Lewis Hamilton takes Chinese Grand Prix
Mercedes driver leads from start to finish as Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finishes second
There can be but one winner and in China it was Lewis Hamilton. But Shanghai had a double act in his wake that at times took the breath away.
Hamilton won with another exemplary drive at a circuit where he has enjoyed so much success but behind him the young pretender and a wily world champion were throwing their steeds about with an abandon that will have allayed much of the concern about the new-look Formula One.
Potential flaws in the formula had dominated discussion after the first round in Melbourne and it is still early days, but here any fears that overtaking would prove impossible with the new regulations were given short shrift by an absolutely storming drive from the back by Max Verstappen in the Red Bull to take third and from Sebastian Vettel, who battled back with some show-stopping passes to secure second in the Ferrari.
Vettel and Hamilton are now tied for the world championship on 43 points apiece and that Hamilton was able to win a relatively untroubled race from pole was largely down to the German losing time early on when stuck behind his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen. Ferrari, who had called the race in Australia to perfection, must consider that they were not ruthless enough with team orders to benefit Vettel, who has to be their best shot at the title this season. They had the pace and that we are in for a real fight this year is demonstrated in the constructors’ standings with Mercedes now enjoying the slenderest of leads over the Scuderia - 66 points to 65.
“Thank you so much for all your efforts guys,” said Hamilton. “We really worked hard for this and we are going to keep pushing for sure”. The Mercedes chairman, Niki Lauda, praised his driver and noted that F1 had a proper competition for the title. “Lewis did an incredible job,” he said. “We fought back, the whole team, this has been the perfect second race. There are world champions fighting now which is always good. Lewis made the difference today.”
A damp start on a greasy track saw an early stop for Vettel, who had started from second, under the virtual safety car - giving him a potential advantage as he switched from inters to slick rubber but a full safety car period shortly after benefitted Hamilton and the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, when they promptly pitted. Vettel had been the net loser - he had dropped to sixth by the time racing resumed on lap seven - behind Raikkonen, Ricciardo and stunningly Verstappen who had scythed through the field on the opening lap from 16th on the grid and had made it to third.
Verstappen, still only 19-years-old, has demonstrated his raw talent before, not least in Brazil last season but his confidence, audacity and the excitement he generates when behind the wheel is quite inspiring and just what the sport needs. He had started so far back after a power problem in qualifying and having come through the field and the first round of stops was up to fourth by lap six. After the restart he gloriously swept round the outside of Raikkonen for third. Racing on the supersoft tyres and on an absolute charge, he promptly passed his team-mate up the inside of turn six - the corner would prove popular for passing all race - but this was exceptional stuff.
While he was up to second and Hamilton was just about maintaining control out front with a slender lead of two seconds, the key to the race was in their wake. Ricciardo was complaining of understeer but Raikkonen could not pass him and he was holding up both Ferraris - with Vettel looking eager to get past his team-mate, while Hamilton and Verstappen were extending their lead out front - they were seven seconds clear by lap 15.
Raikkonen had been complaining on team radio with various problems and Vettel was clearly quicker but Ferrari did not pull him over, they had been unlucky how the VSC and safety car fell but this might well have cost them at least a tilt at the win. They have not stated that they would not employ team orders, they have, of course, notoriously done so in the past. Vettel, then, had to break the deadlock. It might have cost him and the team but for the sport and the fans their decision not to use team orders proved spectacular. He passed Raikkonen on lap 20 with some fine late braking, throwing his car up the inside of turn six. He bettered it two laps later, this time going round the outside of Ricciardo, again on six and after brushing wheels, made it stick through the exit - absolutely breathtaking stuff and among a variety of examples in Shanghai that the concerns for overtaking this season may yet be prove to be premature.
He promptly chased down Verstappen and took second place having pressured the Dutch driver who locked up and went long into the hairpin allowing the German through on lap 29. The time stuck behind his team-mate had cost him, however. Hamilton was now 11 seconds up the road.
Vettel pitted for new soft rubber on lap 34 and Hamilton stayed out for three more laps - long enough to ensure he could take new boots and exit ahead of Raikkonen, which was duly accomplished. Raikkonen came in several laps later and Vettel was back in second but still over nine seconds adrift from the leader and he charged but to no avail. Hamilton was managing his rubber and the gap, the German closed but there was too much to do and too little time, he could not overcome the deficit and the British driver took the flag with a 6.2-second second advantage. Verstappen in turn to hold off a determined push from Ricciardo that saw the pair vying with one another through corner after corner in the latter stages - again racing that it was impossible not be enthralled by -but just managed it to claim the final podium spot, with the Australian taking fourth.
Behind them, there had been passing aplenty, Romain Grosjean on Jolyon Palmer was another standout move and encouragingly much of it in braking zones rather than of the breeze-past DRS variety. Two races in and not only does Formula One have a proper fight at the front it looks like it might have delivered the tools to make it a battle royale.
Raikkonen was in fifth, Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes spun trying to keep his tyres warm behind the safety car but having dropped to 12th recovered to secure sixth place. Carlos Sainz did a fine job to secure seventh in the Toro Rosso, with the Haas of Kevin Magnussen in eighth, Force India’s Sergio Pérez in ninth and his team-mate Esteban Ocon in 10th.