Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
After a thrilling race in China, Red Bull’s dominance was finally broken by the McLaren team, who have been waiting in the wings to take over from the Austrian team. McLaren was already close to a victory in Australia and Malaysia, where Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button respectively crossed the finish line in second position. “The pace was there,” Sebastian Vettel said after the race. “It was there all weekend but once we decided to go to two stop you have to be patient, look after your tyres and when it doesn't work, it doesn't work,” he commented. “I don't see second today as a disappointment, all in all we are happy with second. First was not meant to be.”
It seems the malfunctioning and sometimes not at all functioning Red Bull KERS system combined with the wrong tyre strategy finally robbed championship leader Vettel of a fifth consecutive win. Despite the fact both Red Bull drivers celebrated their second and third place on the podium, Red Bull and designer Adrian Newey are now painfully aware of the shortcoming of the RB7: the KERS system.
The 2010 champion had grabbed pole position again on Saturday and was once again the favorite for the race. But Vettel had a bad start and was immediately jumped by both McLarens, Hamilton and Button used their KERS and dived into the first corner ahead of Vettel, who could barely hold on to third position as a charging Nico Rosberg almost passed him as well.
“My start was not the best and for some reason it seems the left hand side of the grid is worse here than the right hand side. It wasn’t brilliant and I lost positions to Jenson and Lewis,” Vettel said about his start. Even Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber was relieved the German’s winning streak ended at the Shanghai International Circuit in China. “Shame McLaren won in a way, but also we can't let Seb get too far away,” he commented after the race.
Vettel was struggling with his tyres during the final part of the race, and he knew it was just a matter of time before Hamilton would pass him. “It was quite a nice fight with Lewis, down the long straight I was able to stay ahead but I saw that there were seven laps to go and that there was not much that I could do. Lewis did a very good job to surprise me with his move into Turn 7 and so congratulations to them. With a different strategy you cannot show everything you have. I don't see second today as a disappointment. Second is the best we could do today,” Vettel concluded his comments.
I don't see second today as a disappointment. Second is the best we could do today
It was a pretty eventful race, despite that, 23 drivers crossed the finish line after 56 laps, only Jaime Alguersuari retired from the race after his pit crew made a mistake during his pit stop and forgot to properly secure the right rear wheel of his Toro Rosso. The Spaniard finally lost the wheel at Turn 2, it bounced around the track, over the fencing, narrowly missing a few marshals and photographers. The team was fined 10,000 Euro for ‘an unsafe release of the car’ from the pit lane. Alguersuari about the incident, “I felt the car was very unstable and then I lost a wheel nut and the wheel came off, so there was nothing I could do. After my best qualifying position I was hoping for better.”
Pit Stop Strategies key to success
Although Red Bull team principal Christian Horner maintains Vettel’s two-stop strategy was the best strategy, a quick look at the time tables after the race tell it was in fact not the optimum strategy. After the first round of pit stops Vettel managed to grab the lead again, but after his second pit stop everything changed. Although he was still leading he now had to finish the race on a set of hard tyres.
”We came out in the lead and tried hard to stay on two stops. The middle stint should really have been a little longer, but at the end of the race I found myself out on the hard tyre and could see Hamilton coming closer and closer,” Vettel explained. Both Hamilton and Webber were on a three stop strategy, and during the closing stages of the race they were on the fresher and much faster soft tyres.
This now was a textbook example of what teams call the ‘tyre cliff’, once the tyres are completely gone after a number of laps, the lap time suddenly goes downhill, and not with one second, but with three to four seconds per lap, hence the name cliff. Vettel wasn’t able to maintain his pace, and witnessed how Hamilton and Webber came closer and closer. “I tried to defend as best I could, without losing too much time to the guys behind, but he [Hamilton] found his way past,” Vettel said. “It just shows that in one race, if you try something a bit different [referring to his two stop strategy] and make a small mistake, there is someone to beat you. It was a good race for us and we can learn a lot from today.”
Pirelli has certainly revived the pit stop frenzy spectators used to see when refueling during the race was still allowed in Formula One. After the many comments of drivers and Formula One pundits about the seemingly too fast degrading tyres, the critics now instead praise the role Pirelli plays in the new ‘show’ they watched during the first three races of the season. Pirelli predicted three stops for China, and teams who were on a two stop strategy soon found out they suffered a huge performance loss during the closing stages of the race, and Vettel’s conclusion he had learned a lot last Sunday, is the only right conclusion, as for the teams and drivers there is indeed still a lot to learn about the new Pirellis.
