Pressure was sure mounting on the Silver Arrows to salvage their first win for the 2018 season after losing out to Ferrari on sheer luck and strategy in the two opening races.

But Mercedes had leverage, arriving in China holding a historical advantage claiming the last six pole positions and four race wins at the Shanghai International Circuit. However, Mercedes learnt that statistics don’t mean anything when push comes to shove on Sunday afternoon.


Friday

FREE PRACTICE SESSION 1 FREE PRACTICE SESSION 2
Pos. Driver Time Laps Pos. Driver Time Laps
1. Lewis Hamilton 1:33.999 22 1. Lewis Hamilton 1:33.482 26
3. Valtteri Bottas 1:34.457 28 3. Valtteri Bottas 1:33.515 27
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W09 - 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton set the pace on Friday at the Shanghai International Circuit, but that was about as good as the weekend got for Mercedes.

Brisk conditions blanketed the Shanghai International Circuit on Friday with track temperatures just above 10°C and strong wind gusts providing shivering ambient temperatures.

While fans braved the cool winds swirling through the double-tiered main grandstand, the gusty conditions made practice runs difficult with awkward tailwinds and heavy headwinds into key braking zones. More preferred, cooler conditions for the Mercedes crew – similar to pre-season Barcelona testing – assisted their F1W09 in topping the timesheets with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finishing first and third respectively in both sessions, keeping tabs with their Ferrari rivals.

Spots of rain sprinkled the track during the afternoon session, closing the end of Mercedes’ Friday running that panned out to be a productive day at the office.

“We’ve had a fairly normal Friday programme here, a few test items on the cars for the early running but mainly we have been focussed on understanding the car balance and the tyre behaviour for Qualifying and the race,” explained Trackside Engineering Director, Andrew Shovlin.

“We only tried the Soft tyre during FP1 but the initial feedback from the drivers was quite encouraging and the car seemed to be working well. Shanghai is never an easy track to balance because there are so many different types of corners but overall we seemed to be in reasonable shape.

“FP2 saw us running all three tyres, both using ultra soft but splitting the harder tyres so that Valtteri could focus on the Medium and Lewis on the Soft. We had concerns over the Ultrasoft coming into this event, but it was surprisingly consistent over the long runs.

“It’s clear that ourselves, Red Bull and Ferrari are closely matched on pace and, as always, they will be improving their cars overnight so we will be working with our usual diligence to try and find every last bit of performance.”

“When I got to Shanghai the weather was really good, but it’s gone downhill – now we got the rain and it’s cold,” spoke Lewis Hamilton after the Friday sessions.

“But it has been a good day, we got through all the laps that we needed and got some good feedback about the car. All the tyres here are quite similar in pace, so there’s not a big difference between them even though we have the double-step between the Soft and the Ultrasoft [compounds]. The balance of the car is good, but we have some fine-tuning to do on it tonight.

“Ferrari were quick and Red Bull looked really fast on the long run. It’s good to see all the times so close, but it means that we really need to bring our A-game. We need everyone in the team to be on it throughout the weekend because it is a joint effort.”

“It’s good that the rain didn’t come until the end of the session because the race is expected to be dry,” added Bottas.

“The track improved a lot over the course of the day, even during the sessions. Lap after lap you could just feel more and more grip but that’s quite usual for this track. We’re expecting tomorrow morning to be a little bit trickier after the rain, and hopefully the conditions will improve for Qualifying.”


Saturday

FREE PRACTICE SESSION 3 QUALIFYING
Pos. Driver Time Laps Pos. Driver Time Laps
3. Valtteri Bottas 1:33.761 16 3. Valtteri Bottas 1:31.625 20
5. Lewis Hamilton 1:34.057 14 4. Lewis Hamilton 1:31.675 17
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W09 - 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Mercedes’ Chinese Grand Prix qualifying stranglehold came to an end. Bottas (pictured) and Hamilton qualified in P3 and P4 respectively.

Alarm bells rang after the end of the final one-hour practice session as Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari climbed to the top of the time sheets. Valtteri Bottas in third finished a whopping 0.743 seconds off Vettel’s stunning lap time with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen getting in the mix by splitting the two Mercedes drivers in fourth. Hamilton had a wild spin when he ran wide into the run-off exiting the Turn 9/10 double left-hander. The gloves would be off for Qualifying later in the afternoon.

A worrying opening Q1 session saw Bottas finish third-fastest behind both Ferraris and Hamilton even worse in sixth behind Verstappen and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.

The emotional rollercoaster took another high again with relief in Q2 when Hamilton led the way with Bottas topping the middle knockout session.

But Ferrari took it when it counted, crucially responding in the final twelve minutes and locking out the front row with Vettel ahead of Kimi Räikkönen. They gapped an intimidating half a second to the Silver Arrows who locked out the second row with Bottas ahead, stealing Mercedes’ crown and denying the Brackley team a seventh-straight Chinese pole position.

