Sunday 9 April 2017

Chinese GP Report - Chinese new year

It may look regulation. Lewis Hamilton today claimed victory in the Chinese Grand Prix. His fifth at this track and Mercedes's fourth in a row here. It was a 'Grand Slam' for Lewis too - pole, win and leading every lap. But that's only the beginning of the tale - both of the race and of the new F1 we appear to have stretching ahead this season. It's an appropriate place to pay homage to a new year.

Lewis Hamilton took his fifth Chinese Grand Prix win
Photo: Octane Photography
The anticipated rain deluge didn't arrive for the Shanghai race but we did start on a damp track. Yet as early as the warm up lap it was clear that the intermediate tyres almost all were starting on wouldn't be needed for long. The track looked pretty much dry aside from on the pit straight, although it was deceptively perfidious as early slick switchers had problems staying on the straight and narrow.

The anticipated Lewis versus Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari battle at the front didn't really happen either. After Lewis led from the line the pair were decoupled early when Seb - alone among the leaders - dived in for dry weather tyres on lap two under an early virtual safety car deployment.

It looked briefly a masterstroke as Seb emerged with only a 17 second deficit to Lewis and all ahead - including Lewis of course - still were on inters and clearly required their own imminent change. However no sooner had this became clear Antonio Giovinazzi for the second time in two days changed things all around him (in more than one sense) by rearranging his Sauber on a pit straight wall. This brought out the safety car proper, which let Lewis pit and retain his lead, as well as all the other five ahead of Seb to also bolt on slicks and also stay ahead of the Ferrari. It left the German in a net as well as actual sixth place. The day, in this sense, was already framed.

"I think we saw our chance and we still believe it was a good move," Vettel said later of the call. "It was risky but I think it was the right time; the track could do it.

"But then we couldn't benefit from it because we had a safety car straight away.

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari again showed fine pace, but
their day was spoiled by an early strategy call that
didn't work out
Photo: Octane Photography
"The re-start was tricky because my tyres were two laps cooler than other people's tyres, and then I got a bit stuck...

"I think second was a good recovery."

Seb then shadowed his team mate Kimi Raikkonen for a number of laps, as Kimi himself shadow boxed Daniel Ricciardo ahead. Eventually, after 12 laps of impasse, as if exasperated Seb showed how it was done pronto. He dived impatiently down the inside of his fellow Ferrari at the turn six hairpin then two laps later moved Ricicardo around in the opening complex, (dare I say in Alonso style?) in order to have a run at him for the afore-mentioned turn six. The Honey Badger had the wits to cover the inside but Seb thrust around the outside instead, claiming the place after some wheel-banging in a thrilling move.

Seb as anticipated in clear air certainly showed fine pace too, that might just have been enough to win on a more straightforward day. Lewis though in the circuamstances gave the impression of having the thing under control. Once Seb was in second place - Max Verstappen obligingly got out of the way at half distance by outbraking himself - the gap was already sizeable at 11 seconds. It hovered, only changing with the occasional punch and counter punch lap time. Lewis indeed prevailed in the end over the runner-up Seb with some comfort. The early shenanigan proved crucial.

"We were matching times [at the front] so if there wasn't safety cars and stuff it would have been a lot closer," Lewis admitted on the podium.

Both Hamilton and Vettel clearly
are relishing their title battle
Photo: Octane Photography
"This is the beauty of this Formula One championship this year, that luck...," noted Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene with a little rue.

But Ferrari will take great encouragement from its Chinese visit. It proved by, at the very least, pegging Mercedes this time that its stunning Melbourne show was no one-off related to that circuit's many peculiarities. And remember this track - cool, front limited, Lewis appearing to be a local specialist - was supposed to suit Merc more than most. This likely is the weekend's biggest take-out, despite the headline result.

"The most important thing is that with our car we are finally able to fight with Mercedes and this is the good news," Arrivabene concluded.

"It looks like we are very close on pace with Ferrari. I expect it to ping-pong through the season," his Merc counterpart Toto Wolff concurred. "One race we will be ahead, another they will."