It's hard to imagine how we can top this at the next Grand Prix
Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery is happy with what the Italian company has achieved in so little time and with very limited testing. “It's hard to imagine how we can top this at the next Grand Prix in Turkey, but we're certainly going to try to have something just as good,” Hembery said. Pirelli will bring the same rubber compounds, Soft and Hard, to the Turkish and Spanish Grand Prix, and will introduce the Super Soft tyres during the Monaco Grand Prix. “It's quite a different tyre to the rest of the range and should be very effective around the streets of Monte Carlo,” Hembery predicted.
McLaren were in fact the only team who had closed in on Red Bull, and it was only a matter of time before they were finally able to break Vettel’s winning streak. Hamilton almost had to start the race from the pit lane as his mechanics discovered, just minutes before the pit lane was closed, his MP4-26 wouldn’t start. Apparently the engine’s airtray was flooded with fuel which had escaped from a pressure release valve. The mechanics had to remove the airtray and clean the excess fuel and were then able to start it. The car was finally sent to the grid with only 60 seconds to spare.
A few nerve-wrecking moments for Hamilton, “I didn’t question what was going on, I just wanted to stay calm and not add to everyone’s stress. When I finally left the garage, I drove down the pit lane watching the light and hoped it wouldn’t turn red -- and it didn’t! It’s never been that close before…“ Team principal Martin Whitmarsh praised the mechanics. “The mechanics did an absolutely superlative job to identify the problem and rectify it within a very stressful timeframe -- they really showed today that they are the best in the world. I take my hat off to them,” he said.
During the start both McLarens surprised Vettel and Button led the race ahead of Hamilton and Vettel. Button and Vettel both pitted at the same lap, but Button made a rare mistake, and stopped at the Red Bull pit box instead of his McLaren pit box. Button about the incident, “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!”
His mistake proved to be a costly one, he re-joined the race in ninth position with Nick Heidfeld and Vettel now ahead of him. Button managed to fight his way back to third place, but after his last pit stop he also struggled with his tyres, and on lap 54 he could no longer keep a fiercely charging Webber behind him, and had to give up his third place. “I really struggled to look after the rear tyres, and fourth place was the best I could get out of my car today,” the somewhat disappointed Briton said.
I thought I was in my pitbox, but then I saw the Red Bull pit crew in front of me!
His team mate Hamilton however was the one who made the most of his tyre strategy, he overtook Button, Alonso and Massa during the closing stages of the race before he finally became visible in Vettel’s rear mirrors. While Vettel expected Hamilton would pass him on the straight using his KERS and DRS, the McLaren driver made a brilliant move at Turn 7 and overtook the German with only four laps to go. “It was always going to be difficult to follow him onto the back straight, so I wanted to get him before then -- I wasn’t expecting to overtake where I did, but I had the grip to keep ahead, and I made it stick,” Hamilton said.
It was without a doubt one of Hamilton’s best races, but he had to fight for it, and that made his victory all the more special. “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,” a very pleased Hamilton commented.
Webber star of the show in China
Despite the fact Red Bull driver Webber suffered technical problems during qualifying, which left him with a miserable 18th place on the start grid, the ever very determined Webber showed his phenomenal race pace by finishing in third position on the podium, a true miracle. Webber was on a different tyre strategy because he had one extra set of option tyres more than his team mate Vettel due to the lack of track time on Saturday.
”I had a few sets of tyres left over from qualifying so that helped a bit,” Webber said. “Maybe that is the best way to do it all the time, not even take part in qualifying and just go from there,” the Australian said with a smile on his face.
Webber had the choice to start on the hard or soft tyres as a result of his 18th place in qualification. While Vettel, Hamilton an Button started on the soft tyre compound on which they had qualified during Q3, he opted to start on the hard tyres. “We decided to start on the prime tyre, which we know is not the most desired,” Webber said. “That allowed me to get that tyre compound out of the way while I was stuck in traffic and couldn’t lap at the car’s optimum pace.”