“It has been a complex weekend for us so far,” said Team Principal Toto Wolff after Saturday’s qualifying.

“On some laps, we have hit the window of tyre performance just right like on the final run in Q2; but more often it has felt like we were chasing that window, especially on the Ultrasoft tyre where we have been lacking overall grip.

“On the other hand, Ferrari has been strong in all conditions and on all tyres and this afternoon’s Qualifying results reflect as much.”

“We came here thinking we’d be fighting for pole position but unfortunately that was out of reach,” spoke Bottas disappointingly. “It was a pretty straightforward Qualifying and it felt like I got everything out of the car.

“Maybe we didn’t get the tyres absolutely perfect for the lap, but I don’t think it would have been enough for us to beat the Ferraris. That’s particularly disappointing because the gap to them is quite big.

“We definitely have work to do but tomorrow is a different day. Today it was really windy and cold, tomorrow it should be nice and sunny. On paper, this track is easier for overtaking than Bahrain, so hopefully tomorrow we can make up for what we lost today.”

“[It was] a difficult day,” furthered Hamilton. “We started the weekend positively in practice, but the car went away from us today, the pace just wasn’t there.

“Ferrari has definitely improved over the weekend – maybe they didn’t quite show their true pace yesterday – but today they were rapid. It’s not going to be easy to beat Kimi and Sebastian tomorrow, they’re the quickest on the straights too, so overtaking will be tough.”


Sunday

FORMULA 1 2018 HEINEKEN CHINESE GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (56 LAPS)
Driver Team / Entry Laps Result
2. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team F1W09 56 + 8.894
4. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team F1W09 56 + 16.895
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W09 - 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

Bottas looked on course to claim victory after jumping Sebastian Vettel in the pit stops, but his race came undone thanks to a Safety Car.

As the team predicted, sunnier conditions on Sunday would throw the race on its head. For the first time in a long while, not only was it too hard to predict whether Mercedes would take the win or not, but the Red Bull Racing drivers in fifth and sixth on the grid were also serious candidates to take the top step alongside the Ferraris.

A key move on Räikkönen around the outside of the first corner promoted Bottas to second place on the opening lap which allowed him to chase after Vettel and overcome Räikkönen potentially acting as a blocker for his championship-leading teammate. Behind him, Hamilton had a poor opening lap and dropped to fifth place behind Max Verstappen.

Hamilton was the first of the duo to pit, changing to the white-marked Mediums, reacting to the double-stacking Red Bulls who put their two drivers on the same tyres. The move was critical as the pair sandwiched Hamilton on track and vied for track position. As pace looked good on the Red Bulls and drivers who stopped earlier, Bottas came in one lap later to go on the Mediums in an attempt to undercut Vettel for the lead. A blistering out-lap by the Finn and with help of a more cautious pit stop from the Ferrari crew – following their disaster pit stop in Bahrain that left one of their mechanics with a broken leg – Bottas stormed into the lead of the Chinese Grand Prix holding station over Vettel.

A clumsy move by Pierre Gasly on his Toro Rosso teammate Brendon Hartley brought out the Safety Car, leaving Bottas vulnerable on track. The timing of the deployment of the Safety Car meant that Bottas could not conveniently enter the pits compared to runners behind him. Although Mercedes thought track position was more important by choosing not to bring in Hamilton who could have made a last-second dive into the pit lane, Red Bull Racing chose to double-stack once again. This move caused concern for Hamilton moments before the Safety Car was due to come back in, with the theoretically fastest Verstappen and Ricciardo now behind him.

Lewis Hamilton: “Is it me or have I got a bunch of cars that have new tyres behind me?”
Peter Bonnington, Race Engineer: “So its Verstappen [who] is the car with new Softs then Räikkönen, and then we have Ricciardo – again, [on] new softs.”
LH: “Shoot, why didn’t we stop for new tyres?”
PB: “Because they’d then be in front of you.”

Mercedes team radio exchange, Lap 35

Mercedes engineers - 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

Worried expressions proved telling on the faces of the Mercedes engineering team, as once again their cars were outgunned.

Bottas stormed away on the restart, but the Red Bulls started to make significant inroads. On Lap 39, Verstappen was on the tail of Hamilton, and around the sweeping Turn 7 left-hander the Dutchman tried his chances on Hamilton before losing front end grip and going off track. One lap later, Ricciardo – who overtook his teammate when he fell off the circuit – had a go, gorgeously charging his RB14 from three car lengths back at the sharp hairpin of Turn 14. Another two laps later, Verstappen arrives at the scene again, this time planting a move on Hamilton into Turn 14 as well.

