By: Max Davies, F1 Correspondent
- Hamilton: One of my best races
- Phenomenal drive by Webber
- Tyre stops the decisive factor
- New rules package pays off
In what was one of the most exciting Grand Prix in recent years, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton charged to an emphatic victory in the Chinese Grand Prix and in doing so, ended Sebastian Vettel’s run of wins in the 2011 Formula One championship.
The new rules package played their most pivotal role yet and the combination of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) and the quick wearing Pirelli tyres helped to produce variety in terms of team tactics, and plenty of overtaking on the track. As a result, there were battles throughout the field from the moment the lights went out until the chequered flag fell.
The McLaren Mercedes driver's three-stop strategy ultimately proved more decisive than the slightly more conservative two stops employed by the Red Bull of Vettel which allowed the 2008 world champion to make a late charge before passing the German for the lad in the final laps.
“I think today the strategy we came up with going into qualifying definitely helped,” Hamilton declared. “I think my new option tyre seemed to last a little bit longer than the guys in front but I think it was quite a few things that came together really. The pit stops were fantastic. It was good for us.
“The guys are always pushing to improve and the car felt great. I was just trying to nurse my tyres whilst trying to pick up pace. It was one of the best races I have experienced where guys were out in front of me and I had to do quite a lot of overtaking. But thumbs up to the guys back at the factory and in the garage. They really put their hearts into developing the car and making the car the best it can be every weekend. It feels amazing to be able to bring home the victory for them.”
We did a couple of mistakes, on top of that we had some problems, but still we finished second
Joining Hamilton and his Red Bull team mate on the podium, Mark Webber produced a top-drawer drive on his way to third place after a shambolic qualifying session saw the Australian line up on the grid in 18th position.
“It was an interesting Grand Prix,” a beaming Webber declared. “It was good that someone finally did, of course Seb is in the same team but he has been on a phenomenal run and we are all here together fighting for victories. Shame McLaren won in a way but also we can't let Seb get too far away, so it was good day for the racing and good day for us in terms of points for the team.”
At the lights, pole sitter Vettel made a poor getaway and pulled left to block the advancing Hamilton while Jenson Button sped into the lead from second on the grid. Going into turn 1, Hamilton had the inside line and slotted in behind the leader while the fast starting Nico Rosberg muscled his Mercedes alongside Vettel but the German found his way blocked by the defensive world champion countryman.
“The start was not the best we had this year, ”Vettel declared. “On top of that it seems that for some reason the left hand side here is worse than the right hand side, plus the fact that you turn right doesn't help. But it was not a 100 per cent good start so I lost also the position to Lewis who started behind me.”
Throughout the first stint, the top three ran in close proximity, separated by 2s with Rosberg a few seconds behind, under pressure from the Ferrari’s of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.
A masterstroke move by Mercedes on lap 12 saw Nico Rosberg head into the pits for new tyres and the subsequent clear track ahead when he re-joined the race, enabled the German to get sown to some serious lap times while the top three runners endured a few hectic laps.
With the trye degradation to contend with, race engineers were constantly having to reign in the natural instincts of the drivers to push and at the front, Hamilton’s Pirelli’s began to fade and on the 1 km back straight, Vettel utilized the DRS wing to good effect and passed the McLaren for second place – the defending champion then followed the leading McLaren of Button into the pit lane.
When I looked up, I thought I was in my pit box, but then I saw the Red Bull pit crew in front of me
"I was looking down at the steering wheel to adjust a switch: when I looked up, I thought I was in my pit box, but then I saw the Red Bull pit crew in front of me,” the embarrassed Button declared.
Back out front, Hamilton lost dramatic pace on his in-lap and was caught and passed by Massa and the quick-lapping Rosberg. Stationary for little over 4s, Hamilton rejoined in fifth place behind Rosberg, Vettel, Button and Massa. Schumacher, having started 14th was lying sixth after a similar early pit stop to his race leading team mate was busy defending his position from a determined Alonso in eighth.
As predicted before the weekend, there was a choice between making two or three stops and while the McLaren’s and race leader Rosberg went for the latter strategy, Vettel and Massa opted for two which initially seemed the optimum choice once the second round of stops had commenced. With both men stopping and dropping out of the top three, they were matching the lap times of the leaders who were unable to pull out a significant margin prior to their extra stops.
Rounding the final corner, Hamilton was on a charge and got under the gearbox of his team mate going down the main straight to pass Button into Turn 1 and commencing his pursuit of the leading Mercedes.