He then changed to the soft tyres very early on lap 10, he was the first driver to pit and spent the rest of his race on the much faster soft tyres. “I was then free to use my three sets of new -- faster -- option tyres that I hadn’t used in qualifying once I’d cleared the back markers. It was a perfect strategy call,” Webber said.
Now on the fast and soft tyres he gradually made his way into the top ten, and after his third and final pit stop on lap 40, he rejoined the race in seventh position. But he now had a clear advantage, he was again on fresh and fast soft tyres, while Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg, Button, Massa and Alonso were on the slower hard tyres which were by then also at the end of their working life. In the remaining 16 laps he showed a blistering pace, he first reeled in Alonso and just three laps shy of the finish, he overtook Rosberg and Massa who were still struggling with the hard tyre compound.
Webber passed Button on the penultimate lap to take third place, and he was of course very happy with his extraordinary performance, and hailed his pit crew, “I think the guys have done an incredible job -- it’s a back to back race and we haven’t had the smoothest run with my car, but I haven’t given up. That drive today was for them and everyone back at the factory.”
Ferrari lost again, but Felipe Massa gains
Ferrari again showed they were off the pace, despite a fifth and sixth place during qualifying, and a sixth and seventh place during the race, the Maranello-based team cannot be happy with the results of the Chinese Grand Prix. There was slight improvement compared to the previous races, but the Italian team is still puzzled as to why they are far behind Red Bull and McLaren.
I want Ferrari to be at the level that both we and our fans demand it should be
Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo had previously blamed the new regulations for Ferrari’s under par performance and called them too ‘artificially’, but one can be sure he had hailed those very same new regulations if his team had won two races, and he would probably have said the new regulations were the best thing that ever happened to Formula One.
But after the Chinese Grand Prix there is nowhere to hide for the Italian team, the problem is clear, the Ferraris are just too slow, and Montezemolo has indicated he is far from satisfied. On Monday he demanded his team must up its performance as quickly as possible. “This cannot and must not be the team’s level,” the flamboyant Italian said. And continued, “It’s a very delicate moment. I expect our engineers to act with determination and know-how, unleashing the maximum of their capacity to improve the performance of the car in a short time. I want Ferrari to be at the level that both we and our fans demand it should be.”
Massa was the driver who was the most pleased with his result, for the second consecutive time he outpaced his team mate Fernando Alonso during the race and finished 15 seconds ahead of the Spaniard. Massa surprised Alonso during the start and overtook him at the first corner, and Alonso could not catch up with him until the first round of pit stops.
Last year it was Massa who struggled with the tyres, this year the Brazilian has no problems with the new Pirellis, and it is now Alonso who doesn’t feel comfortable with the Italian tyres. Massa drove a great race and had to defend his position until the very last lap. “It’s a real shame not managing to finish this race in a better position. It really seems that, from qualifying to the race, we discover another car: yesterday, we were not competitive, today we fought with the leaders right to the end,” he said.
Asked about his tyre strategy his replied: “Unfortunately, on the hard tyres we could not defend position all the way to the end. Now, it’s easy to say that we were not on the right one, but we are a team and we take our decisions together. Vettel made the same choice as us and we had a reasonably similar pace.” Team principal Stefano Domenicali agrees, ”I don’t think it would have changed much if we had done three stops instead of two: when the final result shows such small gaps, some incidents would be enough to make the difference and with hindsight, it is easy to judge.”
Is Mercedes back in contention?
Another star of the show in Shanghai was Mercedes ‘Silver Arrow’s’ driver Rosberg, who was very quick off the line after the lights turned to green, and almost got ahead of Vettel. Rosberg had qualified in fourth place, and it looks the team have finally found the right pace. Mercedes finally scored a double points finish, Rosberg finished in fifth, and Michael Schumacher in eighth position.
Rosberg however, was bitterly disappointed he finished in fifth place. He led the race for 14 laps, but was told by his team to take it easy because his fuel consumption was too high, something that ultimately cost him a podium position, or possibly even a victory. “Leading the race for such a long time was a great feeling. But we had fuel consumption issues which made it really difficult. It was horrible, really horrible,” a disappointed Rosberg told reporters after the race. But he nevertheless remained optimistic about the future, “We could have had a podium finish or maybe more today, but we will learn from this together as a team and make sure that we get the results next time.”
