F1: Round 17 – Shanghai, China – Sun Oct 19

After the thrills, spills, high drama and controversy of Japan, what Lewis Hamilton and McLaren really needed this weekend was a calm, disciplined, error-free outing. In other words: no Shanghai surprises.

Hamilton has faced a barrage of criticism in the past week from media and fellow drivers alike, for his red mist moment at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix. He came in to Shanghai saying he had put it all behind him, and he certainly seemed upbeat and confident as he strode around the paddock and dominated the session timesheets.

Surely this was just a good media image, a bit of sports psyche – surely he was rattled under the skin and on the ropes? A minor mishap on Saturday morning at the pit lane entry – the scene of the devastating mistake in 2007 that turned the championship battle decisively in favour of Ferrari – seemed to prove the doubters right. But when it came down to it no one could really be sure until the critical moment on Sunday: the first turn of the first lap.

There have been more spectacular starts (and Lewis has featured in several of them of late) but in terms of getting the job done, Lewis Hamilton’s start here was pretty much spot on. He easily shot away from the two Ferraris, which seemed somewhat sluggish but did enough to assure Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa of 2nd and 3rd respectively.

Fernando Alonso had the toughest start, getting savaged by Heikki Kovalainen who briefly passed him for fourth, only to misjudge his entry into the penultimate straight of lap 1 and end up getting outdriven along by the much lighter Renault (which started low on fuel) so that Alonso ended the lap with 4th back, and Kovalainen’s chance to be a factor in the battle upfront was gone. In a sense, then, Alonso had been true to his word – he had done what little he could do to aid Massa in the title fight.

Although Hamilton was quickly pulling out a big lead, the race was clearly not over. For one thing, Hamilton was having some very lairy moments, oversteering wildly at points and locking his brakes – it wouldn’t take much to throw him off the racetrack. And then there was the question of the Ferrari pit strategy – were they looking sluggish because they were carrying more fuel? It turned out that they weren’t – Massa came in early, on lap 15, the same as Alonso; while Hamilton pitted on lap 16 along with Raikkonen. lewis also got a front wing adjustment which seemed to see the end of his handling problems.

At which point, to be honest, the race was locked. Only a sudden downpour (the rain stayed away, although the smog made it very dark at times), a major mistake or a technical failure could really change the top runners: the only driver so afflicted was Kovalainen on lap 35 who picked up a puncture. He crawled back to the pack with the tyre carcass absolutely in pieces, dropping right to the back of the field with the delay. It was unclear whether the puncture was anything to do with the excessive amount of smoke that poured off his front right brake on the starting grid, and by lap 50 it didn’t matter anyway – he crawled back into the pits to park the car in the garage. Not the greatest of 27th birthdays for the Finn, and possible the key moment in the battle for the constructors championship title which must surely now be going to Ferrari.

But otherwise the race proceeded to the chequered flag without problems for the major players, Hamilton taking an emphatic 15s margin of victory by the end of the race, as Ferrari staged a late race reshuffle to give Massa 2nd place and 8pts to maximise his title hopes. Both drivers were very cagey about this in post-race interviews, team orders being officially against the rules but clearly called for in this situation, and they looked awkward as they tried to explain how Massa had suddenly scythed through Raikkonen’s lead and waltzed past him on lap 50.

On the cooling-down lap, as the McLaren driver and team exchanged congratulations, there was none of the usual euphoria: just calm thanks and mutual back-slapping, as if reading from the pre-prepared script. Ron Denis praised Lewis’s “discipline” and it felt like the team had been drilling their driver for this race as remorselessly as the Republicans prepped Sarah Palin for the Vice-Presidential debate – with more impressive results this time around. Above all there was a tone to the voices that matched the look on Hamilton’s face as the helmet came off in parc ferme: great stuff, sure, but the real test lies ahead. The job is still to be sealed.

In an incident-light race, the major talking point was a conflict between Toyota’s Jarno Trulli and the two Toro Rosso cars. Trulli got squeezed out by Sebastien Vettel going into turn 1 and had to back off, which meant that Sebastien Bourdais then went into the right hand sid eof the Toyota’s bodywork. Both Toro Rossos were able to continue – although they displayed done of their recent pace and both finished outside the points – while Trulli pitted for some attempted repairs. But the side pod was in pieces, and the aerodynamics shot; he did one final test lap before concluding the situation was hopeless, and retired to the pits.

