The Shanghai Grand Prix was more about team and driver-strategy rather than all out racing and speed. Here is a detailed race review of the high-voltage tactical shoot-out over the weekend.
(Race 3; April 12, 13, 14, 2013)
Qualifying was a messy, messy affair. With Pirelli offering only two tyre compounds – Soft and Medium – for the race, the teams were extremely tentative. The soft compounds were wearing far too quickly for comfort which forced the top 10 drivers to conserve them for the race. For Q3, all of them, without exception, waited out a full eight minutes of the 10-minute session, before a few dared to put in a couple of cursory laps.
World Champion, Sebastian Vettel started his run in the last-minute in an effort to best Lewis Hamilton’s lap time of 1:34:484s to wrest pole position, but ended up on the grass after a brake failure that caused some damage to the set of medium tyres that he was to start the race with. Vettel scraped through in his only timed lap of Q3 to P9. His team-mate, Mark Webber had it worse! His car was short-fuelled by some 3kg thereby relegating the hapless Australian to a pit lane start at P22.
After a none-too-impressive set of runs in Q1 and Q2, Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen put in a flying lap that clocked 1:34:761s to place him at P2. This was the first time since 2009 that the Finn was to start at the top of the grid. Team-mate Romain Grosjean too was impressive and garnered a respectable P6 start raising hopes of a high points finish for the Lotus Team in their assault at the 2013 Constructors Championship.
The Ferraris showed consistent performance during all three qualifiers and both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa slotted themselves at P3 and P5 respectively with Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg splitting the pair at P4.
If there were any surprises, it was the vastly improved showing by Torro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo who came in at P7.
The major disappointments in qualifying were Force India, the team which despite showing a lot of promise and pace in the last couple of races, ended outside the top 10. Paul Di Resta ended his charge in Q2 to be placed P11 while Adrina Sutil slotted in at P13.
Race Laps 1 – 15
Hamilton made a decent getaway to maintain pole position at the start of the race. However, Kimi Raikkonen had an electronics failure and a resultant wheel lock that delayed his start and allowed the two Ferraris of Alonso and Massa to easily overtake and claim P2 and P3 respectively. When Raikkonen finally got going, he had to fight off the marauding cars at the back in order to somehow maintain his position at P4 – it was an excellent recovery.
There was a mêlée of sorts between the mid-runners with Grosjean (Lotus) and Rosberg (Mercedes) battling for the 5th place. Rosberg managed to hold track position briefly, and lost it to the Frenchman in the very next lap. The Lotuses were now running at P4 and P5.
Meanwhile, Force India’s race was going awry when Sutil knocked Di Resta off the track forcing the Scotsman to lose a couple of grid positions in the bargain. By the time Di Resta recovered and moved up a place, the two were running at P13 and P14 respectively.
At the back of the grid, Webber was the first of the drivers to pit (Lap 2). The idea was to get rid of his soft tyres and get on to the mediums with the hope of going longer and consequently work his way into the middle of the pack as other drivers pitted.
It was in Lap 5, that the Shanghai Grand Prix exploded to life. Alonso blasted in right behind Hamilton and used the outside race line to the Englishman’s left to take the lead in one swooping overtaking manoeuvre. Almost simultaneously, Massa cut to the right of Hamilton to take the inside line and zip past him to take 2nd place. Within a fraction of a second, Hamilton had lost two grid places and his race seemed to be headed downhill with Raikkonen now monstering all over his back wing!
His team-mate Rosberg was faring no better! Struggling with tyre-wear and hardly any traction on his soft compounds, the German was forced to concede track position – first to Hulkenberg and then to a rapidly advancing Vettel. The champion’s strategy of starting on mediums was beginning to pay dividends.
This forced the Mercedes drivers to double-stack in the pits! Hamilton was released first and he rejoined the race at P16 while Rosberg had to be content with P18. Meanwhile, Sauber’s rookie driver, Esteban Gutierrez ploughed into the back of Force India’s Sutil effectively ending the race for both. Sutil limped back into the pits with a broken rear wing and fire spitting out of his rear brakes.
