F1: Round 3 – Shanghai, China – April 19

It was a dark, wet, cold and windy day in Shanghai long before the Chinese Grand Prix got underway behind the safety car. And anyone who expected the weather to pick up and dry out was to be sorely disappointed: this was one sodden race.

Which is not to say that it wasn’t tense and incident-packed. Indeed the old axiom of F1 – that there’s no race that can’t be improved with a bit of rain – was proven once more. It was almost as though the sport was trying to make up for the disappointingly brief Malaysian Grand Prix by providing conditions that forced the race out almost to the full two hour limit allowed for a Grand Prix event, with lap times never much below two minutes.

In such atrocious conditions, nothing is ever certain; but it always looked overwhelmingly as though Sebastian Vettel was going to romp away for the race win. The signs had been there for all to see: in Malaysia, as the rain had started to come down, the Red Bulls suddenly showed their class and started scything through the field until the red flags came out to thwart their charge. And then yesterday in qualifying they claimed two of the top three spots for qualifying, convincingly seeing off the Brawn GP cars; and all without the aid of any controversial rear diffuser which is said to add 0.5s a lap to a car’s performance.

Vettel had astonishing pace in the wet, pulling out as much as three seconds a lap over everyone else; and his confidence in the car’s handling was absolute, and entirely well-judged. He didn’t put a tyre wrong the entire afternoon, the only heart stopping moment being when Sebastien Buemi (in Vettel’s old car, ironically) came up too fast and damaged the Toro Rosso’s front wing on the rear of the Red Bull. Fortunately it seemed to cause no significant damage to the race leader, although Buemi’s hitherto excellent showing was was subdued from there on.

With Vettel securing Red Bull’s first-ever Grand Prix victory (and his own second win), the big suspense was whether or not Mark Webber would take the second spot to make it a Red Bull whitewash. For a time, before the second pit stops, Webber was stuck in a battle with Jenson Button, the two trading positions several times: Button initially lost the spot by running wide at the turn 14 hairpin on lap 30, then Webber ran wide on the final turn of the next lap, before finally sealing the deal by taking the spot back again on lap 32 by sheer grunt, sweeping around the outside of turn 7 to show emphatically that the Red Bull was the best car out there today.

The Brawn cars were still better than the rest, however, and came in third and fourth despite Rubens Barrichello being so incredibily sluggish after his first pit stop that many observers felt that he must have taken on a gigantic tankful of fuel to get to the end (he hadn’t).

The safety car ran on track for the first eight laps, which wrecked the strategies of those trying an ultra-light fuel load such as Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosburg, who ended up having to pit before the safety car came in and then taking the de facto green flag start from the back of the pack.

There were incidents up and down the pack, too many to mention as cars aqua-planed off the track at various points. Lewis Hamilton made several good passes on the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Jarno Trulli, but was very much always pushing on the edge and several times he went over the other side of that edge and ran off and/or spun, leaving him with the same overtaking moves to make all over again. Felipe Massa also had a good early stint, picking up several places, but his engine died on lap 21 when the electrics simply gave up and the car stuttered to a halt. And this after Ferrari removed the KERS system (that would have been very useful on the long straights here) to “address the technical gremlins.” Nope, that didn’t really work, did it?

The first major incident on track came on lap 18, when Robert Kubica came up fast behind a very slow Jarno Trulli and simply couldn’t stop the car in time, ploughing into the back of the Toyota and destroying its rear assembly. Trulli was out of the race, but Kubica – despite being launched into the air and coming back down in the gravel – was able to pit for a new front wing and carry on without too much of a problem (although the BMW was never fast at any stage of the race weekend in truth). The whole incident recalled the safety car on track for another four lap stint.

It was a very mixed day for Toyota, who – after losing Trulli – also saw Timo Glock repeatedly get into the wars after starting the race from the pit lane. He clashed with Nick Heidfeld on lap 14, tapping Heidfeld into a spin and then having to pit for a new nose on lap 24. But after that he drove a strong, solid race and showed considerable pace to climb into the points to finish 7th. It might be a meagre result by Toyota’s expectations, but it’s at least better than BMW for example which ended up with both cars out of the points.

