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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Awesome Alonso surges to victory in Shanghai

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.

Alonso and Massa pass Hamilton on lap five

Alonso and Massa pass Hamilton on lap five

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 takes the chequered flag

Alonso takes the chequered flag

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.

The damage on Raikkonen's Lotus is clearly visible after his clash with Perez

The damage on Raikkonen’s Lotus is clearly visible after his clash with Perez

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.

Lewis Hamilton on his way to a second consecutive third place finish for Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton on his way to a second consecutive third place finish for Mercedes

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's bad luck continues as the wheel comes off his Red Bull

Webber’s bad luck continues as the
wheel comes off his Red Bull

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…