Lap 25 saw Button in the pits, and confirmed a three stop strategy. Parking in the correct garage this time, the Brit emerged in eighth place while Rosberg came in and re-joined fourth. The next lap saw Alonso managing to pass Schumacher while Hamilton stopped, rejoining the race in eighth which soon became seventh after passing the Force India of Paul di Resta.
Far happier with his new tyres, Hamilton began yet another charge and was soon behind Button once more while in tenth, Mark Webber was silently carving his way through the field in the recovering Red Bull.
Lap 34 and Vettel was in for his final stop, the defending world champion dropping to fourth behind race leader Rosberg, Button and Hamilton. With the leading three all scheduled to make an extra stop, the pressure was on for the fuel-conservative Rosberg to maintain speed while saving fuel and for the McLaren’s to push while conserving their tyres.
Having caught his team mate once more, Hamilton was soon past Button, slicing down the inside heading into Turn 6 on lap 36 while at the front, Rosberg continued to manage his fuel load.
Making his third and final, Button came into the pits on lap 38 and returned to the race in fifth position, which moved Vettel up to a net third, but that would be dependant on the German managing his tyres for the remaining laps.
Hamilton was in for new boots the next lap round from second position for his third and last stop while race leader Rosberg pitted a lap later, re-emerging in third position with Hamilton just behind.
Edging past Rosberg, Hamilton’s next target was Massa in second place and once ahead of him, the 2008 world champion began his pursuit of race leader Vettel whose tyres were now significantly older than the McLaren’s.
Further back, Rosberg, in attempting to pass Massa, lost fourth position and in doing so let the Brazilian back through and Button, thereby dropping to fifth.
A charging Hamilton was now quicker than Vettel to the tune of 1s per lap though McLaren were quick to remind their driver to manage his tyres and that his prey would come back to him due to his worn tyres.
Lap 52 and with it came Hamilton’s decisive pass to lead the race. Tailing the leading Red Bull, Hamilton tried distracting his rival by moving all over the road before making his move into Turn 7. His tyres now bereft of all grip, Vettel – who had been struggling to communicate with his team with a problematic radio, could do nothing to stop the charging McLaren who sliced into the lead and began immediately to pull away.
Webber meanwhile surged past Rosberg and began his pursuit of Button for third place; the Australian lest we remind ourselves started 18th and was putting in the drive of his life and certain to turn what looked like a difficult weekend into a memorable one.
Three laps to go and Button had his mirrors full of Webber with the Red Bull making the inevitable pass going into the hairpin at the back of the circuit.
Across the line, Hamilton took the flag and punched the air with delight in front of his mechanics who were hanging over the pit wall in appreciation of a fine drive. Vettel took second ahead of a content Webber who was left to wonder what might have been had he enjoyed a more productive qualifying session. “I'm still struggling for words,” Hamilton said after claiming his 15th career win. “That really was one of my best races.
“It's rare to have battles like the ones we saw today; you really had to think about the situation and I loved that challenge, but having to overtake people made things so much sweeter. This race is in my top three of race wins – it's up there with Silverstone and Monaco in 2008. I exist and I live and I breathe to win; I love winning, and I just couldn't be happier.”
Button was a disgruntled and slightly embarrassed fourth, ahead of a similarly frustrated Rosberg, who was left to rue a missed victory, Massa and Alonso. Schumacher had a decent day in the office finishing eighth while Vitaly Petrov was ninth for Lotus Renault and Kamui Kobayashi took the final point for Sauber in tenth.
Maintaining his 100% finishing record, Di Resta failed to score points for a third consecutive race after finishing 11th ahead of Nick Heidfeld in the second Lotus Renault. Ruben Barrichello was 13th for Williams ahead of the Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi and the second Force India of Adrian Sutil. A productive weekend for Team Lotus saw Heikki Kovalainen finish 16th ahead of the Sauber of Sergio Perez who endured a difficult race after contact earlier with another car.
Venezuelan rookie Pastor Maldonado was 18th for Williams leading the Team Lotus of Jarno Trulli and the Marussia Virgin paring of Jerome D’Ambrosio and Timo Glock. Hispania made some progress in getting both Narain Karthikeyan and Tonio Luizzi to the finish while Jaime Alguersuari was the only retirement in the second Toro Rosso.
Unquestionably, this was a race to remember and the fact that it delivered excitement by the tonne without the intervention of rain, was a demonstration that the new rules package for 2011 has delivered the kind of racing that has been sought for many a year. Pirelli have stepped up to the plate and given the drivers a welcome problem and the teams with a few headaches.
Us mere observers? We have one hell of a season in prospect now…