Lap 7 saw Alonso make his first pit-stop while Massa decided to stay out thereby putting him in the lead for the first time. Raikkonen too came in for a tyre change in the same lap. The leader board now read Massa, Hulkenberg, Vettel, Button, Grosjean, Sergio Perez (McLaren), Di Resta, Pastor Maldonando (Williams), Valterri Bottas (Williams) and Jean Eric Vergne (Torro Rosso). However, every one of them bar Vettel, was due for their first stop.
In the interim, Webber had worked his way to P14, but his medium tyres had started to wear alarmingly considering that his gear and rev settings were cranked up to the maximum in order to facilitate overtaking. He was asked to come in to pit on Lap 8.
Massa too was now lapping almost two seconds slower in some sectors and was asked by Team Ferrari to box at the end of Lap 7. The pit-stop was a disaster as it lost Massa 11 positions and he had to rejoin the race at P12.
This put Hulkenberg in the lead for the first time, hotly pursued by Vettel. The top two were followed by a steady Button, Perez and Di Resta. During the frenetic pit-stops and shunts, Alonso (P7), Hamilton (P8) and Raikkonen (10) had quietly moved back up the field and into the top 10. By Lap 9, both Alonso and Hamilton duly passed Vergne and Raikkonen glided past Bottas. The top 5 drivers at the 13-lap stage had not pitted for tyres even once but Di Resta now flagging considerably, was passed by Alonso who then began to threaten Perez’s 4th place. It was only a matter of minutes before Hamilton followed suit.
It wasn’t until Lap 14 that both Hulkenberg and Vettel decided that they had enough and made their first pit-stops for the race. When they were released, Vettel sneaked ahead of the Suber driver, thanks again to an excellent pit-stop (2.5s) by Red Bull crew pushing him back in at P9 while Hulkenberg rejoined at P11.
Just when everyone thought that the action for the first quarter of the race was over, Webber made contact with Vergne’s Torro Rosso ending the Frenchman’s race whilst himself suffering a badly damaged front wing! With the car losing downforce rapidly, Webber was forced to make an unscheduled pit-stop at the end of the lap to replace the broken wing.
End of Lap 15: 1. Button (McLaren) 2. Alonso (Ferrari) 3. Perez (McLaren) 4. Hamilton (Mercedes) 5. Raikkonen (Lotus) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Vettel (Red Bull) 8 Webber (Red Bull) 9. Rosberg (Mercedes) 10. Hulkenberg (Sauber).
Race Laps 16 – 30
The start of the 16th lap was no different in terms of the chaotic action witnessed in the first 15 laps. It started with Raikkonen chasing down a much slower Perez whose tyres were by now shot to bits. As the Mexican slowed on the corner, Raikkonen went straight into the back of the McLaren which resulted in a damaged front wing and a broken car nose!
A small portion of the tip of the Finn’s car was ripped and flapping in the onrushing air. The worry for Team Lotus at this stage was whether this would seriously impact and compromise Raikkonen’s race but after brief chat over the radio decided it was best for him to soldier on without change in the team’s original race strategy of three stops. However, he couldn’t resist remarking, “What the hell is he doing!” It was classic Kimi!
Raikkonen duly completed a pass on Perez to get back into P4.
Meanwhile, Webber who had just pitted and rejoined the field began to lose pace and was sputtering down to a crawl. And just when every one thought matters couldn’t get any worse for him, on his limp back to the pits one of his rear tyres broke free from the wheel and began a precarious roll across the middle of the track and right in the way of the following drivers – one of them being a certain Sebastian Vettel! (To make matters even worse, the race stewards later found Webber guilty of the accident with Vergne earlier, and have penalised him with a 3-place grid penalty for the next race in Bahrain!)
