It was a difficult weekend in Formula 1 with the rain playing havoc, especially with the new cars. These faster, wider cars had yet to been tested under true wet conditions, so it was unexplored territory for all the teams. But Mercedes was clearly up on the pace, with Lewis taking pole position in Shanghai, for the 6th time in his F1 career.
The first four on the starting grid were identical to Australia with Vettel next to Lewis, Bottas in third and Raikkonen starting fourth. Red Bull had once again had a poor qualifying weekend, but at least both its cars on the grid, with Daniel Ricciardo in fifth. Max Verstappen however, had a power problem in qualifying and couldn’t get a second run in in time, so he qualified in 19th place. But due to some grid penalties for Giovinazzi, Grosjean and Palmer, Max started 16th on the grid.
While the track was mostly dry, the start-finish straight was still plenty wet, which is why everyone but Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso had decided to start on the intermediates. Sainz was on the super soft compound but it was a poor call, as was proved when the lights went green and he dropped from 7th on the grid to the end of the pack as he couldn’t get any grip on the wet surface to get his car moving. While both the Mercedes’ had a good start, both Ferraris seemed to struggle to get going, with Lewis pulling away clean, Vettel struggling but just managing to keep Bottas behind by pushing him to the outside line. Kimi lost a position right away to Daniel but stayed on his heels in 5th position. Meanwhile, the rest of the order was trying to get round the first lap without incident and struggling for grip. Unfortunately, Lance Stroll in the Williams had to retire on the first lap after a racing incident with Sergio Perez’s Force India car. Stroll’s incident brought out the Virtual Safety Car and forced many drivers to pit as they couldn’t keep any temperature in the tires making it nigh impossible to find any grip. Another factor was the fact that most of the track was dry so many teams were considering switching from intermediates to the softs, but the race leaders made no moves yet.
There was one person who had a phenomenal start, and it was Max Verstappen. The young Dutchman had moved up from 16th to 7th before the Virtual Safety Car came out. The onboard footage showed his brilliance, driving cleanly and positioning his car perfectly at almost each turn to make his way through the pack, like a lesson in the basics of racing.
At the start of lap 3, Vettel came into the pits to switch to soft-compound tyres while Kimi and the Mercedes’ stayed out on track, and he rejoined the race in 6th place. Meanwhile at the back, as Giovinazzi in the Sauber spun into the pit wall as was coming down the start-finish straight at the end of lap 3, which instantly brought out the safety car. Since the broken Sauber and the debris was on the main straight, all the cars were led by the safety car through the pit lane and it was during these laps that the top 5 drivers too made their tyre changes. Lewis, Bottas and Kimi getting switching to the soft compound tyres, while both the Red Bulls switched to the super-soft compound. On lap 7, still under the safety car, Valterri Bottas’ day got incredibly worse. With everyone struggling to keep the tyres warm to find grip, Bottas was heating up his set when he spun out. Twice. He managed to recover from it but had dropped down to 12th and it wasn’t until the next lap that the safety car pitted and the race resumed.
The rest of the race was without serious incident and Lewis was comfortably in control and leading the race still. Behind him, there was plenty of action at the restart with Raikkonen struggling with some power issues in the Ferrari. He was overtaken by Verstappen who found amazing grip down the inside line and moved into 3rd. Another two laps down, he pulled off another smooth overtake to get past teammate Ricciardo. Vettel meanwhile was in fifth chasing down the leaders eager to catch Lewis who was starting to build on his gap in the lead. Notably, Carlos Sainz had made his way back up to 6th and Bottas was down in 10th by lap 11. I doubt anyone could have expected the order to get shuffled as much as it did in this 2017 Chinese F1 grand prix.
In the following laps, Lewis was steadily building his lead over Max Verstappen, driving smooth in the clean air and looking after his tyres. The battle for third was heating up between Ricciardo in the Red Bull and the Ferraris of Raikkonen and Vettel. It was in these laps that Ferrari was pretty much put out of the contention for victory. The Red Bulls may have more pace but they’d need to pit before the Ferraris. Raikkonen had managed to resolve the power issue somewhat, but was unable to get past Daniel, holding back Vettel in the process and this wasn’t good news for his tyres either.
