Ferrari simply didn’t have the pace to challenge Mercedes at the Chinese GP, whether they attacked, defended, swapped or blocked. And with Red Bull not fulfilling all of their potential at the moment this created a rather ordinary race up front.
As the famous five red lights extinguished Lewis Hamilton’s first job in the GP, from second on the grid, was to balance the throttle pedal and clutch lever for the best launch with minimal wheelspin. He did this to great effect and the race was effectively his in the first few hundred meters.
Valtteri Bottas, from pole position, had some wheelspin as he crossed a white painted line in front of his grind slot and was probably lucky to remain in second by the exit of the T1/2/3/4 complex.
Behind him Sebastian Vettel had the better start but in avoidance of the struggling Mercedes lost out to his team-mate Charles Leclerc, who sliced up the inside to seize third place.
This would set the scene for some uncomfortable decisions on the Ferrari pitwall.
Behind, the pack were largely well behaved until the Turn Six hairpin when Danny Kvyat corrected a slide to an extent into the path of Carlos Sainz’s McLaren, which in turn was heading into a wedge formed by his team-mate Lando Norris returning to the race track.
Kvyat has a reputation which may have harmed him here.
He did marginally lose control of his car which walked him towards Sainz, and it did skittle both McLarens, but a drive-through penalty was harsh. It was after all the opening lap with other mitigating circumstances, and you could argue this one either way for a good while.
I believe a five or 10-second penalty at his pit stop might have been more reasonable. A 21-second drive-through at the beginning of the race putting you at the back of the pack is doubly painful.
The big question here is whether the third-party consequences and resulting car damage of an error should impact on the scale of the penalty? That’s luck of the draw and there’s a more general ‘let them race and sort it out amongst themselves’ these days, but as I’ve said many times you have to have rules and a referee in all sports.
Which of course involves human interpretation and actions, and the Stewards have a lot of information and precedents to consider.
A general perception was that Vettel and his set up was the faster Ferrari in Shanghai, and so when he ended up in the slipstream of Leclerc in the sister car, with the Mercs pulling away up front, the team had to do something about it.
They ordered Leclerc to let him through which of course is humiliating and frustrating for the young Monegasque, and especially galling after car reliability robbed him of a glorious victory two weeks earlier. They mustn’t harm his credibility and paint him as a support act, that’s damaging psychologically and reputation wise, and isn’t easy to reverse.
If you were tuned into my commentary you’d know that I’d already suggested this may happen and I’d have done the same thing from how it all appeared. But, once past, Vettel didn’t have any more pace and proceeded to regularly lock his tyres up under braking.
That’s when it became clear that the Ferraris were staying in touch with each other only through the DRS rear wing available to the following car, and the switch only served to put Leclerc towards the clutches of the watching Max Verstappen.
Ferrari have been remarkably open and frank about how they will handle team orders this season, with a bias towards the more experienced Vettel if required. This was presumably to avoid some of the mistakes and dramas in recent years which created significant criticism and pressure.
But it won’t defuse or solve the problem because Leclerc is every bit the match for Vettel and he’s his own man despite his tender years.
A later Leclerc radio call ended in a slightly sarcastic ‘if you’re interested to know…’. I fully expect he’d still rather be a frustrated Ferrari driver than a happy Sauber/Alfa Romeo driver, but this will come to a head at Ferrari sooner than later and will become acrimonious.
Leclerc’s ‘no man’s land’ first pit stop consigned him to fifth place behind Verstappen.
Red Bull have an engine upgrade for Baku and a major aero upgrade for Barcelona, which can’t come soon enough. Pierre Gasly had a better day in sixth in his Red Bull with a late fastest lap championship point for both driver and team, but he was still a long way behind Verstappen which leaves the team with one hand tied behind their backs tactically. They’ll only tolerate that so long, which leaves Pierre with some fast tracking to do.
Daniel Ricciardo had his best weekend yet for Renault in seventh, but to balance that, with no safety car to close the pack at any point (there was a short virtual safety car), he finished a lap behind and with Sergio Perez on his tail. With Nico Hulkenberg in the sister Renault once again having reliability issues, and both McLaren-Renaults in the wars, this was a Chinese GP to largely forget.
Alex Albon had a great race for Toro Rosso from the pit lane for the final championship point in 10th. His pit lane start was self inflicted after his heavy practice crash, which he had the good sense to take all the blame for. But he’s making quite an impression and was voted driver of the day.
The three new youngsters Norris, Russell and Albon intrigue me.
They appear to be well educated, well spoken, polite, intelligent young men who get the job done. They are supremely well prepared for life in F1, but I guess I’m just more used to hardened and edgy street fighters as rivals, although these guys are not shy of high-speed combat.
I thought Kimi Raikkonen did a great job for Alfa Romeo too, with plenty of overtakes and continuing his Peter Pan approach to being comfortably the oldest driver in F1. Impressive.
We collectively made quite a song and dance around the world about the 1000th championship race, but in many ways it was a pity it fell in China and not Europe. We only had a sole Graham Hill Lotus 49 beautifully driven by Damon Hill, and a small collection of show cars, overalls and helmets in the vast paddock. It would have been nice to see a lot more classic F1 cars and ex drivers on track. They exist and they run.
Presumably the 2000th F1 race will be contested by levitating solar powered creations crafted from unobtanium and controlled by 12-year-olds residing on Mars. But meanwhile I’d appreciate it if someone could take the fight to Mercedes in a good old-fashioned analogue way.
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After three 1-2s and comfortably leading both championships, their double-stack pitstop to cover off any safety car risk towards the end of the race simply underlined their control and confidence.
Can anyone dent that?
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