China’s Grand Prix is usually wet, and after Vettel’s dominance in the first two races of the year it was hoped that the rain – along with the fast-wearing Pirelli tyres and DRS – would allow somebody else a chance to win. On the first day of practice heavy smog surrounded the circuit, but it cleared up as the race weekend progressed and did not cause too many visibility problems.
Red Bull dominated on the Friday with a massive lead from the McLarens and Nick Heidfeld’s Renault. The midfielders were joined by a surprisingly speedy Heikki Kovalainen, while at the back was HRT doing well to come close to the Virgins.
More surprises were to come on the Saturday, though not for pole position as Vettel made it three from three. Webber had been having car problems and only took one run in the session, on hard tyres. This was a surprising choice from Red Bull, but it was even more surprising when the Aussie could not even manage the 17th-fastest time. He was out in Q1. Q2 also saw a rather amusing sight. Petrov, putting some good laps in with his Renault, stopped on track after he made it into the top ten. The red flags came out with just over two minutes left on the clock. As the car was taken to safety, there was a huge queue for the pit exit. The lights went green, and the track exploded as cars raced to make it over the line before the chequered flag. All made it, but it was close.
Making it to Q3 were both Toro Rossos, with Jaime Alguersuari ahead of his Swiss teammate. The Mercedes of Nico Rosberg qualified 4th and well ahead of the Ferraris, but behind the McLaren pair. Paul di Resta squeezed in-between the two Toro Rossos to start 8th. Vitaly Petrov, unable to set a time, would start 10th.
Race day was dry, but Jenson Button put his all into the start to lead from Vettel after the first lap. This was a crucial move that would determine the fate of the race, as Vettel could not get enough lead to have a free strategy choice. The state of his tyres and KERS would decide what happened.
Mark Webber was determined to make up for qualifying with a storming drive that would take him from 18th to 3rd. The lead changed hands more than at any other race in the season, with Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Rosberg and Massa all taking their turn at the front and in total ten different leader changes. Button would not lead again after that first stint, but the work had been done. Red Bull’s two-stop strategy for Vettel failed to pay off, and Hamilton was closing in on him in the closing laps. With better tyres and a clever use of his KERS, Hamilton overtook with five laps to go. He maintained the lead as Vettel fell behind. The German managed to avoid being overtaken by his teammate, but it was a close thing.
Perez and Sutil had a tangle which left the Mexican with a drive-through penalty. The Sauber driver came home 17th behind Lotus’s Heikki Kovalainen but ahead of a struggling Pastor Maldonado. Though Williams had managed to get both cars home, it was obvious that their car had serious problems – and perhaps serious driver problems as well.
The only retirement came early in the race as Jaime Alguersuari’s tyre came off after a Toro Rosso pit stop error, yet the race was still exciting. For the first time a race had 23 classified finishers – a new record, emphasizing how reliable modern F1 cars are. For Narain Karthikeyan, not such a good record – the first driver to finish 23rd as he was overtaken by Tonio Liuzzi (recovering from a drive-through after a jump start) in the final lap.
Could McLaren continue to challenge Red Bull and prevent them from securing another constructor’s championship? And did Webber’s comeback make going out in Q1 to save tyres a good thing that could get you points?
[To be continued]