It was a hot afternoon in Shanghai, blue skies with the sun hammering down on spectators and teams alike. Mr E prowled the pit lane like a demented gerbil chasing down errant Team Principals. Sainz and Kvyat elected to start on the Prime Tyre. Not to be out done, Ricciardo went with a brand new engine, his 3rd for the year.
At the end of the parade lap Lewis came to the line pointed at an extremely acute angle, clearly targeting his teammate.
Lights out saw a clean and fast start by both Mercedes, with Hamilton able to maintain his position. Further back, Raikkonen was able to get around both Williams through the first set of turns, latching onto Vettel’s gearbox as the race began to unwind, setting the stage for a strategic battle between Mercedes and Ferrari.
Further back it was Ricciardo, with his brand new engine, who had forgotten which pedal to press, dropping down to 17th by the time he made T1 and valiantly carrying on the Australian tradition of poor starts.
For the second race running, it was Ferrari behaving mischievously. Staying close early days they tried the undercut, and threw Vettel back out on the Options, which prompted Mercedes to follow suit. The Mercedes showed no inclination to chew through its tyres though, but the real damage was done when Rosberg found himself stuck between an approaching Vettel and a tyre saving Hamilton. After a few back and forths on the radio, Lewis picked up the pace after being instructed to by Mercedes, but not sufficiently as the team were forced to pit Rosberg first to protect him from Vettel’s undercut.
The switch to the Medium tyre put paid to Ferrari’s hopes, however, as they simply were not as fast as Mercedes on the harder tyre. And the longer the stint the more pronounced the Arrow’s advantage.
Thankfully, the drama between the two Mercedes teammates continued all the way through the presser and post race interviews, with Rosberg convinced Hamilton had done him over on purpose and Lewis unable to keep a straight face when interviewed about it, though maintaining he was well within his rights to run his race at the front and that Nico should have come at him, bro, if he’d wanted more speed. Pass the popcorn as they say on the intertubez, this should be entertaining.
Meanwhile it was left to the midfield to take care of the actual racing and they did so with little prodding. Grosjean came out the big winner, pulling the first points of the year and proving that if he isn’t run into, he can do a decent job, at one point even running with the Williams. His teammate was less lucky, after having a bit of a scruffy race including overshooting the pit lane exit rather spectacularly and having a bit of a spin, he wound up getting taken out by Button after a spate of fantastic driving by the both of them as they battled back and forth, as Button left his nose a little too far alongside into T1.
The Saubers, too, featured heavily in the midfield battle as P10 was a hot commodity and viciously fought over the entire race. At the end of the day it was multiple encounters between Ericsson and Ricciardo that dominated a fair bit of the TV show, as pit strategy kept them rubbing up against each other. Although the Australian eventually got the better of the Swede going P9 to Ericsson’s P10, it was great value for unit of currency as they settled the matter.
Verstappen, too, delivered great value as he put on an overtaking clinic, at least until his engine blew up most magnificently 2 laps from the finish, bringing out the Safety Car and prematurely ending the race. This, much to the disappointment of Kimi fans as he was hauling Vettel in at a rate that would have given him a real shot to overtake before the checkers fell. It was not a total loss, as the spectacle of the marshals trying to get the car through the gate and onto pit lane resembled an epically bad attempt to parallel park a car in too small a spot. Eventually the Toro Rosso mechanics were allowed to remove the nose, but not before the race hit the final lap under the Safety Car, meaning no overtaking would be allowed under the regulations.
Verstappen was not the only Renault engine to bite the dust, Kvyat caught on fire rather nicely on lap 16, which would make it 3 each now for both Kvyat and Ricciardo. Sainz too had a forgettable race, best characterised by the shot of him trundling down the back straight trying desperately to grab a gear, before the gearbox finally decided to work again.
Hulkenberg’s day ended early as well with a gearbox issue, and Perez 3 stopper did not wind up paying dividends as the best he could manage was 11th. Manor made their first 2 car finish and due to Verstappen’s retirement, they wound up taking P15 and P16, with Stevens ahead of his teammate, Merhi.
McLaren finished, which was a massive improvent, and P12 and P13 not bad, though Jenson will likely get dinged for his incident with Maldonado. Williams’ race was basically over in the first lap, with Massa ultimately getting the better of Bottas and Raikkonen getting ahead of the both of them. A bit ominous, the dice with Grosjean, as Bottas was told he finished ahead of some “faster” cars at the end of the race.
All in all a supremely interesting race, even though the switch to the Medium tyre revealed Ferrari’s weakness relative to the Mercedes. Ferrari’s use of strategy is a breath of fresh air in the season and it is only to be hoped that they can continue to develop the car to the point where they can mount a real challenge to Mercedes. Lotus seems to have made a big step, when driven in between the lines at least, and Williams will be scrambling for answers as they seem to be falling away from the front end and into the clutches of the midfield. Renault will not be having a good time of it in their post race meetings and the only question now is exactly how many engine penalties will the Red Bull drivers be racking up.