Afterwards, Trulli suggested Bourdais should consider his approach to GP starts: “This guy has to cool down a little bit and make up his mind because at the start he doesn’t know what he wants to do. I was side-by-side with Sebastian Vettel, obviously he was on the inside, so I had to give up. And then I had a hit on the rear-right and they told me it was Bourdais. My car was damaged pretty bad and I had to retire.”

Adrian Sutil was the only other retiree of the day, a mechanical failure seeing him coasting off the track to a halt at the end of the lap, briefly bringing out some waves local yellows as the Force India car was retrieved.

Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld did well to recover to 5th and 6th by the end after difficult qualifying sessions: Kubica failed to make it into the last part of qualifying because of handling problems while Heidfeld had been handed a 3-place penalty for blocking David Coulthard’s fast lap run. But despite being a good damage limitation exercise, it wasn’t enough to keep Kubica in the championship race (always a long shot anyway) and so the title battle now officially comes down to a two-man shootout between Hamilton and Massa.

That will be on Massa’s home turf – Brazil. Will that be a help or a hinderance to Felipe? It should provide a boost, but it can also wight a driver down with the burden of expectations. We’ll have to see how Massa rises to the challenge – and whether Ferrari can raise their game. Even Massa conceded that McLaren had been by far the stronger car in China:

“We saw Lewis was a bit stronger in the beginning of the race, I mean he was stronger the whole weekend. He started to pulling away, maybe two or three tenths per lap, and this for sure made his race much more comfortable and for us we were completely driving on the limit trying to reduce the gap, but it was not possible. We tried to push, as Kimi was trying to push, to get closer to Lewis, but today unfortunately, Lewis had a better car for the whole weekend.”

But the critical boost for Hamilton from Shanghai is that it gives him a 7pt lead over Massa going into that showdown: which means that he can’t be beaten by the two Ferraris locking out 1st and 2nd; even if Alonso joins in and takes up 3rd, it wouldn’t be enough. Hamilton simply needs to finish in 5th to win the title. Of course it’s by no means a done deal – a retirement would be a disaster for him – but it’s a strong hand to be able to play going into the final weekend of the year.

“This is another step towards the championship and my dream and my team’s dream,” Hamilton said. “The team deserve it, we have worked very, very hard through the season. Our approach to this race was right, it wasn’t to win everything in this race, it was to look at both races and score as many points consistently.

“Going to Brazil it will be a different situation to last year and we know we have to do a good job. It will be tough. These two will be pushing us hard. I am sure as a team we can pull through.”

Hamilton has passed his personal Chinese torture test this weekend, but the final battle with Massa will see winner take all at Sao Paulo on November 2nd.

Race result:

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  1h31.57.403
 2.  Massa         Ferrari               (B)  +    14.925
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    16.445
 4.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  +    18.370
 5.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +    28.923
 6.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +    33.219
 7.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +    41.722
 8.  Piquet        Renault               (B)  +    56.645
 9.  Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +  1:04.339
10.  Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +  1:14.842
11.  Barrichello   Honda                 (B)  +  1:25.061
12.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +  1:30.847
13.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +  1:31.457
14.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +  1:32.422
15.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     1 lap
16.  Button        Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
17.  Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:36.325

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)    50
Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)    14
Trulli        Toyota                (B)    3

World Championship standings, round 17:                

Drivers:                    Constructors:            
 1.  Hamilton      94        1.  Ferrari               156
 2.  Massa         87        2.  McLaren-Mercedes      145
 3.  Kubica        75        3.  BMW Sauber            135
 4.  Raikkonen     69        4.  Renault                72
 5.  Heidfeld      60        5.  Toyota                 52
 6.  Alonso        53        6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     34
 7.  Kovalainen    51        7.  Red Bull-Renault       29
 8.  Vettel        30        8.  Williams-Toyota        26
 9.  Trulli        30        9.  Honda                  14
10.  Glock         22      
11.  Webber        21      
12.  Piquet        19      
13.  Rosberg       17      
14.  Barrichello   11      
15.  Nakajima       9      
16.  Coulthard      8      
17.  Bourdais       4      
18.  Button         3

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