F1: Stunning GP sees Hamilton oust Vettel

In one of the most eventful, competitive and flat-out exciting Grands Prix of recent times, Lewis Hamilton managed to thwart Sebastian Vettel’s run of victories – and yet still wasn’t the driver of the day.

Pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

The first GP of the year, Australia, showed promise for all the new tyres and gizmos that the FIA had introduced to improve the racing spectacle, but it was largely unfulfilled. Then we went to Malaysia and we thought that it was all fitting together and that it was actually pretty darn good. But nothing quite prepared us for the flat-out exhilaration of China, where suddenly all the disparate bits gelled and F1, to paraphrase a well-known energy drink advertising slogan, suddenly got given wings and took flight like rarely before in modern times in a dry race.

It hadn’t exactly been hugely promising immediately before the start. Sebastian Vettel was once again in charge at the front; Mark Webber, one of the few people able to challenge him, was back in 18th after a dreadful qualifying and was once again deprived of KERS, so it was hard to see him making much progress or even competing for points. And then came word that Lewis Hamilton was in trouble, too, with McLaren going into high panic mode with a suspected fuel leak just when they were meant to be hustling Lewis off to the starting grid. In order to avoid starting at the back from the pit lane, they had to send him out without an engine cover and deal with putting the car back together on the grid, but the question was whether he would even get away for the warm-up, let alone how many laps he would be able to limp around.

But all was not well in the world of Vettel, either. Considering he’s been untouchable so far this season, the reigning world champion would have been forgiven for strutting around the paddock looking like the king of the world. But in fact it was anything but, and Seb was looking preoccupied and worried in the moments leading up to the start, fiddling with his helmet and generally looking less than confident about the whole affair.

Maybe he had had a premonition: in which case it was an accurate one, because when the lights went out and the race began, it was a disaster for Vettel who got a horrible start. Holding Jenson Button back going into the first corner was an almost immediate lost cause, and instead he had to focus on beating Lewis Hamilton for second: he failed, despite pushing Hamilton onto the grass verge in a hard but firm move. And as if that wasn’t enough, Vettel was having to battle with Nico Rosburg who was alongside him into the tight turn 1/2/3 spiral. Vettel won that one, leaving Rosburg to play nicely (or not) with the Ferrari pair of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso to keep fourth place.

Vettel failing to take the lead and race off into the distance exploded all expectations for the race. Jenson had a lead of over a second, which kept him safe from attack from behind by anyone making use of the drag reduction system (DRS); Lewis was not so lucky and never pulled out a significant lead over Vettel despite putting up the fastest sectors and laps early on.

There was action all through the field, but the one person we had expected to set off fireworks – surely Mark Webber would be scything his way through the backmarkers? – failed to spark off. He gained a few positions by passing Sergio Perez and Rubens Barrichello but then seemed to get stuck behind Nick Heidfeld in a train of cars headed by Jamie Alguersuari. Having started on hard tyres, and with his adopting a four-stop strategy for the race, it looked like it was going to be a thankless task for him – especially when a hyped-up Perez managed to re-pass him for 15th.

Just when things seemed to be settling down, pit stops started with Alguersuari and Michael Schumacher at the end of lap 11; it was a disaster for Alguersuari whose rear right wheel simply dropped off a few corners after rejoining the track and he became the only retiree of the entire race when he finally pulled over at turn 8. Schumacher’s pit stop showed the Mercedes’ hand at strategy – Rosburg was also in early on lap 13. The other cars in front were trying to stretch it, but already handling was dropping off badly and they quickly realised how much time they were losing each lap to Rosburg’s fresher rubber, and needed to react fast.

Button and Vettel both came into the pits at the end of lap 15. And we watched agape as Jenson pulled into the pit box … at the Red Bull garage. The mechanics waved him through frantically before it held up their man, but in the end Jenson’s mental software glitch worked to Seb’s advantage as it lost the McLaren critical seconds, and Vettel emerged back on tack ahead of Button. Jenson had no excuses, spoke vaguely after the race about “looking down at something in the cockpit”, but must have known that this was a game-changing moment that had surely released Vettel to a third consecutive victory at the start of 2011. It would have been bad enough for a rookie to make that sort of error, but it was absolutely extraordinary for a former world champion.

And just to complete McLaren’s misery at this point, Lewis’ tyres seemed to have fallen off the proverbial cliff and the next lap saw him lose a position to Felipe Massa before they both came in for his own pit stop at the end of lap 16; unsurprisingly when Lewis came out from pit road, it was well behind Vettel and Button and even behind the yet-to-pit Sergio Perez, although he was quickly dispatched by Hamilton through turn 6.