Hamilton hit the line at the end of the parade lap aimed at Rosberg at an unusually extreme angle. When the lights went Mercedes flew off the line with Hamilton easily leading Rosberg into T1. Bottas, Massa Raikkonen Ericsson all with good starts as well. There was some nice driving as Raikkonen got past both Williams Contact around T4 as Verstappen and Kvyat came together twice in the general melee. Bottas got round Massa, but Massa took the spot back by the end of the lap. Ricciardo had issues at the start and plunged to 17th whilst at the other end, Lewis had pulled out a gap of over 1s by time he hit the start/finish for the 2nd lap.
Sainz spun the car in a very rookie looking error. Kvyat and Ricciardo occupied P13 and P17, likely not the original plan as Kvyat was having no luck with Prime tyre.
Maldonado took 9th from Ericsson. Ricciardo advanced to 15th
Hamilton continued to dangle just outside DRS.
Rosberg continued inching closed the gap with Hamilton. Perez went P13 as the Ferrrari’s held the gap to 2s back of Mercedes. Ricciardo up to Kvyat, who held him up due to different tyres
Battle between Kvyat and Ricciardo continued to rage with Alonso joining in the fun. Grosjean P7, Nasr P8, Maldonado P9, Ericsson P10 for the moment
Mercedes was still running low 1:44’s and Ericsson defended against Verstappen. Maldonado continued the assault on Nasr as Ferrari began losing losing 0.5s a lap to Mercedes. Maldonado finally got by Nasr in T14.
Ferrari dropped to 4-6s back of Mercedes compared to Williams 10-12. Clear difference between Ferrari/Mercedes and rest. Verstappen passes Ericsson most aggressively, with a bit of contact. No doubt will be following JPM to NASCAR when he gets old enough.
Boom out of race went the Incredible Hulkenberg. His Gearbox checked out and ordered a pizza. He cleverly ditched the car out of the way so yellows flew but no more
Nasr pitted during local yellow while Ricciardo radioed in, wanting off the option tyre.
Maldonado in as pits get busy.
Hamilton turned a new fast lap. Grosjean and Verstappen both pitted and out with the Prime tyre.
Vettel boxed for the under cut, onto Options. Massa followed suit to cover. Further back Perez grabbed a place from Sainz, who had started on Prime tyre.
After a bit of an excited radio call (Merc, changing strategy on the fly, tingles) Hamilton pitted and emerged onto Options for his next stint. Bottas chose Mediums as on track Grosjean belted past Kvyat. Rosberg called in for Options next lap and Maldonado got the better of Kvyat as well.
As promised Rosberg serviced for Options and out in front of Vettel, but Vettel was definitely on it, gained about a second through the undercut. Then, with no warning save the rest of the season, Kvyat’s engine let go in a massive plume of smoke.
The struggle for P9-12 continued to entertain with Nasr, Verstappen, Perez and Ericsson being the prime mischief makers on track
Hamilton turned a slow lap as the telly turned to Button overtaking Alonso. Not much in it as they were on different tyres much.
Rosberg complained about too much radio traffic. Mercedes Race Engineers developing PTSD about race calls. Verstappen was giving Nasr the business
Verstappen passed Nasr at T14 with a neat little move, that also appeared a bit suicidal should the opponent or his brakes not cooperate.
Rosberg complained about being stuck in Hamilton-Vettel sandwich, with Lewis tyre saving backing him into Vettel. Mercedes asked Hamilton to hit 43.7’s and he responded, though how delayed radio message was not clear.
Ricciardo put in a brief rallycross practice but then got right back to passing Ericsson, or at least attempting to.
The rarely sighted Manors put in an appearance in TV commentary, with Stevens getting the nod for climbing into P17. Raikkonen demonstrated his pace, turning a 1:43.257.
Sainz with a mystery gearbox issue crawled down the straight before the software decided to cooperate again.SAI crawling at start of back straight. Hamilton continued to pick up the pace
All about the tyres this season as following closely seems to creat more degradation than last season. Possibly related to new nose and aero rules.
Ricciardo into P13 has caught up Ericsson again.
Ricciardo got Ericsson through the first turn complex then went wide, letting him right back through. The Swede may be many things, but he needed no engraved invitation to walk through the door that Ricciardo held open. Hamilton was told to up his target to 43.3’s or Rosberg would get first dibs on pit to cover off Vettel undercut.
Ricciardo in catch up mode, still chasing Ericsson
Vettel’s times started to drop and Ricciardo finally passed Ericsson for P11, all over again.
Vettel asked to go faster. Replies he’s “on the limit”. Push and Box was the answer
Vettel out on the Medium tyre as Mercedes are forced to box Rosberg first to cover undercut. Hamilton, not wanting to get undercut by Rosberg, decides to see exactly what was left in his tyres. Turns out to be a 1:42.208, fast lap of the race
Rosberg out in front of Vettel and immediately into traffic. No songs from Vettel this time round, however. Perez got round Button for P12 as the marshals were on it and waved Blue Flags for Sainz.