Michael Schumacher, just like Hamilton, enjoyed the race because of the many battles that unfolded on the Shanghai circuit. “That was a lot of racing in one Grand Prix this afternoon and very exciting! I had a lot of fun this afternoon and I'm so pleased to see the hard work of our guys paid off this weekend,” the seven-time world champion said. Team principal Ross Brawn is adamant Mercedes is back in contention again, “We had a very encouraging race today from the point of view of our overall pace and performance. Nico and Michael did a fantastic job in making use of what they had, and our strategy and pit stops were very good.”
But Mercedes is certainly not out of the woods yet, it is true they have improved the car, but qualifying is still a problem for the team. Rosberg qualified in fourth position, but Schumacher again had problems and had to start the race from 14th position. Despite their poor qualifying results, Schumacher and Webber proved last weekend it is possible to finish in a good position. As many other teams, Mercedes has planned a whole range of updates which should again improve the car when the Formula One circus returns to Europe again, and the question whether Mercedes is really back in contention can only be answered after the Turkish Grand Prix.
The other teams
For Lotus Renault the race in China became an anti-climax, after their excellent performance in Australia and Malaysia, the Anglo-French team only scored two points, courtesy to Vitaly Petrov who outpaced his team colleague Heidfeld. Both drivers were on a two-stop strategy, but were not able to repeat their success. Heidfeld had problems with KERS which made it very difficult for him to defend his position, and later on he also struggled with the hard tyres, for Lotus Renault it was just ‘one of those weekends’.
Team Lotus driver Heikki Kovalainen beat Sauber and Williams, not bad for a new team that is still involved in a battle for the name Lotus. “That is our best ever performance. It's not the highest place we've had but today we beat two midfield cars in a straight fight so I am very happy, with my performance and the performance of the whole team,” a happy Kovalainen reported.
Kamui Kobayashi scored one point for the Sauber team, but his team mate Mexican rookie Sergio Perez got involved in an accident with Force India driver Adrian Sutil and finished in 17th place. The incident ruined Sutil’s race, but Sutil, like many other drivers, also struggled with the hard tyres and finished in 15th place. Team mate Scot Paul di Resta was once again faster than the German and finished just outside the points in 11th position. The Indian team is currently investigating why their performance during qualifying is much better than in the race.
No good news from the Williams team either, despite the $15 million support from Pastor Maldonado’s sponsor, the team had a terrible start of the season, which has led to speculations technical director Sam Michael might soon be replaced in an attempt to get the privateer team back on track again.
Both Marussia Virgin drivers Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrosio feared they might not qualify for the Chinese Grand Prix, but were actually two seconds under the 107% qualifying time. Not really a great achievement, but both drivers finished the race without any incidents, although they were also struggling with the hard Pirellis.
Speaking of struggling, that seems to be the hallmark of the Spanish HRT team. At the fast Shanghai circuit both Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan reached their target: they both finished the race, this time without engine problems which had forced them to retire from the Malaysian Grand Prix, and team principal Colin Kolles was happy as his team also closed the gap to their nearest rivals: Marussia Virgin.
Next stop: Istanbul Park
Again one of the surprises of the weekend was the absence of rain, last year the Grands Prix of Australia, Malaysia and China were hit by rain, which provided many thrilling moments, but even without the by Bernie Ecclestone proposed ‘rain button’, the first three races of the season were equally exiting as last year. Again the DRS wing proved its potential, and the fact many drivers told they enjoyed the race because they really had to fight for positions, indicates they are happy about the way the new regulations have improved the sport, not just for the spectators, but also for the drivers.
The Pirelli tyres made the difference during the Chinese Grand Prix, they degrade very fast, and although it is nice to score a pole position on Saturday, teams will have to learn to get the most out of the tyres and manage them in such a way they still have at least two unused sets available for the race. A number of drivers had to use one or more used sets of Pirellis, and found they ran into trouble during the closing stages of the race.
Red Bull has learned an important lesson, they are certainly not invincible, with the next two races in Turkey and Spain taking place on equally fast circuits with long straights and fast corners, the team will have to sort out their KERS woes, if they fail to do so, they now know there is always another team waiting in the wings to take over the lead from Red Bull and Co. Fortunately for Newey and his engineers, they now have three weeks to do just that, the next race will be on May 8 at the Istanbul Park circuit in Turkey.