It all seemed to be coming good for Vettel despite bogging down at the start, but there was still one fly in the ointment: he still wasn’t in the lead, because Nico Rosburg’s early stop and subsequent fast laps had put him in front of everyone by a huge 5.5s margin, although he would have an extra pit stop to fit in during the race that would cost him later. Vettel was also behind Vitaly Petrov as both Renaults went for extremely long tyre stints, but the Red Bull was able to get past Petrov on lap 19, using the adjustable rear wing /drag reduction system (DRS) into turn 13.

The race seemed to settle in terms of position, but there was still plenty of action and high drama to watch on the track: Hamilton was trying to make a move on Massa but finding the DRS zone just not working for him; Schumacher was holding off Fernando Alonso in a battle of the former world champions; Adrian Sutil, Kamui Kobayashi and Mark Webber were scrapping over 9th, 10th and 11th; Perez was battling away in a Renault sandwich with Petrov in 12th and Heidfeld behind in 14th.

One person who wasn’t in the game at this stage was Jenson Button, who was losing ground on Vettel and who needed to pit again for fresh soft tyres at the end of lap 26, dropping him back down to eighth. Rosburg was in from the lead the following lap after trying to stretch his tyres and fuel during his second stint to maximise the success of his first pit stop strategy. He came in at the same time as Lewis Hamilton, which released Vettel into the lead for the first time in the race; further back, Mark Webber was also in, freeing him up from a frustrating battle trying to pass Kamui Kobayashi but dropping him down to 15th in the process, in a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of afternoon. Just to make the Aussie’s day, the team gloomily confirmed that his KERS was once again unavailable for the remainder of the race.

If that had been it – if the rest of the race was now a procession to the chequered flag – then Shanghai would still have counted as a “well above average” race based on what we had seen. But the true miracle of this year’s Chinese Grand Prix was that it’s only as we pass the midway point that we get to deploy the truly miraculous sentence: “And then things started to get really interesting.”

Vettel was leading ahead of Massa and Alonso, but all were on a two-stop strategy and had yet to make that final stop; Nico Rosburg was in fourth ahead of Jenson Button, while Lewis Hamilton was starting to fly on his latest set of tyres and made short work of Paul di Resta (having a solid afternoon up to this point for Force India) for sixth on lap 29. Another driver suddenly finding it all clicking together was Mark Webber, who carved through a 2.8s gap between him and Rubens Barrichello in a single lap to pass the Williams for 14th place on lap 30.

In the single lap that followed we also saw Rosburg make a bold move on Alonso through the final corner that paid off; then Button ease past the Ferrari and finally Lewis Hamilton breeze past his old rival in turn 7 as Alonso simply couldn’t make the two-stop tyre strategy work for him nearly as well (surprisingly) as Felipe Massa seemed to. And up in front, things were also starting to sour for Sebastian Vettel: his pace was falling off as he too reached the end-of-life point on his tyres, and to complicate the forthcoming pit stop he had also developed radio problems and could no longer be heard by his team, who were having to resort to alternative state of the art technology instead – ye olde pit board.

Vettel pitted at the end of lap 31, having to stick to hard tyres to make them last to the end from here; Alonso came in next time around, the most compromised of the two-stoppers, with Massa on at the end of lap 33 to take his final set of prime tyres as well. That swung the track position advantage back to the three stoppers – Rosburg leading Button and Hamilton, all of them needing to make the most of this transition period before they had to come in for their later pit stops. At this point Rosburg’s gap over Vettel was 16s – not enough to pit again and come back out in the lead.

Further back, Petrov was now defending from Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber – and lost out to them both on successive laps as Webber in particular was coming alive and really flying on this latest set of fast but short-life soft tyres, putting the Red Bull “second driver” up to seventh place – but still looking at one more pit stop before the end on his four-stop strategy.

As the race reached lap 35, Hamilton was clearly the faster of the two McLarens and was visibly frustrated at being held up by his team mate, while the pit crew sent a “look after your tyres” message to him which could be loosely translated as “We’re not giving you team orders, but whatever you do be careful and don’t take your team mate out.” Lewis Hamilton’s racing brain duly read this message as a green light to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” – and he did, putting in a mammoth run on Button down the start/finish straight (which meant he didn’t even have access to the DRS feature.) Button was either playing nice or was just plain dopey, and stayed on the outside line instead of defending the inside run through into turn 1: Hamilton took it as a welcome mat and blasted his way through, but was incredibly lucky that Button reacted at last and stopped himself turning in on Lewis, or else it would have been a disastrous end for both McLarens there and then.