It wasn’t before lap 20 that Vettel got the inside line on turn 6 to overtake Kimi and set off after Daniel. And sure enough, come lap 22, Vettel made a brilliant move on the same turn, this time going down the outside and banging wheels with Ricciardo as they transitioned into turn 7, but the German was through into 3rd position and gunning for Hamilton’s Mercedes. Meanwhile, Bottas had moved up to 7th.
By lap 29, Vettel was right behind Verstappen who was starting to struggle for grip on his super-soft tyres. Max locked up under heavy braking and lost a bit of grip on the astroturf giving Vettel a free pass to move up to 2nd position. But by now, Lewis had a comfortable lead of over 10 seconds. The following lap, Max came into the pits to put on a fresh set of super-soft tyres to last the remainder of the race and came back on track in 6th, behind Valtteri Bottas whom he passed easily, two laps on. Lap 34 saw Ricciardo come in for his final set of tyres and also some brilliant action down the order. Carlos Sainz, having lost places again after his pit stops, was trying to get past Alonso’s off-pace McLaren. After a quick exchange of positions in and out of the corners, Sainz came out ahead, an exchange that brought on loud cheers from the audience. Sadly for Alonso, that was the last of his race as he had to retire later that lap, due to a broken driveshaft on his dismally unreliable McLaren-Honda F1 car.
Originally, the race engineers of Mercedes and Ferrari had planned to take the soft-compound tyres till the end of the race, but both teams’ drivers were giving clear feedback: not gonna happen. But the question was, who was going to pit first? Would Ferrari be able to pull off another piece of strategic brilliance like in Melbourne to get Vettel out in front or was Lewis already too far ahead? The answer came soon enough as Vettel came in for his last stop on lap 35 while Lewis stayed out on track with Kimi far behind, in second. The only luck for Vettel was to come back on to the track ahead of Max. In fact, Lewis was so far ahead of Kimi, that when he did come in for his last pit stop of the race on lap 37, he rejoined the race still in the lead. A comfortable lead in fact, ahead of the angry Finn who was struggling for grip on those worn out tyres. At this point, it was quite clear that even if Vettel came chasing in max attack mode, Lewis had the pace to finish in first before having to deal with any real challenge from the Ferrari.
Kimi finally came into the pits on Lap 40 for fresh tires, allowing Vettel and the Red Bulls to go ahead. He came out behind Sainz but ahead of Bottas, and it didn’t take him long to get past the Toro Rosso and into 5th. Vettel meanwhile had the hammer down and was closing the gap on Lewis, bringing it down from 14 seconds to eight seconds in just a few laps. Lewis responded by setting the fastest lap of the race and made it clear that he was headed to victory and that Vettel would have to settle for second. Behind them, Max was being caught up by Daniel and battling for the final podium spot.
First and second may have been settled a few laps before the end of the race, but had there been even one more lap to go, the battle for third would have been epic. But it was Max who crossed the chequered flag in third, followed closely by Ricciardo, Raikkonen and Bottas, all within 3 seconds of the Dutchman. A brilliant performance by Max Verstappen then, getting himself and Red Bull their first podium of the 2017 season.
Down the order, Carlos Sainz finished 7th, a good result for Toro Rosso, but it would have been better if Kvyat hadn’t have had to retire due to a mechanical fault. Haas too had a good result with Kevin Magnussen finishing 8th. The last two point scoring positions were secured by Force India, with Perez in 9th and Ocon in 10th. Romain Grosjean brought home his Haas F1 car in 11th position, ahead of the Renault team, Hulkenberg in 12th and Palmer in 13th. Massa, despite his excellent qualifying and starting in 6th, but finished in 14th and the last finisher in 15th was Marcus Ericson in his Sauber. Of the five retirements, two were due to incidents, Stroll and Giovinazzi, the rest due to technical faults. McLaren-Honda was unable to get either of its cars to the finish.
Going into the third race next weekend in Bahrain, Vettel and Hamilton are tied for points at the top of the table with Verstappen in third. The new cars looked promising on the Shanghai circuit, offering much more overtaking excitement than Melbourne, and the fastest racing lap was nearly 4.5 seconds faster than last year. 2017 is building up to be a promising year of competitive racing between Mercedes and Ferrari, between a Brit and a German. Again. I wonder what Niki Lauda is thinking of right now…