If Lewis Hamilton is looking for inspiration in his quest to regain the initiative in the battle for the world championship after Sebastian Vettel’s victory in the season opening Australian Grand Prix, a look back at the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix should put him in the right frame of mind.
After a thrilling race that saw non-stop drama, on track overtaking, and a gripping duel at the front between the cars of 4 different teams, it was Lewis Hamilton who came out on top, taking the lead with a decisive pass on Vettel just 4 laps from the finish.
At the start of 2011, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who had clinched his first world drivers title at the last round in Abu Dhabi in 2010, seemed unbeatable, the young German’s performance seemingly taken to another level by the confidence that came with his first championship victory. Vettel saw off the challenge of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren in a lights to flag victory in the season opener in Australia, and was simply untouchable in a dominant victory in the second round at Malaysia. Two rounds down, two pole positions, and two victories. Nothing could stop Vettel.
At Shanghai, for the third round of the championship, Vettel stormed to pole position yet again, a crushing seven tenths of a second ahead of his nearest challenger, the 2009 world champion, McLaren’s Jenson Button. Behind them on the second row was the 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), and Nico Rosberg for Mercedes. While Vettel was dominating, his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, who had come oh so close to the title in 2010, had suffered a disappointing start to the 2011 season, only managing to come home in 5th and 4th positions in the opening Grand Prix of the season as Vettel raced into an early championship lead. In Shanghai, things seemed to just go from bad to worse for Webber, who suffered trouble with his KERS system throughout the weekend, which coupled with a poor decision from the Red Bull pitwall to try to save a set of soft tyres saw him fail to get out of Q1, the Aussie stuck down in 18th place on the grid while his team-mate scorched clear of the field!
As the lights went out to start the race however, the opposition got a glimmer of hope that the new and improved 2011 Vettel might just be beatable after all. Off the front row Vettel bogged down and Button got the better getaway and surged into the lead. Vettel initially tried to move over to block Button, but backed off as he realised Button had secured the position, which opened the door for Lewis Hamilton to dive up the inside and wrestle the positon from Vettel on the inside of the first corner, with Vettel left to fend off Rosberg, the Mercedes driver hounding him side by side until Turn 6, when Vettel finally saw him off. Now we had a race on our hands!
With the superior pace Vettel had shown in qualifying there was no reason to panic yet for Red Bull, and as the laps ticked away the McLaren duo were unable to shake Vettel off their tail. Vettel stalked the McLarens waiting for his moment, and on lap 14 pounced, getting a good exit from Turn 13 he glided past Lewis Hamilton with the aid of DRS into the hairpin and up to second place. Immediately after passing Hamilton Vettel and race leader Button dived into the pits. With the Red Bull crew out and waiting for Vettel, Button made the schoolboy error of pulling into the Red Bull pit, before gingerly pulling off to the waiting McLaren mechanics. The mistake allowed Vettel to leapfrog Button in the pits. Out on track things continued to fall Vettel’s way, with Hamilton struggling and losing positon on track to Massa’s Ferrari as the McLaren tyres cried enough. After the first stops played out, it was the early stopping Mercedes of Nico Rosberg who had gotten the jump on all the front runners, while Vettel now led from Button, Massa and Hamilton. Webber, who started on the hard tyre, had struggled to make up ground early, his task made all the harder by the fact he would not have any KERS for the race, but after the stops saw him move onto the soft tyre he was finally able to start making up ground.
