Contributor: James Parker, TJ13 on track correspondent
Fernando Alonso claimed his first victory of the 2013 Formula 1 season, and a first for Ferrari since Germany 2012 under glorious Sunshine in China. Commanding from the front, it was a race dominated by many on track incidents – some still raging on into the evening post race.
Rounding off the podium was a sublime drive by Kimi Raikkonen (who had a damaged front wing for 2/3rds of the race) and a fighting performance by Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton who held off the hard charging Vettel in the last 5 laps for 3rd.
The start of the Grand Prix was characterised by two events; the typical fast starting Ferrari’s and a slow starting Raikkonen from P2. Having chosen the wrong clutch bite settings on the formation lap, the Finn found himself with too much drag on the clutch followed by wheelspin, leaving him to be leapfrogged by the Ferrari’s into turn 1 and fighting off Rosberg.
Further down, Button made a solid start and kept Vettel behind him mid pack, whilst his Mexican team-mate Perez had one to forget and found himself jostling for position for 13th, 14th and 15th places.
The highlight of the first lap however was a near catastrophic touch between both Force India team-mates. After challenging Perez into the hairpin, it appeared Sutil did not see Di Resta challenging round the outside on the exit – inevitably Sutil came across and the pair brushed wheels forcing Di Resta off on to the grass. Webber also pitted to get off the soft Pirelli rubber.
By Lap 5 Hamliton was struggling for rear tyres, and led to both Ferrari’s smelling blood at the front of the pack. Coming onto the second of two DRS zones, firstly Alonso and then Massa gained good exits from the final corner and both Ferrari cars jumped Hamilton going into turn 1, Massa showing great commitment.
This was enough proof for Mercedes to bring him and teammate Rosberg in, kick-starting the first pit stop phase. Raikkonen and Alonso followed Hamilton’s lead on the following lap (6) however the big loser in the whole phase was Felipe Massa. Staying out on the softs just 1 lap extra, proved pivotal to his race and he fell back behind Hamliton, Raikkonen and a recovering Webber due to his tyres’ performance falling off the cliff.
The first of the drama, never too far away, was sparked by three separate incidents. Video feed had shown Sutil coming in to the pits with a damaged rear wing, the reason for that still unknown. When replay’s came in however, it showed the Sauber of Guttierez completely miss his brake point, lock up both wheels going into turn 14 (the hairpin) and collect Sutil with him – ending both’s race.
Amongst the first stops, Nico Hulkenberg found himself leading the race ahead of both Vettel and the other medium shod runner of Button thanks to some useful DRS overtakes – the German’s reputation is growing race by race.
On the end of Lap 14, Vettel and Hulkenberg covered each other to make their first stop off mediums. Thanks to a sluggish pit stop by the Sauber boys and being forced to wait for Vettel to cruise past in the pit lane Hulkenberg lost out to Vettel with the German emerging from the pits in front of him.
The second major incident came on lap 15, when going into the awkward turn 4, Webber collected Torro Rosso junior driver Vergne, spinning the Frenchman round. Webber was forced into pitting for a new nose and tyres. It appears Vergne did leave Webber a lot of room however the Aussie did come from an extremely long distance away which must have caught the Torro Rosso man unawares.
The last of the controversial incidents came on the following lap, turn 4 yet again the battlefield and it was this time a clash between the McLaren of Sergio Perez and the Lotus of Raikkonen who had already stopped. On fresher medium tyres, the Finn had a brilliant run out of turn 3, jinked to the outside where he found himself squeezed quite brutally by Perez.
Forced onto the grass, Raikkonen locked up and nudged the back of the McLaren causing end fence and element damage on his front wing. On evaluation it did appear Perez did not leave a “full” car width on the outside when defending and was lucky to escape punishment.
Webber’s race turned from bad to worse on lap 17. The Aussie seemingly cannot even buy luck at the moment, as his second pitstop of the day saw a looses wheelnut cause him to only have 3 wheels on his wagon – he subsequently retired at the hairpin after his left rear made a bid for freedom – conspiracy theorists I am sure will be at work tonight.
Mercedes driver Rosberg had another unlucky weekend. After a hydraulic suspension problem in FP3, he once again found his FRIC system fail on him on Lap 21 in the race – the suspension raising his front wheels off the ground mid corner (now that’s a stiff set-up) and he retired on safety grounds.
Up front, lap 23 saw Jenson Button finally pit after an impressive opening stint. Alonso also followed him in from the lead with both rejoining ahead of the Mercedes of Hamilton. Perez followed his teammate in the following lap, however chose to do a shorter middle stint on the softer compound tyres – trying something different with strategy.
Alonso and Ferrari looked supreme and easily flew past Button’s McLaren shortly after rejoining from the pits. Button then found himself hunted by his ex teammate Hamilton. Trying to make a two stop strategy pay off, he radioed in to the team to ask if he was racing Hamilton – something which the McLaren pitwall duly clarified. But the Mp4-28’s clear lack of race pace was soon evident, as on lap 29, Lewis had a fantastic run out of the long turn 13 onto the back straight and made a pass stick.
Lap 31 saw the leading Red Bull of Vettel come in for his second stop of the afternoon (thanks to an early stop on lap 14), meaning Alonso re-inherited his lead. Rejoining behind the squabbling Massa and Hulkenberg in 8th, the German had a lot of work to do.