The move was done: Hamilton was in second, and pulling away from Button fast, almost 3s over the course of the next two laps. He had his sights set on claiming Rosburg’s scalp, and moreover needed to thrash the living daylights out of his car if he was to come out of his final pit stop with any sort of a chance of carrying the fight to Vettel.

Button was first to pit after locking up and flat-spotting his tyres, meaning he was in at the end of lap 37; Hamilton was in next time round and Rosburg the lap after that. Hamilton got the best stop of the three, Button a long way back and Rosburg emerging from pit road tantalisingly close ahead of Hamilton, who immediately tried an overtaking move on the German through turn 6 but couldn’t quite make it stick. Lewis still wasn’t getting a good enough run through turn 13 to take advantage of DRS, and then he flat-spotted his tyres pushing too hard. It seemed that this was the pivotal moment of the race and that it was all slipping away from Hamilton.

But then on lap 42 Rosburg got a panic flash message from his pits that fuel was critical: unless he eased off and leaned out the mix, he wasn’t going to make it. That made all the difference and this time Hamilton’s attack through turn 6 couldn’t be resisted, and Lewis was through to third place. Rosburg was also easy prey for Jenson Button a few corners later, but it had been a tremendous afternoon’s performance for Nico all the same.

The pit stops and the harder tyres for Vettel and Massa compared with the searingly fast set of soft tyres Hamilton was on has collapsed the distances between the top three: Vettel’s lead over Massa was just 3.9s and Hamilton was just 1.7s behind the Ferrari. But catching is one thing, passing quite another in this sport: would all the new F1 rule tweaks really prove their worth when the chips were well and truly down?

Hamilton demonstrated that the answer was yes, although once again he did the business down the start/finish straight without any of that new-fangled DRS malarky. He passed Massa with ease at the start of lap 45, and still had over ten laps to work on that 3.7s gap to Vettel and do battle for the lead. It wasn’t easy – Vettel put in a splendid rear-guard action to try and maintain enough of a gap over Hamilton to keep him outside the 1s activation zone for the DRS – but by lap 50 the McLaren was all over the back of the Red Bull and just desperate to pounce.

Hamilton tried activating DRS down the outside line but Vettel cleverly positioned his car on the apex of the switchback to force Hamilton to check up and lose critical momentum, foiling the move; he tried again at the hairpin next time around and was still repulsed. Then finally, out of nowhere, Hamilton caught Vettel out at turn 7 and surged past for the lead, leaving Vettel looking startled and without an answer to this sudden reversal of fortunes. For the first time, perhaps, it dawned on the young German that this wasn’t a race that was going to come good at the end after all. Once past, Hamilton pulled away as if his life depended on it – he couldn’t afford to dangle even the smallest chance in front of Vettel at this stage.

Further back from this battle, Mark Webber had come in for his final stop on lap 41, and if we thought his pace had been good before then it was nothing to what we saw on this final set of sorts tyres as he racked up the fastest laps and positively eviscerated everyone who stood in his way. Alonso – seemingly no happier on this latest set of tyres than the previous ones, although he was still able to hold off Michael Schumacher for seventh in the dying laps – was easily dispatched for sixth on lap 45, and Webber simply screamed past Massa for fifth on lap 51, looking for all the world like he was in a different race from the tired plodders trying to eke out fuel and rubber all around him.

Webber was all over the back of Rosburg by the end of lap 53, and the two were locked together as they crossed the start/finish line. Rosburg couldn’t break away and the two cars went into the turn 1/2/3 spiral locked together; still Nico held on, but as the track opened out into turn 4 and 5 he had nothing left to see off the superior pace of the Red Bull. Webber was through and up to a magnificent fourth place, with under three laps to spare.

Except – Mark wasn’t done yet. Jenson Button wasn’t far up the road, and Webber wasted no time closing right up on him. On the penultimate lap he took the inside line through turn 14 and ejected Button from third place; Jenson tried to fight back but the Aussie was having none of it.

The top three had been turned inside out in the last five laps: anyone saying that F1 was boring and that the lead never changes simply has to watch the replay of this race, because you could have placed bets on the podium positions as late as lap 50 and still been caught out completely by the final result. Small wonder then that Hamilton was ecstatic and more than a little emotional after claiming the chequered flag ahead of the two Red Bulls. Button, finishing fourth, must have been ruing that amazing pit box blunder early in the race, but in truth it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the end result – the top three best and fastest cars and drivers won out, which is surely what should happen in a proper motor race?

