Tit for tat. Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton emerge victorious in Shanghai to quickly answer back Ferrari’s win in the previous round at Australia. Hamilton led the entire race while Sebastian Vettel battled back to second place after an early pit stop flurry dropped him to as low as sixth. The two drivers are now tied atop the nascent championship standings with 43 points apiece, further suggesting an edgy inter-team rivalry all season long.
Saturday’s Qualifying session produced the same order as in Australia: Hamilton, Vettel, Valtteri Bottas, and Kimi Raikkonen occupied the top four in that order. It was also the same story with Hamilton delivering another flawless lap to take pole, while Vettel again matched Bottas’ time (the Ferrari beat the Merc by just one one-thousandth of a second) and Raikkonen behind by a few more tenths. This time though, the gap between Hamilton and his two closest challengers has been trimmed.
The race on Sunday started on a cold and damp track due to earlier rain. All drivers started on Intermediate tires except for Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, both of whom started on dry Supersoft tires. Meanwhile, Vettel very noticeably lined up off-center at the starting grid but gained no advantage anyway and was left unpunished for it.
Hamilton enjoyed a clean start while Vettel defended against Bottas around the first turn. Later during the lap, Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll tangled, causing the latter to retire with rear suspension damage. An ensuing Virtual Safety Car period briefly neutralized the race while Vettel decided to pit and switch to slick tires, a decision that ultimately, arguably, compromised the Ferrari driver’s chances of winning. Just after the race restart, the Sauber of Antonio Giovinazzi crashed on the front straight at Lap 4, causing a Safety Car deployment. The entire field was instructed to bypass the main straight, which was strewn with the Sauber debris, and instead follow the safety car through pit lane. The leaders took this as a chance to pit without losing positions, hence Vettel lost out with his earlier pit stop and thus had to work his way back up from sixth.
One by one, he picked off those ahead of him, including his teammate and the two Red Bulls, who had the “racy” strategy of running the Supersoft tires (as opposed to the Ferraris’ and the Mercs’ Soft tire choices). In his fight for positions, Vettel made a spectacular maneuver against Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, an outside pass around Turn 6, which involved some good-natured wheel-banging between the former teammates. Here is Ricciardo posting about it on his Instagram, writing, “You can always expect some of this when us two cross tarmac. Truth, I do enjoy this very much.”
It can be argued that Ferrari made another mistake with Vettel’s pit strategy but this one is more appropriately attributed to bad luck mainly because of the Safety Car deployment not working in their favor. Vettel got back to second place by the race’s midway point but that proved to be his afternoon’s ceiling. Hamilton’s lead at the front was not a blowout but he managed the gap to Vettel until the end. The Mercedes driver now has five victories at the Shanghai circuit, further adding to his impressive tally of Chinese Grand Prix wins.
The season quickly moves on to the desert in Bahrain this upcoming weekend as Vettel and Hamilton continue their duel for supremacy. It’s only been two races so far but these two rivals are appearing to be very evenly-matched.
Red Bull finally showed up this weekend. Both Max Verstappen and Ricciardo opted for the faster Supersoft tires throughout the race, hence being able to exploit the cold track conditions (which meant low tire degradation) to finish third and fourth respectively. Again, Verstappen has proven that he is phenomenal on wet track conditions, calmly gaining a bunch of positions at the opening lap after starting a lowly seventeenth on the grid. The young Dutch driver was aggressive against his teammate to move up to second during the early stages but later yielded to a charging Vettel near the end of his first stint as his tires started to wear down. The two Red Bulls produced a tense battle for the final podium spot towards the end of the race but Verstappen kept Ricciardo at bay.
Red Bull’s favorable results were pretty much thanks to disappointing races from Raikkonen and Bottas, who finished fifth and sixth respectively. In the case of Raikkonen, Ferrari really did make a mistake with his strategy by leaving him out too long on his Soft tires before calling him in to put Supersofts on for the final stint, otherwise he would have been able to battle with the Red Bulls for third place. In hindsight, it was a pointless strategy, as Ferrari should have seen how the Supersofts were lasting just as much as the Softs—case in point, Red Bull. Ultimately, Raikkonen came out too far behind the Red Bulls after his final pit stop. In terms of his driving, he was a bit underwhelming. When the two Ferraris were stuck behind the two Red Bulls early on, Kimi couldn’t (or wouldn’t) attack Ricciardo with the same aggression as say, Vettel or Verstappen did. Certainly, the Ferrari was still the faster car compared to the Red Bull and yet he couldn’t make a pass happen. It didn’t help that he was legitimately struggling with his car’s handling.
On the other hand, Bottas made a costly mistake when he spun his car while weaving to warm his tires just before the end of the Safety Car period. He dropped down a bunch of places, having to work up to a sixth-place finish. After a promising Qualifying result, it was a pitiful way to throw away a potential podium finish for the new Mercedes driver.