Ambient 22° Track 29° Humidity 37% Wind 3.1 m/s
Alonso v Herbert and Take Two for the Quali revamp dominated the pre race circus. As twilight descended on the desert, the eyes of the media shifted to the start and whether or not Mercedes’ clutch would once again enliven the proceedings.
Well, once again the formation lap provided all sorts of entertainment as this week it was Sebastian Vettel’s turn to not finish the race as his engine did a fantastic imitation of a smoke machine on the formation lap. AS the cars settled into the grid what appeared to be Mercedes strongest competitor rolled off the track and looking for all the world to be yet another boring Mercedes’ 1-2.
Fortunately for race fans, Valterri Bottas had other ideas. As the lights went out yet again Lewis Hamilton had a wretched start, with Nico’s better, but not by much. Bottas on the other hand nailed it and as Hamilton went wide into T1 to avoid Rosberg’s rear end, Bottas tried to slide up the inside. There simply wasn’t enough time or space for him to claim the apex and as Lewis swung across to claim his line Bottas was unable to brake in time and punted Lewis halfway across the track, damaging both their cars. The stewards called it on Bottas and handed him a stop and go to boot. Technically the onus is on the overtaker, but reality is similar situations have also been ruled racing incidents and opinion was split amongst the commentariat.
Regardless, the race was on for real as Raikkonen, also having had a less than stellar start chased down Ricciardo for P5 and Hamilton found himself P7 at the end of the first lap. The William’s slotted into P2 and P3 with the wounded and soon to be penalized Bottas trailing his teammate Massa. Grosjean had a good start up to P6 and the prospects for the HaasF1 team brightened considerably, which was necessary as it wasn’t long before Gutierrez was forced to retire his car, this time for brake failure.
The mental behaviour continued in the opening laps, with Perez and Sainz both suffering contact as carbon fibre began to litter the track. Jolyon Palmer was forced to retire as well, a shame given his drive at Melbourne, as the scrap for the midfield began to hot up in anticipation of DRS being activated.
A mistake from Ricciardo on lap 6 opened the door for Raikkonen and Kimi wasted no time in dusting the Red Bull. Having cleared Danny Boy, Kimi managed to track Bottas down the next lap as Button rolled to a stop with a mechanical failure of some sort, surprising absolutely no one at all. Lewis, meanwhile had been on the move, and had managed to reclaim P4 from Bottas by the 8th lap, which became P3 as Massa rolled into the pits at the end of the lap. This also promoted Grosjean to P5. AS the pit stop cascade started there was a brief moment where Pascal Wehrlein was running P8, happy days indeed for Manor.
Van Doorne provided some solace for Macca fans as he actually managed to pass Hulkenberg and the McHonda began to show some signs of life in actual racing.
AS the leaders rolled into the pits, Grosjean managed to hop out in P9 and elected to carry on with the Super Softs, whereas Mercedes double stacked Rosberg and Hamilton, sending them out on the Soft and Medium respectively. This proved to be a real turning point, as the Mediums were nowhere and Raikkonen, having gone for the undercut, chose the softs as well. What’s slightly surprising is Mercedes had 4 laps of the Williams to look at and still chose to gamble on the Mediums for Lewis. Kimi’s undercut brought him within 5s of Rosberg and the time Lewis lost in this stint would prove unbridgeable due to the lost performance of his damaged car.
Again, the rest of the field stepped up with a tremendous amount of racing as the sharp end settled into their rhythm. Perez and Van Doorne had a fantastic early race scrap and Romain Grosjean put on a veritable clinic of overtaking with his tyre advantage. During his second stint he executed beautiful moves on both Massa and Ricciardo. Verstappen played a much better game this week, banging home a sweet move on Massa as well.
AS Rosberg swanned around in front, Magnussen, Wehrlein and Nasr fought brutally over P14-11 in the second stint. Ricciardo kicked off the 2nd round of stops as Toro Rosso compounded Sainz’ misery by providing him with a terrible stop that saw his car fall off the jacks.
Lots of action post stops, but it was Van Doorne in a Williams sandwich that saw plenty of camera time. It was a race for Stoffel to get Bottas’s DRS before Massa could get him and he won it, for a few laps till Bottas slid over and blocked him before heading to the pits, letting Massa by. Thus Felipe picked up 2 spots while Van Doorne netted no improvement.
Mercedes and Ferrari opted to go for used Super Softs, with Mercedes starting things this time on lap 39 by bringing Lewis in to ditch the underperforming Mediums. Making clear their priorities, Ferrari answered immediately bringing Kimi in and mirroring Lewis’ strategy, showing zero interest in taking the fight to P1.
While this was going on, Wehrlein rocked an amazing pass on Ericsson and Grosjean emerged on Soft tyres good to the end of the race. Crucially, he got out just metres in front of Van Doorne, allowing him to get right on the back of Kvyat, who was trying desperately to make up for the image of Verstappen blowing past him earlier in the race by passing everyone else he could get his hands on. Not good for Boy Danii as Young Max looks increasingly likely to get that promotion to the senior team.
With the sharp end looking settled as Hamilton was able to make no inroads on Kimi thanks to his wounded car and the damage done thanks to the underperforming Medium tyres, the only real question was Rosberg’s brakes, which were giving no sign at all of being problematic as his sparkling drive continued untroubled by the slings and arrows of outrageous Williams.
Ricciardo also led the way on the last round of stops at the front, forced onto Mediums for the last laps to satisfy the 2 compounds rule. Sensibly the rest of the top 3 took the Softs on board and after a lap or 2 it was obvious that it was status quo to the end of the race.
Having suffered a long stint on the Mediums, Verstappen was given a set of Super Softs to play with for the end of the race, which he was happy to take maximum advantage of. Grosjean on the Softs, too was forced to carve his way past Massa to regain P5 and Verstappen made Williams day slightly worse by also getting by the Brazilian to claim P6 for Toro Rosso.
Magnussen and Ericsson battled to the finish as well, with Magnussen eventually coming better, and props to Renault for a bit of post quali redemption. Kvyat and Bottas banged up some wheels before Kvyat took the Finn wide into the exit of T3 and set his sites on Massa a bit up the road, a battle that would see them almost unlap themselves on a coasting Nico Rosberg, who wasted little time getting on the go pedal and out of the way. Kvyat wound up getting the better of the Brazilian and seized P7, a bit of damage limitation but with Verstappen in front of him, ominous clouds on the horizon indeed.
Great start to the season for Nico Rosberg, definite reliability issues for Ferrari and HaasF1 the belle of the ball, following up their strong Australia showing with an equally impressive go in the desert. China brings an update to the Mercedes car, but a new clutch is apparently some way off, as apparently an updated qualifying.
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