Lewis Hamilton has proven himself as the man to end Sebastian Vettel’s run of race wins with a sensational charge to take victory at the Chinese Grand Prix. Vettel finished a hard-fought second, while Mark Webber drove an outstanding race to finish third after starting 18th on the grid.
It was that kind of race that created headlines for all the right reasons. It was a great mix of driver skill, racecraft, tyre management, strategic calls, good pit stop work by team mechanics, and – above all – a credit to Pirelli to fulfilling their mandate in making tyres that promote close racing.
Simply put: this was about the best dry-weather races that didn’t involve a safety car interruption that fans will have seen in years. Let’s take a look at our review of the Chinese Grand Prix…
Taking the smart move to conserve tyres ahead of the 56-lap race – a lesson he learned after coming off short at last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, Hamilton gave himself the flexibility to run a three-stop strategy with fresher tyres, which proved better than the two-stop strategy Vettel had opted for. Hamilton’s fresher tyres allowed him to hunt down and pass Vettel in the closing stages of the race to take his first win since September last year.
But that is not to say that Hamilton had it easy, for he very nearly failed to make the grid when his Mercedes engine refused to fire when the pit lane opened for cars to form up on the grid. It was panic stations in the McLaren garages as the team’s mechanics desperately tried to get the car going, and the lucky man was able to leave the pit lane and get onto the grid with just three minutes left before the pit lane closed.
His car still wasn’t finished – his reconnaissance lap was drive with his read damper cover missing, and the team set about assembling the remainder of the car before the warm-up lap got underway.
At the start of the race, Vettel made matters more complicated with a poor getaway that allowed fellow front-row starter Jenson Button to lead into Turn 1, while Hamilton got the jump on Vettel as well, and Vettel had a battle on his hands trying to fend off Rosberg as well.
It was close running in the opening laps, with the top-three running in close company in the early laps, while Rosberg kept the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso at bay just a few seconds back.
Pit strategy was going to be one of the overriding factors in the race, and the lower ambient temperatures allowed some teams to opt for two-stop strategies if they could make their tyres last the distance, while others opted for the more conventional three-stop route.
The other consideration was the timing of the pit stops. Should one pit early and out of sequence in the hope that some running on clean tyres would leapfrog you a few places, but equally leave you vulnerable when your tyres were earlier than your rivals? Or do you wait it out and opt for a later stop, hoping you can stretch your running?
Nico Rosberg was the first of the front-runners to head for the pits as early as lap 12, allowing the German to emerge in clear air and the opportunity to hammer in some quick laps.
At the same time, Hamilton was chewing through his soft-compound rear tyres a little too quickly, and Vettel overtook the Briton with a bit of help from the DRS on the back straight before he immediately pitted, with race leader Button immediately in front of him also heading for the pit lane.
But Button made the laughable gaffe of pulling into Red Bull’s pit stall rather than McLaren’s, quickly realising his error as the Red Bull mechanics quickly waved him through in order to service Vettel! The confusion resulted in a slower stop for Button, and Vettel emerged ahead to gain one of the places he had lost.
Out on track and on his own in-lap, Hamilton’s tyres were shot and he was quickly passed by Massa – now released into clean air with Rosberg’s early pit stop – before pitting and rejoining behind the Vettel-Button pairing.
Meanwhile, Rosberg’s early pit stop paid dividends, for he now led the race by five seconds from Vettel and Button, with Massa and Hamilton giving chase.
Rosberg and the McLarens had committed themselves to three pit stops, while Vettel and Massa had opted for just two. By mid-distance, a two-stop strategy was looking like the better option, with Vettel and Massa now fourth and fifth behind Rosberg and the McLarens, and close enough to mean they would have track position when the trio made their third and final pit stops.
With twenty laps to go, Hamilton had now found his rhythm and was really charging, catching Button by surprise to pass his team-mate for second at Turn 1 on lap 35, and then setting himself the task of closing down on Rosberg after their third pit stops.