With all the front runners making similar first stops, the race would hinge on tyre strategy. While all the runners had taken on soft tyres at the first stops, of the front runners Vettel and Massa would opt for a two stopper (taking on the hard tyre for a long final stint), while Rosberg and the two McLaren would go for three stops (all taking the soft tyre at the second stop before ending the race on the hard tyre). Webber, who by virtue of his qualifying trouble had been able to get the hard tyres out of the way early, would push on a three stop strategy with soft tyres for the second and third stints. Of the three stoppers Button was the first in on lap 25, with Rosberg pitting from the lead on lap 26, with Hamilton following close behind. Webber too made his second stop, having fought his way up to 11thprior to his stop. Vettel now led on the track, with Massa hanging on within shouting distance. As the laps ticked by Vettel seemed to be struggling to make his soft tyres last, and by the time Vettel came in for his second stop at the end of lap 31 he had Felipe Massa looming large in his mirrors. The battle of the three stoppers was heating up. Rosberg led on track, while Hamilton was breathing down team-mate Button’s neck. Having taken on his set of hards to see him to finish, Vettel now tried to maintain a steady pace, with Massa just on his tail after his second stop. Webber too was making moves, and when he dived past the Renault of Vitaly Petrov on lap 34 he was up to 7th place. At the end of lap 35 Hamilton was side by side with Button coming out of the hairpin, and with Button going on the defensive, Lewis got a great exit on the last corner, and dived out of Jenson’s slipstream and up the inside into Turn 1 at the start of lap 36, Button’s McLaren twitching as he opted against slamming the door on his team-mate! Button was the first of the 3 stoppers to come in for his final set at the end of lap 37. Mark Webber meanwhile was still charging, and he had to use the full width of the track to get past the second Mercedes of Michael Schumacher to move up to 6th place on lap 38, with Hamilton diving into the pits from second to take on his set of hard tyres. Race leader Rosberg pitted for his final set of tyres the following lap, with Webber the last of the leaders to come in a further lap later.
After the stops Vettel now led, with Massa’s Ferrari the buffer between him and the three stoppers, with Rosberg just ahead of Hamilton, followed by Button and the resurgent Webber. After a brilliant run at the front Rosberg’s day ends in disappointment as he was forced to back off to save fuel in order to make it to the finish. Hamilton wasted no time in in clearing him, diving up the inside of the Mercedes into Turn 6 on lap 42. Vettel’s hopes lie in Massa being able to hold up the three stoppers. Hamilton quickly caught Massa however, and with the fresher tyres, he cut out from under Massa at the exit of the hairpin at the end of lap 44. Side by side they ran down to the last corner, with Massa on the inside just able to keep ahead, but exiting onto the main straight Lewis with better traction was already alongside Massa, and he blasted past Massa on the outside down the straight to take second place into Turn 1. Just behind Button was all over the back of Rosberg, while Mark Webber’s remarkable comeback drive continued, the second Red Bull getting past the two stopping Ferrari of Fernando Alonso’s to move back into 6th place after his final stop. Button was past Rosberg a lap later as Rosberg outbraked himself and ran wide at the hairpin attempting to get by Massa, , the two stoppers looking increasingly vulnerable to the pace of the 3 stoppers. Hamilton had already shot up the road from Massa, and with 10 laps remaining, just over 3 seconds separated him from Vettel and the race lead! Vettel was digging deep, but it was inevitable that Hamilton would catch him, the only question remaining could he defend the position on his older tyres. By lap 49 Hamitlon had closed to within a second of Vettel, and the duel was very much on, with Vettel hindered by a lack of team radio. Behind, Button took Massa for the final podium place as Rosberg again crowded all over the back of the Ferrari, while Webber on the soft tyre was the fastest man on the track, and had now closed to within 5 seconds of Rosberg!
At the end of lap 50 and Hamilton looked to make his move, pulling out of the stripstream witht he aid of DRS on the back straight, and forcing Vettel to a defensive inside line into the hairpin, with Lewis cutting back on the exit of the hairpin. Like Massa previously, Vettel was able to hold the inside line to the last corner, but unlike Massa his defence was robust enough to prevent Hamilton getting a good enough exit to drag past him on the straight. Vettel was struggling, but Hamilton would have to earn the victory! Behind the frantic action continued, with Rosberg finally getting the better of Massa, diving up the inside into the last corner, with the Ferrari running wide off the track on the final turn as he tried to stay with the Mercedes. Mark Webber was soon through on Massa as well, with the Aussie up to an incredible fifth position.
Vettel, now also suffering from a lack of KERS, was doing all he could to position his car to block Hamilton’s advance, but after being rebuffed at the hairpin again Hamilton caught Vettel by surprise with a lunge up the inside of Turn 7 on lap 52, the difference in grip between the two cars leaving Vettel powerless to resist. Hamilton had done it, and he would now coast clear to take victory in an incredible race. Behind there was still drama, as Mark Webber continued his remarkable comeback to secure the most unlikely of podium positions, locking up as he dived up the inside of Rosberg at Turn 6 and managing to make the move stick despite Rosbergs attempts to stay with him. Next up Webber latched onto Button, and completed his amazing day by passing Button with the aid of DRS into the hairpin on lap 55. It was remarkable recovery drive for Webber, and capped the end of a scintillating Grand Prix.