Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

The thrills and fireworks that we saw last time out in Bahrain were sadly lacking at the Chinese grand prix. In that respect the two races couldn’t have been more different, but in another they couldn’t have been more alike. Once again, we saw Mercedes very firmly on top yet again, as Lewis Hamilton led home his team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first ever Formula 1 hat-trick of victories with his third straight win and the team’s third consecutive 1-2 finish.

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

The manner of Hamilton’s victory was akin to his first win of the season in Malaysia; completely dominant, with an 18 second margin of victory to his team-mate. In some ways, the race in Shanghai was even more impressive from Hamilton. The Englishman was severely hampered in Friday free practice because of suspension troubles which limited his running in FP1.

Despite finishing FP2 on top of the timesheets, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the car and made some big set-up changes for Saturday. Saturday free practice and qualifying were wet, however, which meant that, even though he claimed pole position, going into the race, however, he had no idea whether those changes would actually work. They clearly did, showing yet again that Hamilton’s detractors are wrong; he has the intellectual capacity to go alongside his undoubted natural speed and racing skills.

Indeed, the 2008 world drivers’ champion proved his critics wrong again during the race in China. Some said Hamilton would struggle with having to manage fuel consumption as a result of the 100 kg per hour fuel flow limit imposed in the new regulations. However, as we have seen in the previous two races, Hamilton’s fuel consumption was excellent. In China it was easily better than anyone else.

Hamilton was way out in the lead for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton was way out in the lead
for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton has also been criticised for using his Pirelli tyres too aggressively in the past, resulting in higher wear rates and faster degradation than his rivals. In China, while the likes of Red Bull Racing’s four time world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel complained about tyre wear over the team-radio, Hamilton declared “Surprisingly the front tyres still feel really good, as well as the rears.” He pitted some three laps later than team-mate Nico Rosberg on lap 17, after a brief off track moment as his soft Pirelli tyres finally gave up.

Hamilton, as in Malaysia, led every lap of the race, but to be fair to Nico Rosberg things might have been closer than the 18 second margin of victory suggested. Rosberg had a poor start and fell backwards as his team-mate got the perfect launch off the line to lead Vettel into turn one. Rosberg on the other had dropped down to seventh place, after heavy contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in turn one.

Rosberg did well to recover from his disastrous start, to finish the race in second place. This was even more the case given that the German – the race winner in Australia – had to race without his car’s telemetry being communicated to the pit wall. This meant that Rosberg had to provide his team with fuel consumption data from his steering wheel’s LED display – an annoyance and a clear source of frustration.

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Rosberg’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Sebastian Vettel, though. Vettel, so dominant in winning four consecutive championships wth Red Bull, is clearly struggling with the 2014 RB10 and the change of regulations. Vettel has been out qualified three times in four races by his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and although he leads the young Australian in the fledging championship table he is not having things all his own way.

For the second time in two races, Vettel was asked to let the faster Ricciardo through. In China, he refused to do so, questioning his race engineer about the tyres the Ricciardo was on and the reason why he was being asked to move over. When told that Ricciardo had fresher tyres he replied simply “tough luck”. A couple of laps later Ricciardo moved ahead of his team-mate into turn one and although the official line from Red Bull was that Vettel had let him through, it certainly didn’t look like that was the case.

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished
20 seconds behind his team-mate

Vettel eventually finished the race in Shanghai a very distant fifth, only one place behind Ricciardo, but a massive twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate. Sobering stuff for the defending world drivers’ champion. He’s not the only one unexpectedly struggling, though. Kimi Raikkonen is having a torrid time on his return to Ferrari. The Finn finished down in eighth place in China, over 50 seconds behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso who drove brilliantly to claim Ferrari’s first podium of the season with a third place finish.

There are a few other teams and drivers that are worthy of a mention. Despite Romain Grosjean’s retirement following gearbox trouble it clearly looks like Lotus are finally getting their act together in 2014. The Frenchman did brilliantly to qualify in the top 10 and had been on course for a points finish before retiring. McLaren, though, seem to be on the opposite trajectory. After a hugely promising start to the season with a double podium finish in Australia, the Woking-based team now appear to be struggling. In China, they were the least competitive of all of the Mercedes powered teams, finishing in 11th and 13 positions, both cars having been lapped.

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

Williams are still looking competitive. But for first lap contact for both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas and a truly horrendous first pit stop for Massa, the team might have had more than Bottas’s seventh place to take away from Shanghai. Given the right conditions, and a bit of luck, a podium finish would not look to be beyond Williams’s reach at some stage this season, especially if Massa can continue to make the same sort of lightning quick starts that we’ve seen in recent races.

It will be a big ask for anyone to catch Mercedes, though. Such was the dominance of Hamilton in Shanghai that the chequered flag was waved a lap early. A bizarre mistake, which fortunately didn’t alter the result of the race much. The only driver to miss out was Kamui Kobayashi in the Caterham, who had passed Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on the last scheduled lap of the race, which was officially classified as running for 54 laps rather than the planned 56, in accordance with the regulations.

Next we move to Europe for the Spanish grand prix. This is the race where traditionally the teams make big updates to their cars. On the strength of the evidence of the first four races, the others will have to make some massive improvements to get onto terms with the Silver Arrows.

