Chinese takeaway for Hamilton

With his late move on championship leader Sebastian Vettel, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton snatched a dramatic victory in the Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai. In arguably the best race since the refuelling ban, a variety of tyre strategies played out brilliantly for onlookers as the race swayed back and forth between several contenders, and the top positions weren’t confirmed until the last lap.

On the day of another famous race in London, this also turned out to be a marathon rather than a sprint. Polesitter Vettel had made a poor start and dropped behind both McLarens, with Jenson Button leading Hamilton. But the front round of stops cost both dearly – both drivers’ tyres started to go off, and Button was given priority to stop first by the team, only for the 2009 champion to accidentally drive into the Red Bull pit box, where the mechanics were waiting for Vettel. The delay allowed the German to leapfrog him, and Hamilton’s extra lap on fading tyres meant Vettel was now ahead of both the Woking cars.

However, no one had spotted the progress of Mercedes GP’s Nico Rosberg, who had stopped several laps previously and was able to leapfrog all of them to take the lead. But Rosberg was on a 3 stop strategy, and it seemed like a mirage, despite pulling away from Vettel. That is, however, until it became apparent that the McLarens too were to do 3 stops, meaning a separation between those on 2 and 3 stop strategies as they made their stops – Vettel ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in one group, and Rosberg, Button and Hamilton in the other.

For a while it looked as if Vettel had enough of a gap in his pocket to protect himself from the other contenders when the 3 stoppers came in to put on the hard tyres. But Vettel’s own tyres were several laps older and soon he started losing large chunks of time. Not only that but his nearest contender of the 3 stopping drivers was now the one he feared the most, with Hamilton passing Button and then Rosberg. After dispatching the struggling Massa, he caught Vettel quickly, and despite an aggressive defence from the world champion, Hamilton took the lead with 5 laps to go, which he would keep for the rest of the race.

Further back, there was a wildcard coming into play. Mark Webber had qualified a terrible 18th in Red Bull #2, but after getting his stint on the hard tyres out of the way at the beginning, he began a relentless charge. In the final stint, he had tyres that were both fresher than his rivals’ and the soft compound, which gave him a massive advantage. He passed Massa, Rosberg and, on the penultimate lap, Button to take a sensational 3rd place and a place on the podium with Hamilton and Vettel. If his KERS power boost system had been working and been able to pass drivers sooner, he could even have won it. Hopefully this will help rebuild his confidence after a frustrating end to 2010 and start to 2011.

It was another disappointing race for Fernando Alonso. The man most assumed would lead the Ferrari charge was beaten by his team mate for the second race in a row as he finished down in 7th, and even got caught on the final lap by his old nemesis Michael Schumacher. The 7-time champion enjoyed his best outing of the season so far to finish 8th, a solid drive in the circumstances after qualifying a lowly 14th, as Mercedes got both cars into the points. It wasn’t such a good weekend for midfield rivals Renault, though, with Vitaly Petrov in the leading black-and-gold car in 9th.

They weren’t the only team who disappointed. Toro Rosso couldn’t follow an impressive qualifying with points in the race, with Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari losing a rear wheel after a pit stop and Sebastien Buemi dropping through the field to 14th. Williams were also humiliated, with Pastor Maldonado beaten by Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen. It was another scalp for the improving Norfolk team, piling the misery on the once-dominant team struggling at the tail end of the midfield this year. But there were happier times for Hispania, who managed to get both cars home to the finish, and also Virgin Racing’s Jerome d’Ambrosio, who beat his more experienced team mate Timo Glock.

So, where did this F1 classic come from? Surely, as BBC commentator David Coulthard stated in the closing stages of the race, we have to thank Pirelli. Previous tyre suppliers Bridgestone were very conservative in their approach, but the Italian manufacturer, who arrived this year with a mandate to bring tyres that will create more variety in strategy, have created close to the perfect formula for great racing and great races, along with KERS and the movable rear wing. Let’s hope this continues in Turkey in a fortnight and the rest of the season – because even if Vettel continues to grow a lead over the rest of the field, the races will keep things interesting. After a sluggish start, this F1 season is really coming alive.


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