At the top of the grid, Alonso was now the race leader having overtaken Button, who remarkably was continuing on his start tyres and had now gone 20 laps without a change. Vettel continued his resurgent run and cleanly passed Perez to get back into contention for a podium. He was now chasing Raikkonen for P4, who in turn, was hot on Hamilton’s heels at P3! This epic battle continued into the pits when both drivers made their second stops on Lap 22. Vettel had by now passed a fast-fading Button to slot himself behind race leader Alonso at P2.
Hamilton and Raikkonen rejoined at P9 and 10 in that order but were on fresh new medium compounds. Very soon, they were all over the likes of Ricciardo but the slower cars bunched up in the middle were creating problems in terms of race pace for them. It took some doing before regaining their places at P4 and P5 respectively just behind Hulkenberg who was driving a terrific race to sneak his way back into P3.
A while earlier, on Lap 21, Rosberg made yet another pit-stop, a terrible one at that. He did not have to rue that mishap because he was forced to retire after a couple more laps with a mechanical failure.
On Lap 23, Button finally came into the pits behind Alonso who made his second stop of the race. While Alonso joined at P3, Button gained tremendously with his fewer stops strategy by re-entering the fray at P5. This put him just ahead of Raikkonen at this stage of the race.
The lead was back in the hands of the world champion, Vettel. In the middle of the field, former team-mates Button and Hamilton were locked in a dogfight which the latter won comfortably at the start of Lap 29. Using the faster pace of the Mercedes and the DRS zone, Hamilton clipped past Button effortlessly to get to P4.
At the same time, the top end of the grid was seeing a fantastic battle between Vettel and Alonso or pole with the Spaniard relentlessly attacking the former. His opening came soon enough when on one of the later turns, he cut to the inside of Vettel and blazed his way past to snatch the lead. His tyres at this stage were nine laps fresher than Vettel’s.
Hulkenberg who was at P5 by this time having been passed by both Hamilton and Button now decided to get back into the pits to change his tyres to the soft compounds with the view to do a quick middle stint and probably get back to the top of the leader board. The stop dropped him back to P8.
End of Lap 30: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Hamilton (Mercedes) 4. Button (McLaren) 5. Raikkonen (Lotus) 6. Di Resta (Force India) 7. Massa (Ferrari) 8. Hulkenberg (Sauber) 9. Grosjean (Lotus) 10. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso).
Race Laps 31 – 45:
This is probably the most sedate phase of any Grand Prix race (by F1 standards that is!). The cars are evenly spread out with the leaders enjoying comfortable distances between them and the middle of the pack. If there are any apprehensions for those at the top of the grid, it is about encountering the back-markers that have been lapped or then making an untimely pit-stop and ending up behind the pack of middle runners. In both cases, accidents or being held up by the slower cars is common.
Back in the thick of the action, Lap 31 saw Raikkonen on the tail of Button and passing him easily on the last turn of the Shanghai circuit.
Vettel pitted on Lap 31, his second stop of the race and as he went out again, encountered Massa’s thundering Ferrari. The champion, however, stayed ice-cool to execute the pass just on the turn after the pit lane exit. On the very next turn, he simply blazed past Force India’s Di Resta. His sights were now trained on Hulkenberg’s Sauber in P5. That pass was easily achieved on the DRS straight and Vettel in a short span of less than a lap was comfortably ensconced at P5. The champion was back driving at his very best!
During the same time, Raikkonen had narrowed the gap with Hamilton to within 1.2 seconds. The Finnish legend gave up the chase temporarily and made his third pit-stop on Lap 35. When he returned he had lost 4 grid places to P8, but was one of the first to get on to a fresh set of rubbers among the top runners. It was clear that Raikkonen was going to stay on the new set of medium compounds for 21 laps until the end of the race. His longest stint had been saved up for the last leg of the Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, Vettel had started to close in on Button, whose only second set of tyres were now running out of grip and life. The German had far superior traction and on Lap 36, put the hammer down in the DRS zone and made the pass stick. Massa by now had faded away from the top five now decided to take a final gamble by pitting before team-mate Alonso on Lap 37. Hulkenberg too came in for a change of compounds and settled for a final stint on medium tyres.