It did not take long however for the 3 times WDC to show his class however, and on fresher tyres he easily passed both Massa (into turn 6) and Hulkenberg (round turn 13) to be promoted to 6th. Raikkonen also pitted for another stint on the medium compound tyre in an attempt to undercut Hamilton ahead – still showing no signs of a lack of pace even with a broken front wing.
Vettel then found himself cruising up to the back of Jenson Button, who was struggling for tyres and then added another notch to his overtaking book by passing him on lap 37. On the same lap Hamilton was brought in by Mercedes in order to try and secure 2nd place. The team was far too slow in reacting to Raikkonen’s pace on fresher tyres however and Hamilton rejoined some 3 seconds behind the Finn with a Torro Rosso in-between.
The order remained fairly constant over the next 5 laps until lap 41 when Ferrari brought Alonso in for his 3rd and final stop on the medium compound tyres. Boasting a lead well into the late 20’s, the Spaniard rejoined comfortably back in the lead ahead of Button, Vettel and the squabbling Raikkonen and Hamilton.
With his medium tyres almost shot, Button pitted on lap 49, with the prospect of 8 laps on the softer tyre and some clean air to recover his position. Rejoining behind the Ferrari of Felipe Massa in 6th place, it did not take him long to switch on the soft compound and with the help of a DRS boost down the backstraight he easily passed the Brazilian going into Turn 14.
Ahead however was where the real race was starting to brew. RedBull hung on to around lap 51 before bringing Vettel in for his final stop on the soft compound tyre from 2nd. Rejoining in 4th place, from then on, the RedBull man turned into a man on a mission during the final 5 laps.
Somehow getting his soft tyres to remain in the operating window, he posted a fastest lap of 1.36.8 on his way to smashing a 13 second deficit down to around 2 seconds in 4 laps.
On the final lap traffic ahead in the form of the Caterham of Van Der Garde, saw Vettel close up even further to the Mercedes of Hamilton – who at this point had no tyres left. Pushing hard however, Vettel missed his braking point going into turn 12 and lost ground.
Still maintaining a second gap he benefitted from DRS down the backstraight, however was not close enough to challenge Hamilton into the final corner and subsequently finished just two tenths off the podium in 4th.
Up front Alonso was simply a man on another planet, taking victory easily by over 10 seconds. Raikkonen was in my opinion the driver of the day, driving 40 laps with a broken front wing yet still managing to finish on the podium in 2nd – the balance in the Lotus was hugely biased towards under steer thereafter so it was a phenomenal effort. 3rd was a happy Hamilton, who admitted the Mercedes just doesn’t have the raw pace to match the top 3 at this point in time.
4th was the hard charging Vettel who maintains his lead at the top of the championship by 4 points, and will be happy with his recovery.
Although finished nearly 30 seconds down, Button should be happy too with 5th, it shows McLaren are making progress – even if it is slow.
6th was Massa who completely disappeared mid race. My view is that the first pitstop, which saw him drop to 6th from 2nd due to staying out too long on the softs, really hampered his race. One can only think how disappointed he will be seeing his team-mate go on to claim victory.
7th was a magnificent Daniel Ricciardo, and with it, his best finish in Formula 1 to date. He had a quiet race yet got on with the business in hand. His Red Bull stock must be rising as well and with the possibility of Webber leaving Red Bull at the end of the year this is surely on his mind.
8th was a recovering Di Resta who claimed his race was plagued by traffic issues, alongside his clash with team-mate Sutil.
9th was a struggling Grosjean who appears to be struggling with confidence. Although Lotus have said traffic and tyre issues destroyed his race during the middle stint, the Frenchman does not seem to be showing the same fiery natural speed he did in 2012.
Finally rounding out the top 10 was Hulkenberg who impressed by leading the race early on, however his final stint completely destroyed his chances of 8th, as his pace dropped off hugely.
A special mention also to rookie Valtteri Bottas who finished ahead of his team-mate Maldonado in 13th and 14th to cap off another bittersweet weekend for Williams.
Penalties and Final Thoughts
The race was marred with drama and it has been clarified post race that both Guttierez and Webber will receive grid penalties for Bahrain due to causing an avoidable collision. The Mexican was given a 5-place grid penalty for his incident with Sutil and Webber a 3-place penalty for his collision with Vergne, topping of a rather miserable weekend for the Aussie.
Red Bull were also fined for unsafe release, releasing Webber with only 3 wheels properly attached on his RB9. As mentioned in the Judge’s report, the FIA announced it would take no further action on the DRS related investigations that involved numerous drivers.
It leaves me to say Bahrain is set to be even more intriguing than China. Lotus were the fastest team at Sakhir last season and the E21 looks to thrive off the hotter temperatures much like its predecessor. It is very much a point and squirt circuit that the car looks to enjoy which surely means Kimi will be once again fighting for victory.
His drive in China epitomised the man in my opinion and to finish ahead of both Hamilton and Vettel with a damaged front end paid testament to his performance.
Vettel will surely hope tyre degradation does not affect the RB9 as much in Bahrain as it did in China. It appears the aggressive camber they run on the car does mean they run the risk of overheating and then blistering the tyres to a much greater degree than other teams.
Mercedes will still want to continue their progress, however has the FRIC suspension shown the first signs of teething problems this season? Ferrari and Alonso will surely arrive in Bahrain full of confidence and they appear to have found a fantastic balance when it comes to a strong race car.
Well that is all from me, I will be back for Bahrain but in the meantime, thank you for reading.