We're genuinely in for a tight battle in other words, and underlining as much Lewis and Seb are now tied on top of the drivers' table, while Mercedes and Ferrari in the constructors' standings are separated by a mere point.

"It's going to be one of the closest ones [championships], if not the closest I've personally ever experienced," Lewis added. "Looking forward to this fight, not only with Sebastian but the other guys." It is a battle that both Lewis and Seb visibly are relishing, and so far it's bringing the best out of them.

Max Verstappen was scarcely credible once again
Photo: Octane Photography
So the high-skilled championship tete-a-tete is definitely on, and today's race reminded us that in modern F1 there's no shortage of talent further down either. Not least with the prodigious Max. Plenty expected him to provide some diversion starting from a lowly P16, but as seems to be his way he surpassed even the sky scraping expectations. He was, almost literally within a blink, running with the leaders, getting to P7 within the first lap. On board replays showed him passing cars on all sides in the opening corners. Some likened it to a computer game. If so it was one on easy mode.

Later he passed Raikkonen around the outside of the fast esses section, and by lap 11 was up in a hardly credible second after ambushing his Red Bull team mate Ricciardo at the turn six hairpin. He eventually completed the podium in third.

Ricciardo was a factor throughout and got fourth, hounding his team mate Max late on. Kimi was in the mix somewhere too but never seemed to have his team mate's pace. His day was really dashed later however by being kept out for a stretch for some reason as all others were brought in for fresh boots - he was boxed eventually but it seemed neither fish nor fowl. Him getting a rather strange strategy short straw is one thing that on today's evidence hasn't changed at the Scuderia since last season. It meant fifth was all he could do.

Valtteri Bottas in the other Merc would have been in the mix too but he spun under the early safety car when trying to warm his tyres, something the phlegmatic Finn described appropriately as a "stupid mistake" (perhaps more worryingly, Wolff said he "threw it away"). It dropped him to P12, and he recovered to sixth by the end.

Carlos Sainz was magnificent once again
Photo: Octane Photography
Carlos Sainz's mix of bravery, intelligence and extreme skill got him best of the rest in seventh, his day being set up by being the only one to start on slicks (to his engineers' and acerbic team boss's chagrin apparently...). He shadowed the Ferrari-Red Bull fight for far longer than should have been possible too.

Kevin Magnussen was also magnificent in getting P8 after an attacking drive, and a timely one given his Melbourne Haas debut, and his final throes at Renault last year, had him a man frustrated and perhaps under pressure.

The Force India pair with Sergio Perez ahead completed the scorers - Esteban Ocon indeed recovered from losing 15 seconds with an unnecessary pit call via a miscommunication. Williams meanwhile got nothing - Lance Stroll was pitched out on lap one while Felipe Massa never was a factor and finished fourteenth. This perhaps is another theme of last season continuing, that Force India seems able to max results in a way that Williams can't, even though Williams likely has the greater inherent pace.

This was thought in advance a weekend for McLaren merely to get through as its Honda unit would run out of deployment well before the end of the main straight. But Fernando Alonso did a Max on lap one and got up to eighth, and then even less credibly ran well inside the top ten, comfortably so, until a driveshaft failed at two-thirds' distance. Nando reckoned it was an even better drive than his Melbourne act of alchemy. It looked that way.

But we can be content on a broader level as well, as after our panic about the general lack of racing in Melbourne's round one today was a diverting Sunday's fare - with some thrilling aggressive overtakes - a few we've mentioned - featuring drivers getting punchy in braking zones rather than cruising past with a DRS slot open. Just like after Melbourne we shouldn't draw too many conclusions on a single race, but it was encouraging. Almost certainly there were fewer passes than in the China visit last year, but some of those that we got today will live in the memory in a way that none 12 months ago did.

If Australia suggested we have a multi-team title battle for once, China today suggested we might just have have fine motor racing too. Certainly we have an exceptional cast of drivers.

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