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F1 dazzles in the desert

After two easy victories, one for each of the Mercedes drivers, in the opening two races of the season many were writing off Formula 1. Quieter engines, fuel efficiency and the same big margins of victory; no battles at the front – F1 had lost the plot, right? Wrong. The Bahrain grand prix was full of thrills and spills and featured a titanic battle for victory between the Mercedes drivers – easily the best race in recent years; a real thriller that had you on the edge of your seat right until the chequered flag.

In the end, just like a week ago in Malaysia, it was Lewis Hamilton that came out on top in Bahrain, although his margin of victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg was dramatically reduced from 17.3 seconds last time out to a whisker over a single second this time. As reflected by the narrow margin of victory, we had a real fight between the Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, not only in the final grandstand finish over the last 10 laps, but also, crucially, in the run up to the first round of pit stops.

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the line and took the lead into turn 1

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the
line and took the lead into turn 1

Unlike in the last two races, in Bahrain Rosberg beat Hamilton in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season, with his team-mate qualifying second, giving the Silver Arrows their first front row lock-out of the season. Rosberg had clearly raised his game after being dominated by Hamilton at Sepang and looked to have the edge over the 2008 world drivers’ champion this time. The German, the race winner in Australia, might have been able to streak clear in the same way that Hamilton managed in Malaysia, but he was beaten off the line, and into turn one, by his team-mate.

Having gotten the drop on Rosberg, Hamilton couldn’t pull away, though. The gap hovered around a second to a second and a half in the opening stint of the race allowing our first round of fireworks to take place as we approached the first pit stops. Knowing that the driver who stopped first would enjoy the advantage of the undercut – the advantage of fresher tyres for a lap or so – Rosberg pushed hard to overtake Hamilton and closed to within DRS range of his team-mate.

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn't make the pass stick

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn’t make the pass stick

On lap 18 Rosberg made his move, diving down the inside of Hamilton at turn one before conceding the lead again as the Englishman fought back. On the next lap Rosberg tried again. This time it looked like he might have made the pass stick, but Hamilton wasn’t giving up and re-passed Rosberg into turn four. It was a truly brilliant counter-attack from Hamilton and it looked critical as at the end of the lap he made his pit stop. He had secured the advantage of the undercut.

Once both of the Mercedes drivers had stopped – Hamilton for another set of option tyres, while Rosberg had switched to primes – things seemed to settle down. The undercut had given Hamilton a six second advantage, which steadily increased eventually reaching 9.7 seconds on lap 40. While it was never quite a case of ‘race over’ given that Hamilton would use the slower prime tyre in the final stint while Rosberg would use the faster options, things did look reasonably comfortable up front.

Maldonado's Lotus flips Gutierrez’s Sauber into a dramatic somersault

Maldonado’s Lotus flips Gutierrez’s
Sauber into a dramatic somersault

But then along came Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus. On lap 41 the Venezuelan exited the pits and T-boned Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, launching the Mexican’s car into a somersault at turn one – an incident which resulted in Maldonado receiving a five place grid penalty after the race, plus three points on his super-licence. Unsurprisingly, out came the safety car and away went Hamilton’s lead.

With Hamilton now on the slower tyres and Rosberg on the faster options, it looked to be advantage Rosberg. Just before the safety car pulled in with 10 laps to go, though, both Mercedes drivers received identical radio messages from Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe “With 10 laps left to race, can we just make sure we bring both cars home.” Team orders, I thought. I was wrong! Rosberg attacked Hamilton immediately and while he couldn’t get the pass done he stayed close enough to Hamilton to receive the advantage of DRS when it became available two laps after the re-start.

Rosberg attacked again on laps 52 and 53, squeezing ahead of Hamilton only to be swiftly re-passed by his team-mate. It was thrilling stuff, but with better tyres and the edge in terms of outright speed I thought it was only a matter of time before Rosberg made the move stick. I was wrong again! Hamilton was told that he could use the overtake button on the exit of corners to aid in his defence and he was able to pull out a gap of around a second to Rosberg in the final couple of laps.

Perez celebrates his third place

Perez celebrates his third place

The second display of on-track fireworks between the Mercedes drivers was finally over as Hamilton took a brilliant victory, different in so many different ways to the win just a week earlier at Sepang. I haven’t even mentioned the other brilliant battles throughout the field during the race. Sergio Perez claimed third place to give Force India only their second ever podium finish and we saw on track fireworks from a whole host of other drivers. It was a tremendous race and a brilliant advert for the new era of Formula 1.

Not only did the battle between the Silver Arrows prove a thrilling spectacle, it also finally showed us the extent of the pace that the Brackley-based team have in their pocket. In just 10 laps they built up a 24 second advantage over Perez in third place; an advantage of some 2.4 seconds per lap. Something that will surely send shivers down the spines of the rest of the paddock.

Hamilton takes the checquered flag in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

Hamilton takes the checquered flag
in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

The championships look like Mercedes’s to lose, but we’re highly unlikely to get the sort of cakewalk that we’ve seen at times from Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in recent seasons. The Mercedes drivers seem pretty closely matched and the team seem determined to let them race. That’s great for the sport. While Hamilton has two victories to Rosberg’s one, it’s the German that so far holds the championship advantage thanks to Hamilton’s unfortunate retirement in Australia.

There were more fireworks after the race, this time in the night sky as the organisers brought the curtain down on the 900th grand prix and the 10th at the Sakhir circuit. The next race in China has a lot to live up to.