The 2013 Chinese grand prix certainly kept us entertained. With differing tyre and pit stop strategies, cars coming through the field and a variety of different teams and drivers in the mix, the result was far from certain throughout most of the race. When 56 laps had been completed and the chequered flag had been waved, five world drivers’ champions, driving for five different teams occupied the top five positions in the race. We saw a second consecutive podium for pole sitter and Mercedes new boy Lewis Hamilton, while Kimi Raikkonen also took his second podium of the season with second place in Shanghai, behind winner Fernando Alonso, another driver taking his second podium in the first three races of the season.
It was Alonso, who always looked in control of the race, though. The Spaniard got a brilliant start, leapfrogging Raikkonen’s Lotus to tuck in behind Hamilton who led the early laps. Despite briefly managing to pull out a one second gap over Alonso, Hamilton was unable to break free of the pursuing pack and was passed by both Ferrari’s at the start of lap five, with Felipe Massa following his team-mate through with the aid of DRS down the pit straight. While that, and a brief spell in the lead when Alonso pitted, was probably the high point of the race for Massa, who eventually finished sixth, Alonso never looked back.
The double world drivers’ champion wasn’t far ahead of Hamilton after the first round of pit stops for the leading cars, but he was never truly under threat from the Englishman, who we heard comment on the Ferrari’s speed on his pit radio. Alonso had clearly brushed off his early retirement from the Malaysian grand prix three weeks ago and drove the perfect race in China. It seemed almost effortless for him as he cruised through the field as different strategies played out. In the final part of the race we saw Alonso putting in fastest laps of the race. Such was his advantage that his team told him not to push on lap 47 of the race. His response was immediate “I’m not pushing” as he posted a lap time of 1:39.506 – the fastest lap of the race at that stage.
Alonso eventually finished the race a full 10 seconds ahead of Raikkonen’s Lotus. Things might have been closer between the top two had the race gone according to plan for the Finn, though. Two incidents spoiled the 2007 world drivers’ champion’s chances of victory, however. Firstly, the Lotus started poorly from the front row of the grid. Raikkonen was passed off the line by both of the fast starting Ferrari’s which meant that instead of being able to challenge the Mercedes of Hamilton for the lead into turn one, he had to defend from the cars behind him.
Although his poor getaway was certainly not helpful, it was not massively damaging to the Finn’s chances of victory as he was able to keep pace with Hamilton’s Mercedes and the two Ferrari’s in the opening laps, and was just behind Hamilton when they both made their first stops. Indeed, Raikkonen and Hamilton were close to each other throughout most of the race, with the Finn stopping earlier than the Englishman in the final round of pit stops which enabled him to jump his Lotus ahead of the Mercedes. Raikkonen’s chances of being able to pass Hamilton earlier and, perhaps, challenge Alonso for victory were damaged by an incident on lap 16 of the race, though.
As Raikkonen was coming through the field on fresh tyres, attacking cars that had started on the prime tyre and not yet stopped, he came up behind the McLaren of Sergio Perez. The Mexican had been moving around to defend his position from other cars and as Raikkonen got a run on him and attempted to move alongside the McLaren he was pushed onto the grass, lost control and hit the back of Perez’s car as he rejoined the track. The Lotus’s front wing was damaged and although team radio suggested that it would be changed at the next pit stop, Raikkonen continued with his damaged wing for the remaining 40 laps of the race.
Although Raikkonen’s car was suffering from increased understeer because of the damage, the team clearly decided that it was better to manage the car in that condition, rather than lose time by changing the nose. It’s hard to say how much quicker Raikkonen might have been able to go with a new nose, or how much track position he would have lost had the team made the change. Whatever the case, the Finn would have lost time either way.
It was hugely impressive that despite the damage, Raikkonen was able to get the better of Hamilton. Mercedes have certainly made huge steps forward since last season, but despite Hamilton’s obvious speed in qualifying it’s clear that Mercedes do not quite have a race winning package yet; a fact that team principal Ross Brawn acknowledged on the slow down lap when he said to Hamilton “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re not so far away. Let’s keep working hard” over the team radio. Indeed, Hamilton had to work hard to hang on to third as Sebastian Vettel charged up behind him on fresh option tyres in the last few laps of the race. Just three tenths of a second separated the Mercedes and the Red Bull as they crossed the line.
Despite a fifth place finish for Jenson Button, it’s clear that, despite the upgrades that the team brought to China, McLaren aren’t really much further forward. They made the most of their tyre and pit stop strategy to lead the race at one stage, but it’s telling that the 2009 world drivers’ champion still finished the race over 20 seconds behind Vettel, who started one place behind him on the grid and deployed an identical strategy.
Still, the Englishman can be fairly happy with his race, certainly happier than Mark Webber whose bad luck continued in China. After the Red Bull team order debacle in Malaysia, Webber only qualified 14th at Shanghai after his car was under-fuelled in the second part of qualifying. This error was compounded when there was insufficient fuel to provide the requisite one litre sample, which meant that the Australian was disqualified from qualifying.
Webber and Red Bull chose to start from the pit lane, but his bad luck continued in the race. First he came together with the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne on lap 16 – an incident for which the stewards gave him a three pace grid penalty for the next race – which damaged his front wing. Unlike Raikkonen, whose front wing damaged occurred at the same stage of the race, Red Bull decided to pit Webber for a fresh nose. Just a lap later Webber was reporting a problem with the car and as he cruised slowly back to the pits his right rear wheel came off on lap 18 putting him out of the race.
As a result, Webber falls down the fledging world drivers’ championship table, swapping places with race winner Fernando Alonso who moves from sixth in the standings to third ahead of Lewis Hamilton who maintains fourth place in the championship. Sebastian Vettel still leads, although his lead of second placed Kimi Raikkonen is now only three points, a third of his previous advantage.
We’ve only got one week to wait until the next race in Bahrain. Who knows how the Pirelli tyres will work in the desert and who will hold the advantage at the Bahrain International Circuit? I can’t help but feel, though, that, three races into the season, Pirelli haven’t got their tyres quite right. There’s a fine line between producing tyres that make racing exciting and tyres that produce an artificial spectacle. The races are certainly exciting, but the drivers aren’t able to push flat-out anymore and the majority of the overtaking is purely a result of different tyre strategies. Formula 1 has become all about tyre management rather than pushing to the limit. Are the 2013 tyres a step too far? I think so, but maybe after the result in China, Fernando Alonso will disagree…