With Vettel and Massa running in close company in first and second place, Hamilton stood a chance of catching both of them if he could get past Rosberg, but the Mercedes GP driver was showing a turn of speed that could have seen him as a threat for a possible win.
Rosberg was defending his lines well and keeping Hamilton at bay for several laps, until he was outfoxed by Hamilton at Turn 6, and the McLaren driver was up to third.
Massa was the next target, and Hamilton breezed by on the pit straight with twelve laps to go, leaving him with just Vettel – who was now struggling with yet another KERS issue and no pits-to-car radio – to overhaul.
By lap 50, he was right with the Red Bull driver, and launching a series of attacks with KERS and the DRS along the back straight, but the championship leader was wise to Hamilton’s attempts and kept the inside line covered to prevent him being overtaken.
It would leave Hamilton to play to an area where his McLaren had a clear advantage, and the acceleration zones looked to be the go. He launched an attack into Turn 6 and then used his better exiting speed to pass Vettel into the Turn 7 left-hander. Job done, Vettel could only watch and bring the car home into second place.
Behind the duo, the battle for third was becoming increasingly interesting, with Massa steadily falling into the clutches of Rosberg, who now had the sister McLaren of Button to contend with. Rosberg had a lunge at Massa into the hairpin at the end of the back straight, but locked up under braking to allow a grateful Button through into fourth. Button then quickly set about dispensing with Massa to take third, before Rosberg moved by shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, the man posting the quickest laps of all and rapidly closing up to the lot of them was none other than Mark Webber, who had scarcely looked to be a hope of a points’ finish after his disastrous qualifying result that netted him 18th on the grid.
The pre-race broadcast on our host network, OneHD, had given the impression that Webber was very much the beaten man in the Red Bull team – and certainly several commentators had offered the same opinion as well – but the veteran showed some true grit in the closing stages of the race.
Opting to start the race on the harder tyre compound, he made little impression in the opening laps and looked dead and buried. But a smart three-stop strategy that saw him run on the softer-compound tyres (which he had not used in qualifying) for the rest of the race gave him a huge pace advantage at the end, when everyone else was running the slower, harder-compound Pirelli tyres.
It was literally hot knife through butter driving, passing Schumacher, Alonso, Massa and Rosberg in a matter of laps, before he closed down on Button and nailed Button for third place on the penultimate lap. And all without KERS. Not bad at all, as one might say – it gets our vote for ‘Drive of the Day’.
With Button fourth and Rosberg fifth, Massa settled for sixth place and a back-to-back finish in front of team-mate Alonso, who simply didn’t have his Ferrari team-mate’s pace in the latter stages of the race.
One point of discussion picked up during the race was footage that showed Alonso had seemingly managed to activate his DRS on the run to the penultimate corner (pictured) – an area outside the DRS-permitted zone. At the time of writing, no acknowledgement of it had been made by the FIA, and it didn’t seem that he had gained any material advantage from it. But rules are rules and he clearly broke them, but the FIA not taking action could set a dangerous precedent later in the season if someone else tries a similar stunt…
The double World Champion only just managed to hold off Michael Schumacher, who was crawling all over the back of Alonso in the closing laps, after making a brilliant start – 14th to 9th in the opening lap – and making his first of three pit stops very early in the race.
Vitaly Petrov took two more championship points with a ninth-placed finish on a two-stop strategy that didn’t pay off to net the Renault squad a third podium finish of 2011. Team-mate Nick Heidfeld was another who elected to run a long first stint, but he ran too long and fell out of position when he did eventually pit. Starting from lower down the order sometimes forces you to run higher-risk strategies that can pay off spectacularly. In Heidfeld’s case, it didn’t, and he finished 12th after clashing with Paul di Resta on the final lap.
Kamui Kobayashi finished tenth and took the final point for Sauber with another measured race, although he lost a piece of his nose cone after a touch with Adrian Sutil, who was also the victim of a Sergio Pérez suicide pass late in the race, which saw the Mexican rookie given a drive-through penalty after he punted Sutil into the Turn 2 gravel.
