Just about the only thing that was predictable for the 14th running of the Chinese grand prix is that Lewis Hamilton started from pole position alongside the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel while Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen locked out the second row of the grid.
Friday’s running at the Shanghai International Circuit was abandoned due to weather conditions prohibiting the medical helicopter from landing at the designated hospital in Shanghai. It meant that teams and drivers entered into Sunday’s race with only the data and knowledge of the one-hour final practice session and whatever number of laps they completed in qualifying.
The weather conditions on Sunday were best described as dank as the field started the race on intermediate tyres. The only exception to this was Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso who opted to start the race on the dry, supersoft tyre, much to this dismay of his engineers. While the circuit was wet in some parts it was drying quickly in others and the intermediates were discarded within four laps.
A virtual safety car was deployed for the recovery of Lance Stroll’s Williams, which had been dumped off the circuit by Sergio Perez. It is at this point that Ferrari decided to call Sebastian Vettel into the pits for a change of boots. Unfortunately, a full safety car would be deployed shortly after to clear the heavily damaged Sauber of Antonio Giovinazzi. This afforded race leader Hamilton a free pitstop while Vettel was stuck behind a Verstappen/Ricciardo/Raikkonen train.
While Vettel launched a bid for recovery, Hamilton was comfortable at the front and without any real pressure, he could control his pace. The cooler temperatures also played into Mercedes’ hand as it means less tyre degradation.
Despite finishing second to Hamilton, Vettel delivered a telling performance in the Ferrari. Take into account that Hamilton had a free pitstop under the safety car, and factor in that Vettel lost a good amount of time behind the Ricciardo train. The fact that he finished only six seconds off Hamilton indicates that Ferrari had a car that could’ve won the race.
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen brilliantly recovered his race and went from sixteenth to finish third ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo in fourth. The sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen finished in a frustrated fifth. While the Finn struggled through the race with an intermittent power issue, the Ferrari pit wall compounded his frustration by calling an absurd strategy. Their inexplicable decision left Raikkonen out while all the front-running drivers made their stops while the driver was adamant that the tyres would not make it to the end of the race. From the radio messages, it was clear that Raikkonen had to force the issue and he eventually pitted, what was ten laps too late.
There weren’t a high a number of overtakes in this year’s race but what we did see were several pretty spectacular overtakes. There were two from Vettel, one on his own teammate, and one around the outside of Daniel Ricciardo. There were several from Max Verstappen too and an especially spicy one from Romain Grosjean around the outside of turn two on Felipe Massa. The point is that while there weren’t a 100 passes, there were genuine and very bold overtakes that came about as a result of some driver heroics instead of being aided by DRS.
While conditions flattered Red Bull on the day Valtteri Bottas did not cover himself in glory as he spun out of contention early on. The Finn eventually finished sixth. Sainz, who had started the race on supersofts, drove brilliantly to recover from an early spin and finish a spectacular seventh. Kevin Magnussen delivered Haas’ first points of the season in eighth ahead of the two Force India’s of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon in ninth and tenth.
Neither McLaren saw the chequered flag as first Stoffel Vandoorne retired with a fuel-pressure issue and later Fernando Alonso pulled off the track with a driveshaft failure.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel head to the Bahrain Gp this weekend equal on 43 points. The hotter temperatures in Bahrain will boost Ferrari’s challenge in what is sure to be an enthralling battle with Mercedes.