F1: Round 4 – Shanghai, China – April 18

Some races you can summarise in three lines because they are, frankly, rather dull. Other races you want to summarise in three lines because to try and extract even the slightest detail is to get sucked into a maelstrom from which there is no escape and only insanity awaits. This was the case with the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix, where whole books could be spun out of the events of just single laps.

So, okay, the three line summary: it rained, it dried, it rained again. The safety car came, went, returned at a suspiciously opportune moment. There was overtaking, strategy, controversy and incidents aplenty before the coolest head prevailed – just.

Right. Deep breath, and we’ll start pulling the threads apart and hope to avoid the tapestry unravelling into madness …

The formation lap saw light rain falling, but not quite enough to justify intermediate tyres from the get-go. Timo Glock’s Virgin had the inters on, but it wasn’t going anywhere – the team had left him up on the jacks as the rest of the field got underway. He was cleared away before the field came back for the start, but the team was unable to start him from the pit lane. He was joined in retirement by his team mate Lucas di Grassi early in the race, a bad day for Virgin.

Fernando Alonso got a simply unbelievable start, zipping past both Red Bulls on the front row. And by unbelievable, I mean exactly that – either he altered the universal laws of the universe or else he had jumped the start. Physicists everywhere were relieved when replays showed it was clearly the latter and he was handed a drive-thru penalty.

Meanwhile, Tonio Liuzzi triggered the big crash of the day when he lost control under braking into a hairpin, the car snapping away into a spin that unfortunately saw him running straight through the apex of the corner and collecting two of the cars that were running ahead of him, Sebastien Buemi and Kamui Kobayashi. All three were out of the race, and Nico Hulkenberg had to tiptoe his way through the wreckage, lucky not to get caught up in it.

With three cars sitting by the side of the road, a safety car was inevitable. And with the rain starting to build and conditions dipping, this meant the teams needed to make a fast call on whether to pit for intermediates. It was soon clear that the smart money was to do just that – Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher all came in, as did Lewis Hamilton – just. He had actually gone past the pit lane entrance when the call was finally made and he had to swerve in to still make it.

That left Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Pedro de la Rosa and Heikki Kovalainen as the top six runners, but on slicks. This looked disastrous, and hence especially surprising that Button should get caught out given that it was his stunningly savvy call to switch early to inters in Australia that had won him the race. Instead, he seemed hoist on his own petard this time, doomed to a mediocre afternoon.

Except … Maybe not. The rain eased. Those on slicks were able to maintain decent pace, although Kovalainen was predictably easy prey to the superior horsepower behind him once the safety car came in and racing resumed. And with the track drying, the intermediates were cooking to death within minutes. Michael Schumacher, ever the wily old fox, was first to realise the situation and he was back in the pits next time around, and a lap later everyone else had to concede defeat and come in as well. Suddenly that call to stay out by Rosberg and Button didn’t look foolish in the least: indeed, now it looked like a race-winning one.

Rosberg comfortably led the race, pulling out a 4.5s lead by lap 20 but then the rain started to fall again resulting in Rosberg making an error, running off the road at turn 11 which allowed Jenson to be right back with the Mercedes. Button knew that this was the moment to pounce, and he did so, outpowering Rosberg down the straight into the hairpin to take the lead – one that he would never surrender, right through to the chequered flag, despite some late tyre and handling issues that caused him to lose much of his lead and cause a few tense moments at the end.

While Button’s rise to the top was as cool and smooth as we’ve come to expect from the world champion, the Adventures of Lewis Hamilton (Aged 25 And A Quarter) couldn’t have been more of a contrast. His first visit to the pits had been that wild, late dive that had everyone’s eyebrows climbing, but his second (for the change back to slicks after cooking in the inters) was even more dramatic, as he and Vettel did a side-by-side drag into the pit lane entrance. And then it got worse on the exit, as Vettel and Hamilton were released almost simultaneously. Vettel was alongside Hamilton, just ahead and on the proper outside line, but Hamilton would not yield. The two went side-by-side down the pit lane itself, Hamilton just inches from the pit box area where the mechanics were working and air hoses were hanging. Hamilton nearly slid sideways into the Williams pit crew at one point, and further down Vettel finally got tetchy with Hamilton and nudged him in a move that could have set off a disastrous chain reaction. Fortunately the danger passed, Hamilton had to concede and Vettel exited in the lead, but it was all disturbing stuff. Unsurprisingly both drivers were summoned to the stewards’ room after the race and given reprimands for their actions, but it’s a sign of a new maturity from the officials that no race-changing penalties were handed down and that the action on-track was allowed to stand.