Hamilton, looking like he could go a few more if necessary, told to box.
Grosjean, Verstappen and Hamilton all came in. With the track temperature having dropped down to 43°C, Mediums were behaving better.
Maldonado boxed as well, but missed his braking rather severely, ending up in the access road and needing a push back out to get to the pits.
Raikkonen having run longer to have a good run at Vettel on fresher tyres, is finally brought in for fresh boots. Hamilton having nothing better to do, complains about his seat feeling warm again.
Bottas and Alonso boxed as Maldonado worked on some rally skills, sliding sideways off track before getting it pointed the right direction and carrying on.
The slow tick tock of the upfront battle carried on as Ricciardo hit the pits for his last stop
Verstappen in his quest to become a one man highlight reel, caught Perez and started reeling him in.
Slow grind continued for Verstappen as his engine’s lack of power was doing him no favor against the Force India.
Time for some Mario Kart tricks as the frontrunners were all in their own little bubbles of time.
Thankfully Verstappen passed Perez and Maldonado continued to build his rallying CV, this time with a Ken Block special, driving sideways. Rosberg was making very slow progress on Hamilton and the Ferrari boys were nowhere on the Medium tyre, losing steady time to Mercedes.
Nasr decided to join the party as well, nabbing Perez down the Start/Finish straight.
Raikkonen began to make good use of his fresher tyres, making a move towards Vettel that looked very promising. Alonso’s strategy too seemed to be paying off as he had reeled Button back in.
Time for one more round of the Ricciardo/Ericsson show as Danny boy had once again encountered the Sauber on track. Perez finally dove into the pits as the back and forth struggle went on, with Ericsson having held on for the moment.
Nice battle through the T1 complex finally ended with the Red Bull getting the better of Sauber through T6.
As with his last stint, Hamilton has stemmed the bleeding and started to pull the gap back out from Rosberg. Meanwhile, Raikkonen showed every sign of being able to catch Vettel before the end of the race with his newer tyres.
Maldonado and Button both lapped by Vettel going from T14 through Start/Finish.
Bad timing for Raikkonen as he’s forced to get by through the T1 complex, giving Vettel a little extra breathing room.
Fantastic fight through 3-4 turns with Maldonado and Button. Maldonado getting Button through the hairpin but Button using DRS to reclaim the position, whilst Alonso lingered in background.
Alonso now right on top of Maldonado, who patiently was reeling Button back in.
And again the epic battle for P13-P15 commenced. As expected, it all ended in tears headed to T1. But the big surprise was it was Jenson getting over eager (and ultimately penalized) and taking Pastor out. The even bigger surprise was Alonso was still in the race to take advantage. Though both combatants got their steeds rolling again, Maldonado’s wound was fatal, and he retired with failing brakes the following lap.
Raikkonen was now within 2s of Vettel and closing at a couple of tenths a lap.
Raikkonen to 1.5s on Vettel and stealthily moving in.
Hamilton ran a 1:43.0, keeping himself out of Rosberg’s sights.
Winter was coming, in the form of a phlegmatic Finnish driver, though his recent adventures in traffic (“Get that McLaren out of the way”) made him seem a bit choleric in the actual race. Fans everywhere chewed nails and invoked the lesser gods of Maranello.
And then the Safety Car deployed. Boo.
Verstappen’s engine had decided to eat itself on the Start/Finish, leaving him nowhere to park out of the way, though he did try to get close to one of the gates before the entire chassis erupted in flames.
On the bright side, there seemed to be a silly new light bar on the Safety Car, which did not have the look of improving its aero or balance one bit.
There was also total chaos trying to get Verstappen’s car to the pitlane, once it was very thoroughly extinguished. Try as they might, the marshals couldn’t get the car to turn steeply enough because the steering rack didn’t let them cut the wheels sharply enough given the proximity to the wall.
Entertaining though it was, it was a pale substitute for the on track battle that had been brewing.
As the pack flashed round for the last lap, the Toro Rosso mechanics were finally in a position to get their hands on the car and removed the nose, making the whole process quicker. Perhaps it’s time for a rethink of the rules regarding car recovery. In any event, with the car not being out of the way the race finished, not with a bang, but with a whimper under the Safety Car. Well, OK, technically with a bang and a whimper but regardless, due to Shumacher’s creative argumentation under a similar situation in Monaco, the possibility of passing between the Safety Car in and the finish line was prohibited under the regs.
Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton on his win, as well as for surpassing both Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark in laps lead, moving himself up to 6th all time.
Congratulations also to Ferrari and in particular Vettel, whose impish sense of humour will no doubt see him egg on the incipient drama at Mercedes, as his post race presser already demonstrated.
Join us next week for coverage of Bahrain at a much more reasonable hour, though one that precludes any whiskey sipping. On this side of the pond, at any rate.