It was a better day for Williams, with the team finally getting not one, but both, cars to the finish for the first time this season, with Rubens Barrichello finishing 13th and Pastor Maldonado 18th. The team arrived with a new exhaust configuration for Barrichello’s FW33, but it seemed to make little difference to what appears to be a fundamentally flawed chassis, and it looks as though the team (by its own admission) will shelve the little-understood updates it brought with it.
Toro Rosso’s impressive qualifying effort came to nought in the race, with only Sébastien Buemi seeing the chequered flag, finishing 14th and right under Barrichello’s rear wing. The STR6 just didn’t have the pace again on race day, and Buemi’s cause was not helped when he was badly held up by team-mate Jaime Alguersuari in the opening laps, who would have been better off letting the Swiss driver through and then acting as a rear-gunner. As it was, he retired after less than ten laps when his right rear fell off at launched into the marshalling area at Turn 2 – luckily managing not to hit anyone – but he wasn’t playing a longer game for the team…
Meanwhile, a special mention to Heikki Kovalainen, who finished 16th and ahead on the road of two runners from more established teams. It marked the first time that the team has been able to genuinely run on the pace of the lower midfield. Team-mate Jarno Trulli was also fairly quick on his way to finishing in 19th place.
Virgin Racing got both cars to the finish, but 20th-placed Jérôme d’Ambrosio finished an entire lap behind Trulli, emphasising how much work the team has to do to bridge the gap to the midfield. A frustrated Timo Glock finished behind his rookie team-mate, in a result that will give the German little cheer as he grows increasingly frustrated with the performance of the team. He deserves a much better car; end of discussion.
And a nod to Hispania Racing for getting both of its cars to the chequered flag for the first time this season, with Vitantonio Liuzzi just beating Narain Karthikeyan to the finish line. The pair on the same lap as the Virgin duo, and it looks like it will be a case of when, not if, they can get off the back row of the grid.
2011 Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (56 laps):
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-26||56||1:36:58.226|
|2.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||56||+ 5.198|
|3.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||56||+ 7.555|
|4.||Jenson Button||Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-26||56||+ 10.000|
|5.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team W02||56||+ 13.448|
|6.||Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||56||+ 15.840|
|7.||Fernando Alonso||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||56||+ 30.622|
|8.||Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team W02||56||+ 31.026|
|9.||Vitaly Petrov||Lotus Renault GP R31||56||+ 57.404|
|10.||Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari C30||56||+ 1:03.273|
|11.||Paul di Resta||Force India F1 Team – Mercedes VJM04||56||+ 1:08.757|
|12.||Nick Heidfeld||Lotus Renault GP R31||56||+ 1:12.739|
|13.||Rubens Barrichello||AT&T Williams – Cosworth FW33||56||+ 1:30.189|
|14.||Sébastien Buemi||Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari STR6||56||+ 1:30.671|
|15.||Adrian Sutil||Force India F1 Team – Mercedes VJM04||55||1 lap behind|
|16.||Heikki Kovalainen||Team Lotus – Renault T128||55||1 lap behind|
|17.||Sergio Pérez||Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari C30||55||1 lap behind|
|18.||Pastor Maldonado||AT&T Williams – Cosworth FW33||55||1 lap behind|
|19.||Jarno Trulli||Team Lotus – Renault T128||55||1 lap behind|
|20.||Jérôme d’Ambrosio||Marussia Virgin Racing – Cosworth||54||2 laps behind|
|21.||Timo Glock||Marussia Virgin Racing – Cosworth||54||2 laps behind|
|22.||Vitantonio Liuzzi||HRT F1 Team – Cosworth F111||54||2 laps behind|
|23.||Narain Karthikeyan||HRT F1 Team – Cosworth F111||54||2 laps behind|
|DNF||Jaime Alguersuari||Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari STR6||9||Lost wheel|
|Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||42||1:38.993|
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