Racing throughout was astonishingly clean and collision-free, although Sauber’s Sergio Perez displayed his youthful inexperience and exuberance with two incidents. The first saw him get some front wing damage by trying to hold on to the inside line through turn 2 long after Nick Heidfeld had reasonably shut the door on an attempted pass by Perez on lap 45. That incident had already been declared one that the stewards would look at after the race, when two laps later Perez spied what he thought was an opportunity to pass Adrian Sutil on the inside line of the turn 1/2/3 spiral, only to find his old tyres had no where near the grip required to pull it off and the Sauber drifted wide and into heavy sideways contact with the Force India. Both cars ran off and suffered damage, with Sutil having to pit for a new front wing and the stewards not having to take any time at all thinking about handing Perez a drive-thru penalty which dropped him all the way back down to 15th.

“I’m very sorry for the accident with Adrian – I am sorry for him and sorry for my team,” said Perez, who explained that he had felt under pressure to act to hold off Vitaly Petrov behind him. “Unfortunately I lost the rear when I was already on the inside of Adrian and crashed into him.”

Ultimately, it was the sort of race that left drivers unable to remember or talk about just what had happened in the mayhem when asked about it straight afterwards; and left commentators hoarse with the effort of trying to keep up with it all for the last 100 minutes; and left video machines tasked with collecting potential highlights of the race with an inadvertent copy of the entire event, and then some. And poor humble race reports like this one, no matter to what length they were by now bloated, found themselves sweeping huge swathes of incidents to one side which in olden times might practically have been the headline banner moment of the whole weekend.

The most wonderful thing is that it put a stop to Vettel’s run of victories. Nothing against Seb in the slightest, but the stat looming over everyone’s heads coming into this race weekend was how a driver who has won all first three races of the season has never failed to win that year’s world title, and how depressing would it be to have the championship title essentially decided before the end of April? Even Vettel’s own team mate let slip his relief during the televised post-race interviews: “Shame McLaren won in a way, but also we can’t let Seb get too far away.

“Congratulations to Lewis,” he said, then adding : “It was good that someone finally…” before finally catching himself and hastily retreating from being just a little bit too admirably frank. “Of course Seb is in the same team, but he’s been on a phenomenal run and we’re all here together fighting for victories.” Ahem: yes, Mark, good boy!

If a tie-breaker for “driver of the day” were needed, then this slip would surely have swung it to Webber. But in truth none were needed: despite Hamilton’s huge effort to clinch the win – arguably his best win if not his best overall race in his entire F1 career – and some beautiful moves on Button, Massa and Vettel on track and all outside the DRS “cheat” area, there’s no doubt that Webber’s charge from 18th on the grid and from 15th at the midpoint of the race to claim a podium place despite having no KERS is a truly superlative achievement of race craft by Webber.

It’s just as well there is a three week break before the next F1 outing: this was a race that genuinely reminded us all to make time to check our supplies of valium, and to go and have our pacemakers checked out, tuned-up and recharged before daring to put them through this sort of ordeal again on May 8 at the Grand Prix of Istanbul. Turkey has a lot to live up to if it’s to compare with Shanghai, which was the most wonderful surprise present any F1 fan could have asked for in 2011.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     1:36:58.226
 2. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     +     5.198
 3. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     7.555
 4. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    10.000
 5. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    13.448
 6. Massa        Ferrari              +    15.840
 7. Alonso       Ferrari              +    30.622
 8. Schumacher   Mercedes             +    31.206
 9. Petrov       Renault              +    57.404
10. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:03.273
11. Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes +  1:08.757
12. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1:12.739
13. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +  1:30.189
14. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:30.671
15. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
16. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
17. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
18. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
19. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
20. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21. Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
22. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
23. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:38.993

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                Lap
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari  12

World Championship standings after round 3

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Vettel     68    1. Red Bull-Renault     105
 2. Hamilton   47    2. McLaren-Mercedes      85
 3. Button     38    3. Ferrari               50
 4. Webber     37    4. Renault               32
 5. Alonso     26    5. Mercedes              16
 6. Massa      24    6. Sauber-Ferrari         7
 7. Petrov     17    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     4
 8. Heidfeld   15    8. Force India-Mercedes   4
 9. Rosberg    10    
10. Kobayashi   7    
11. Schumacher  6    
12. Buemi       4    
13. Di Resta    2    
14. Sutil       2  
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