With so many front runners now scattered down the field, there was a lot of action as they tried to climb back up. Vettel and Hamilton quickly passed Barrichello and then made short work of the struggling Webber (whose handling had been compromised by damage on the front right wheel during the pit stop) before coming up to the back of the Force India of Adrian Sutil. Vettel went for a move down the outside into the hairpin on lap 13, while Hamilton toyed with going down the inside and making it a three-way, but Lewis saw sense and pulled back. It was a wise call, Vettel and Sutil luring each other into outbraking, leaving Hamilton just the gap he needed to scoot past them both. Sutil managed to close the door on Vettel that time around, so it was another lap before Sebastian was able to make it past – by which time Lewis was half a straight ahead.

Now Hamilton had Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes to contend with – a face-off we’ve been looking forward to since the start of the season. Schuey obviously knows how to make it difficult for someone to pass and deployed all his consummate skills to that effect, frustrating the younger driver until lap 17 when Hamilton made a great dive up the inside Schumacher out of turn 13: they crossed at the apex of the next corner, but Lewis had the edge into the next and the move was completed, allowing him to start off after Vitaly Petrov in fourth place, 16s up the road.

But this was the moment the race changed again, with forecasts of rain – initially saying “the same as earlier, for ten minutes” but ultimately proving somewhat harder and far more persistent, lasting much of the remainder of the race. The teams started to call in their cars on lap 20 with Webber and Schumacher first in, and almost everyone else was called in the following time around and uniformly opted for intermediates despite the close call (Hulkenberg tried to be clever and went for slicks, only to immediately fall off the road and have to slink back to the pits as conditions worsened.) That single extra lap on inters worked wonders for Webber and Schumacher, however, who found themselves ahead of Hamilton and Vettel again.

And then immediately after the pit stops, there was another safety car deployment. This appeared to be caused by Jamie Alguersuari, who damaged his front wing on lap 21 on the back of a Hispania that he was lapping. That left debris on track even though the wing itself clung on by its fingertips; the wing finally fell off as Alguersuari entered the pit lane, scattering more debris there as well.

Even so, the lengthy safety car period seemed somewhat of an overreaction for such a minor incident: it seemed for all the world as if the race officials just wanted to spice things up by wiping out all those big gaps between cars that had developed after multiple pit stops by some and not others. This was great news for the likes of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso, but bad news for Button, Rosberg and Kubica who had genuinely earned their impressive lead by holding their nerves and calling the right strategy. For those of us watching, however, this tightening up of the field made for a mouthwatering setup for the second half of the race.

The restart was messy. Jenson Button was in charge, and he slowed up to such a degree that the rest of the field almost piled into each other. It meant Jenson got a great jump on everyone but it wasn’t exactly the nicest move, and it had consequences involving Lewis Hamilton who now found himself in a Red Bull sandwich through the tight final corner, Webber on the outside and Vettel on the inside. Inevitably, Vettel struggled to hold the tighter line, moved out slightly which required Hamilton to give him space which in turn caused him to move out and push Webber off the edge of the track. Webber was not amused, but this one was a racing incident and no penalty or investigation by the marshalls was required.

Hamilton was now up to fifth, and no one could accuse him of having an uneventful day: if there was action, overtaking or controversy to be had in Shanghai, you’d also find Lewis Hamilton in close vicinity. And he wasn’t done yet, making it past Michael Schumacher for a second time into turn 8 on lap 26, and then getting past Vitaly Petrov at the same spot next time around to take fourth place. Now he had his sights on a podium finish and set about Robert Kubica, taking no prisoners with a move around the outside of the Renault into the hairpin on lap 29.