Once Ricciardo was finished with Vettel, he was closing down Bottas for the lead. Having criticised Bottas for not having a go at Vettel to claim victory in the previous weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Ricciardo walked the talk and threw his car down the inside of Bottas at Turn 4. Bottas saw him coming and tried in vain to close the door, but Ricciardo slipped through and into the lead.

Hamilton found last-minute luck on Lap 43 when Verstappen recklessly turned Vettel around with a careless dive-bomb into the hairpin. The incident promoted Hamilton to fourth as he took evasive action to avoid the stricken pair, but he also lost position to Räikkönen in the process. Verstappen would catch up to and re-pass Hamilton for a third time, demoting him to fifth.

Mercedes’ strategy not to pit backfired, with Ricciardo claiming a richly deserved victory almost nine seconds clear of Bottas. Hamilton came across the line in fifth, but was promoted to fourth after Verstappen was handed a ten-second time penalty for his contact with Vettel.

Lewis Hamilton fans - 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton’s fans were left disappointed after an off-the-pace run to fourth place in the Chinese Grand Prix.

“It was another difficult day at the office,” explained Hamilton. “I was trying to hold on, but my tyres were done, so I had no chance of keeping the Red Bulls behind.

“Saturday and Sunday felt like a disaster from my side. I just haven’t had the pace since yesterday and I struggled with the car.

“It could have been worse, Max did me a favour today in terms of the points standings, but it’s a weekend to forget, that’s for sure.”

“This is disappointing; today doesn’t feel like winning a podium but like losing a win,” spoke Bottas post-race, having finished in second place in back-to-back Grands Prix.

“Coming home second is not what we aimed for after the beginning of the race and the successful undercut. The team did a really good job, the pit stop was absolutely perfect and came at the right moment.

“We just lost the race under the Safety Car. When it came out, Sebastian and I were already past the pit entry, so we were a bit unlucky – the cars behind us could react, but we didn’t have any choice. They could get fresh tyres, but I ended up doing nearly 40 laps on the Medium, so of course it was slower in the end.

“It’s very close between Red Bull, Ferrari and us, so we need to make sure we keep developing our car.

“Nearly winning both last weekend and this weekend is the worst feeling – but it makes both me and the entire team even hungrier. Thankfully there are a lot more races to go.”

“I am sure that was a fantastic Grand Prix for the fans watching in the grandstands and back at home – but it was a very challenging one from where we were sitting,” summarised Toto Wolff.

“Ultimately, the reality of today is that we lacked pace in each phase – Sebastian managed the performance in the opening stint, building a good gap to Valtteri, and the Red Bulls were significantly faster on fresher tyres after the Safety Car.

“The best part of our day was undoubtedly Valtteri’s drive: the pit wall called an aggressive undercut, the boys delivered a perfect pit stop and he claimed first the position over Sebastian, then the lead from Kimi with a bold pass round the outside.

“We saw a real fighter in the car today and, while he was unfortunate with the Safety Car timing opening the door for Red Bull, he protected P2 in a perfect way.

“In the end, we must admit that the decision from Red Bull to pit for a fresh set of tyres under the Safety Car was the right call but that was not a given at that stage of the race.

“P2 and P4 is some good damage limitation from a tricky race, but it is little comfort that this puts us in the lead of the Constructors’ Championship as we head home. We have been in tough spots before in recent years and shown the right spirit to respond. We will do the same again this time.”

The weekend was mixed for Mercedes overall. Although the Brackley team failed to claim a win at a track where they’ve tasted plenty of success, they took over the lead in the Constructor’s Championship standings.

Despite calling the weekend “disappointing”, Bottas – who notched up his 100th Grand Prix start – kept consistent and finished second again off the back of Bahrain the previous weekend. The solid finish places him third in the Drivers’ Championship behind Vettel and Hamilton and just in front of Ricciardo.

Speaking of championship positions, Hamilton managed to trim the points gap to Vettel to nine points after the German’s torrid race.

Hamilton now holds the Formula 1 record for the longest consecutive finishes in the points at 28 races. That’s almost a season-and-a-half without retiring, let alone finishing outside the top ten. Räikkönen previously held that record during his time at Ferrari where he won his World Championship title in 2007.

Reports have suggested that Wolff has received a call from Mercedes HQ in Stuttgart, reminding the defending champions they are due for a win. The Silver arrows have never gone three races straight without a win in the turbo-hybrid era and have only collected one win (Bottas’ victory in Abu Dhabi last year) from the past six races.

The great thing for fans is no one really knows when the long-time dominant team of Mercedes will win their first race in 2018. The frustrating thing for Mercedes is they don’t really know either.

Images via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team

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Luke McCullough

Journalist at MotorsportM8
Melbourne based and Australian Grand Prix enthusiast with over 10+ years of attendance.
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