And of course, another disastrous day for Ferrari: after losing Massa early on, they were relying on Raikkonen to pull something off, but the car appeared sluggish for the entire race and was more useful as target practice for cars to overtake against than anything else. With Raikkonen finishing 12th and out of the points again, it marks the first time since 1981 that Ferrari have failed to score in any of the opening three races of a season.

It was also a very bad day for Williams, who promise so much in the practice sessions and then come apart in the race proper. Kazuki Nakajima retired in the pits on lap 46 after spinning twice and then losing pace in the latter stages of the race; while Nico Rosburg ran well down the order after his enforced early pit stop, and his attempt to redeem his day by trying intermediate tyres on lap 42 as the weather seemed to improve were to no avail, the rain coming down heavier in the closing laps sending him slithering off the track at times, leaving him a lap down in 15th place.

Renault’s attempt to go strategic with Fernando Alonso failed completely, with the former world champion finishing just out of the points. It seems the team were hoping for more variable conditions rather than the continuous wet state that actually transpired, which meant that opting for the very light fuel load was merely a handicap. And don’t even ask about Nelson Piquet, who had another miserable day and even spun (and damaged his front wing) coming into the pit lane on lap 48, after previously wrecking an earlier front wing with an aqua-planing incident on lap 29. He really is simply out of his depth, famous father or no.

On the other hand it was so nearly a stunning day for Force India, whose Adrian Sutil drove a great race, getting up to sixth place by the closing laps through a consistent, error-free and pacey showing. And then sadly it all went pear-shaped, when the car snapped away from him on lap 51 sending him into a big contact with the tyre wall that ripped off the front wing and both front tyres, which went careering onto the track. It was touch-and-go whether the safety car would make a third appearance to enable Sutil’s car to be recovered and the debris to be cleared, but the officials opted to use local waved yellows instead in a bid to not end the third consecutive race under a caution.

And so the race finished under green, and just three minutes shy of the time restriction kicking in. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were joined by team boss Christian Horner on the podium, together with Jenson Button who, far from looking downcast at having his run of wins come to an end, looked genuinely pleased for Vettel – and still more than happy with his own third place.

Race classification

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        1h57:43.485
 2.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    10.970
 3.  Button        Brawn GP-Mercedes       +    44.975
 4.  Barrichello   Brawn GP-Mercedes       +  1:03.704
 5.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +  1:05.102
 6.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +  1:11.866
 7.  Glock         Toyota                  +  1:14.476
 8.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +  1:16.439
 9.  Alonso        Renault                 +  1:24.309
10.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +  1:31.750
11.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +  1:34.156
12.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +  1:35.834
13.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +  1:46.853
14.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap
15.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +     1 lap
16.  Piquet        Renault                 +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Barrichello, 1:52.592

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Sutil         Force India-Mercedes      51
Nakajima      Williams-Toyota           44
Massa         Ferrari                   23
Trulli        Toyota                    19

World Championship standings, round 3

Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello continue to head up the drivers’ championship, but Vettel and Webber are picking up speed and starting to look threatening not too far behind. And if it’s a surprise to see the two McLaren drivers back in 9th and 10th positions, it’s nothing compared to the shock of the complete absence of either Ferrari representative.

In the constructors’ championship, Red Bull move up into second place and look ominous, but Brawn GP still have almost twice as many points – a nice cushion as we move toward the European races that follow after Bahrain.

Drivers:                    Constructors:
 1.  Button        21        1.  Brawn GP-Mercedes      36
 2.  Barrichello   15        2.  Red Bull-Renault       19.5
 3.  Glock         10        3.  Toyota                 18.5
 4.  Vettel        10        4.  McLaren-Mercedes        8
 5.  Webber         9.5      5.  Renault                 4
 6.  Trulli         8.5      6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      4
 7.  Alonso         4        7.  BMW Sauber              4
 8.  Heidfeld       4        8.  Williams-Toyota         3.5
 9.  Hamilton       4
10.  Kovalainen     4
11.  Rosberg        3.5
12.  Buemi          3
13.  Bourdais       1

Form analysis

After the Australian GP, I opined that “Massa has to be the safer best for the world title”. Whoops – can I take that back and play the shot again, please?