And still he wasn’t satisfied. He set about catching up to Nico Rosberg in second, who was clearly starting to struggle with rapidly wearing tyres but who put up a spirited defence to hold Hamilton back. Stymied, Hamilton opted to come in for his final set of new tyres on lap 37, the team hoping to learn from the experience with Schumacher/Webber earlier in the race and gain track position with the advantage of fresh inters for anextra lap. And it worked a treat, Rosberg coming in a lap later only to emerge behind the McLaren.

The sealed the top three, since even as tyres faded badly and everyone started slithering around in the concluding laps, none of the top three came seriously under threat. Fernando Alonso did manage to wrest fourth place from Robert Kubica on lap 39 to complete a very creditable recovery after the jump start, his tyre wear seeming the best among the front runners. Alonso had earlier needed to pull off a particularly vicious move on his team mate Felipe Massa as they came into the pits together on lap 21, running wheel-to-wheel alongside him on the pit entry and then cutting the corner to take a risky lead into the pit lane itself. That meant Alonso got to the pit box first while Massa sat behind, queuing and fuming, but given that Massa’s pace was never fast it’s just as well Alonso didn’t get stuck behind him for a lengthy stint.

The later laps were cruel to Michael Schumacher and Jamie Alguersuari, their tyres completely shot leaving them sitting ducks for the likes of Vitaly Petrov – who despite spinning out of fifth on lap 33, seemed to have the best tyres in the final part of the race and he put them to good use.

All in all, then, it was a frustrating day for Red Bull, who despite dominating qualifying and looking the class of the field, faded away into mediocrity on the race day itself. Partly that was due to some strategic naivety, but the car was also having worrying problems getting enough heat in its tyres in the wet and after the safety car. The Red Bull might be the class of the field in hot and sunny conditions, but it definitely has an Achilles heel in wet and changeable ones.

But the surprise was that McLaren should have been able to dominate the race instead, despite a disappointing qualifying. It wasn’t just a case of a single strategic decision giving them the advantage, either, because the two drivers had completely different approaches to the race – and yet ended up in a close one-two at the end of it. Button applied as much brainpower as horsepower, and his smooth no-drama style was vital; whereas Hamilton raced his socks off, providing drama and entertainment throughout the day.

McLaren are rewarded with a classy 1-2, and lead in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. And for the first time in their F1 careers, Button and Hamilton appeared on the podium together. Any thoughts that Button had made a mistake switching to McLaren are erased, and there’s talk of titles in the air in Woking in springtime.

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           1h44:42.163
 2.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +     1.530
 3.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +     9.484
 4.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +    11.869
 5.  Kubica        Renault                    +    22.213
 6.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    33.310
 7.  Petrov        Renault                    +    47.600
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    52.172
 9.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    57.796
10.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +  1:01.749
11.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:02.874
12.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:03.665
13.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:11.416
14.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +     1 lap
15.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
16.  Senna         HRT-Cosworth               +    2 laps
17.  Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth               +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:42.061

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth               27
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              9
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               8
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari           1
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               1
Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes         1
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              1

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        60        1.  McLaren-Mercedes          109
 2.  Rosberg       50        2.  Ferrari                    90
 3.  Alonso        49        3.  Red Bull-Renault           73
 4.  Hamilton      49        4.  Mercedes                   60
 5.  Vettel        45        5.  Renault                    46
 6.  Massa         41        6.  Force India-Mercedes       18
 7.  Kubica        40        7.  Williams-Cosworth           6
 8.  Webber        28        8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari          2
 9.  Sutil         10       
10.  Schumacher    10       
11.  Liuzzi         8       
12.  Petrov         6       
13.  Barrichello    5       
14.  Alguersuari    2       
15.  Hulkenberg     1 

  1. Seb Crump

    So, is the fact of a Mercedes 1, 2, 3 significant or just an interesting factoid?

  2. andrewlewin

    The Mercedes 1-2-3 passed me by, I have to admit. I wonder if it is significant? At the other end, the Ferrari engine seems a little prone to sending out smoke distress signals which must worry Maranello for the full season.

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