By the start of Lap 38, Alonso had opened up a 13.4 second lead from Hamilton 19 seconds from Vettel, 21 seconds from Button and 30 seconds from Raikkonen. But the Spaniard was due for a final pit-stop.
It was Hamilton, however, who decided to relinquish P2 to come in for his last tyre change with a view to make an all-out final charge to the finish line. On release, Hamilton joined in just behind Kimi Raikkonen in P6 which meant that the Mercedes pit strategy was spot on.
In quick succession, both the drivers swept past Ricciardo who by staying out late was in 4th place, thereby relegating him to P6. At the lead, Alonso was absolutely flying by now and extended his lead to 19-odd seconds from Vettel, 24 seconds from Button and 30 seconds from Raikkonen. With all of them yet to make their final stops, Alonso and Team Ferrari were pretty confident that he would rejoin the race yet again in the lead. It was near perfect pit-stop strategy from the Italian outfit. The Spaniard was finally called in for his last tyre stop at the end of Lap 40 and came out to rejoin at P2 just behind Vettel.
By lap 42 it was Hamilton who was doing all the flying having just set the fastest lap of the race. At the top of the grid, Alonso, now on a set of fresh medium compound tyres, swept past Vettel to regain the lead at the start of Lap 43. It was enthralling stuff!
IN Lap 44, Raikkonen finally made his move on Button, overtaking him to claim P3. It was only a matter of time before Hamilton was going to do the same to his former team-mate and after a short chase on his fresher rubber, eased past Button on the sweeping Turn 4.
End of Lap 45: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Raikkonen (Lotus) 4. Hamilton (Mercedes) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Di Resta (Force India) 7. Massa (Ferrari) 8. Hulkenberg (Sauber) 9. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso), 10. Grosjean (Lotus).
Race Laps 46 – 56: End Game!
With the last 10 laps of the Shanghai Grand Prix remaining, drivers had enough clean air between each other. It looked like the order at the end of Lap 45 would be maintained but there was the small matter of Vettel and Button having to pit for their final tyre changes, and that was going to jumble up the leader board yet again! There was speculation at this stage on whether Vettel would continue on his fraying medium tyres to complete the race with just two stops in order to claim a 2nd place podium finish. Button too looked like he might hold position and risk the final 10 laps on the same rubbers.
While Raikkonen and Hamilton continued on their epic racing saga at P3 and P4, Button eventually came back into the pits for his final tyre change on Lap 50. He conceded P5 to Di Resta and by the time he came back on track, he was down to P7. In Lap 51, Team Red Bull called Vettel in for his final pit-stop and sent him out on the soft compounds for a final concerted assault on the podium position runners. The radio message as he rejoined the field was, “Race to the finish!” It was going to be offense from the German, a fight to the finish. He moved past Di Resta to get P4 and then began his attack on Hamilton by setting the fastest lap of the race.
With two laps to go, Vettel was still around 6.5 seconds behind Hamilton but gaining rapidly thanks to the faster soft compounds that he was on now. Quite expectedly he cut the lead between the two down to 4 seconds by Lap 55 and 2 seconds in the final lap! Hamilton was under tremendous pressure from the German now.
Fernando Alonso eventually cleared the line to take the chequered flag with Raikkonen comfortably cruising into second place; fittingly too because this was Ferrari’s 500th Formula 1 race.
But the Hamilton-Vettel dogfight still had some sting left in the tail. Into the last straight, Hamilton’s wheel locked up emitting plumes of smoke even as Vettel closed in for the kill. In the final few paces, Hamilton barely scraped through at P3 with the 3-time World Drivers Champion a mere 2/10th of a second behind in 4th place!
Shanghai had delivered!
Final Standings: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Hamilton (Mercedes) 4. Vettel (Red Bull) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso) 8. Di Resta (Force India) 9. Grojean (Lotus) 10. Hulkenberg.
Next edition: The Shanghai Stats Sheet