Surely no one expected Ferrari to have such a disastrous start to the season? With the resources of Maranello you would have thought they would quickly get back on track, but that simply doesn’t seem to be happening. Quite the reverse, they seem to be in headless chicken mode, throwing reorganisations and hasty technical “fixes” in that achieve nothing at all. You really do wonder if the Ferrari glory years were exclusively the result of the Todt/Schumacher/Brawn triumvirate, and without them the team simply doesn’t have anything to fall back on. It’s especially striking that Ferrari are lashing out at Brawn as “the most arrogant person in F1” when they seemed perfectly happy to put up with that arrogance when it was on their side.

You would certainly expect Ferrari to be picking up by now when their closest comparison – their 2008 championship arch-rivals McLaren – are overcoming their own equally disappointing start by bringing in the improvements that will see them deliver genuine competitiveness by mid-season. Too late, perhaps, for a realistic tilt at the world title, but enough to challenge for wins down the line. There’s certainly some optimism there, as opposed to Ferrari where Kimi Raikkonen was going round telling all and sundry that their season was already effectively over even before the start of the Chinese GP.

Another real disappointment is BMW, that seems to be collapsing after having had such a good 2008 season. The team simply seems to have gone in the wrong direction at some point, and my expectation that Kubica would be one of the prime movers of the season seems wildly optimistic now.

No one was really expecting all that much from Renault except the occasional flash of brilliance from Fernando Alonso, and so it has proved to be – they really do need a decent second driver, and Nelson Piquet just isn’t it.

Williams have been an odd case, so staggeringly good in the practice sessions and then simply fizzling away to nothing in the races themselves. And as for Toyota – Timo Glock’s been putting in some storming performances but Jarno Trulli is looking past his sell-by date. Toyota started the season very impressively, and like Williams had the advantage of the controversial rear diffuser, but that window of advantage is rapidly closing and they are already dropping back in competitiveness.

But anyone who thought that this was going to be a Brawn GP romp to the title is also going to be having a rethink. Now the rear diffuser has been ruled legal, the other teams are quickly throwing money at the problem and closing the gap – McLaren and Renault already deploying interim solutions this race and looking the better for it. Brawn GP by contrast are about as good as they are going to get this season – they won’t improve that much. So Brawn needed to have made a clear break and open up an unbeatable gap in the championship by this point, but with the truncated race in Malaysia only paying out half points, and now being bested by Red Bull in China, that prospect is fading. With their limited budget and resources starting to show (a lack of wet weather testing certainly cost them time in the conditions this weekend) they’re going to struggle to maintain their spot at the front.

Which leaves us with Red Bull. I suggested that Sebastian Vettel was really the star of the day in Australia (at least until his hot-headed clash with Robert Kubica that cost both drivers podium positions) and that’s certainly the case in China. He’s looking very much like a New Schumacher (Michael, not Ralf, happily) and his talent in the wet is especially reminiscent of the multiple world champion.

What makes Red Bull’s performance all the more striking is that they are doing it without the aid (as yet) of a rear diffuser; and that the performance isn’t just the result of one talented driver wringing the neck of a sub-standard car, but a genuine indication of the car and team as evidenced by how well Mark Webber’s doing (especially after his off-season biking accident and broken leg robbing him of preparation time and fitness) and also by the strong performance of Sebastien Buemi in the junior car. Heck, even eternal whinger Sebastien Bourdais looked half decent out there today.

So it’s looking like the next few races could be shoot-outs between Brawn and Red Bull; with other teams led by McLaren then starting to threaten and take race wins from the middle part of the season, albeit too late to challenge for the title.

But then, all this “form analysis” has one critical failing: the fact that we haven’t really had a “proper” race yet. The season opener is always atypical, and then we had the mayhem of Malaysia and now the completely wet race in China. A lot could change when we hit a dry, consistent circuit and run a “normal” race distance. We should see that to a degree next week at Bahrain, and then properly from the first European Grand Prix at Spain on 10 May.

Until then, it’s all just guesswork.

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