Let's hope it doesn't get lost amid everything else that went on.

He reckons things look bright for his Red Bull team too. "It's always been a great chassis" said the Russian, "it was great to drive [today], in terms of race pace we're always strong, obviously with another small step on the engine we can really expect some quite big things from ourselves, and hopefully it'll come pretty soon".

Seb also reflected more generally on his lot. "Obviously I would be a lot more unhappy if I was not talking to you at the end of the race but some point in the middle of the race. I think I was lucky and Kimi was lucky that we could continue and still have that kind of points, not ideal as I think we could have finished [with] both of us on the podium. But given the circumstances I think it was a good recovery for the team".

As for where he might have ended up without the turn one incident? "We couldn't really show the pace because the car was damaged, it's difficult to guess where we could have been but Nico had a perfect race, he's in strong form now, Mercedes is the benchmark and difficult to beat. But I believe in Russia if we have a smooth weekend we can be a lot closer and if we put them under pressure we can see how strong they really are. Looking forward to it".

The Ferrari that was more impeded by the first turn and all that was Kimi Raikkonen's, which fell to the back after his front wing detached completely. The safety car helped him too, and he rose smoothly in that way of his to salvage fifth by the end.

Daniel Ricciardo was mighty, though a puncture
took away an even better result
Photo: Octane Photography
Ricciardo also recovered from his own drama, that puncture mentioned which led to him being as low as P17, and he made a swift rise through to P4, just seven seconds after his team mate. He thought the second step on the podium should have been his though.

"Part of me hurts a lot right now," he said. "I think we should be standing second on the podium but it didn't' happen. The positives are the pace was really good, I think I recovered and the team recovered with me - we drove an amazing race, a perfect race. Just a shame we don't get some champagne."

Hamilton was also caught in the concertina effect of the turn one contretemps, and just like Kimi had to replace a completely errant front wing at the end of the opening tour. It was even more regrettable for Lewis though as running on his detached front wing had - in another echo with Bahrain - damaged his car and this hamstrung him for the rest of the day.

"It was definitely a difficult one", said Hamilton later. "I got a good start, which is always difficult starting from the back, getting caught up in things. I tried to avoid what was ahead of me, but got tangled in it.

"After that I just tried to battle through, but every time I stopped I had to come through again, I wasn't gaining ground, and at the end there weren't enough tyres.

"This track is quite good because you can overtake and get close, but the car was pretty damaged. I'm sure some aerodynamic components were damaged...I think the suspension was as well. The car was flexing like crazy, like a four-poster bed today."

Nevertheless he made some nice moves - his one on Bottas at turn nine was particularly one to savour - but his progress wasn't as rapid as some others and seventh place was his eventual reward.

And yet again just like after the Bahrain round while history is firmly on Rosberg's side in terms of where this latest championship will end up, once again few are quite as sure as all that. Partly because it's enigmatic Nico, but partly too that three rounds in we are yet to have a straight fight between the apparently evenly-matched Mercedes and Ferrari and their apparently evenly-matched drivers. Therefore at a point at which we usually have some clarity this time we still don't have a firm sense of the competitive order on race pace at least.

But whatever else Nico has given the others rather a long trek to come back from, with 36 points on his team mate and 42 on Vettel. And Nico looks on top of the world right now, in and out of the car. As for the question of who is to be on top of the world at the campaign's conclusion, already it's one about who can stop him.

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