Chinese GP - Sunday - Race Report
Fernando Alonso and Ferrari were faster than anybody else in China and the combination of driver and car along with perfectly executed pit strategy resulted in victory in the 10th running of the Chinese Grand Prix.
"It couldn't have gone better than this today!" Alonso said. "I hadn't won since Germany and this has a special feeling because it was a tricky race full of action. Along with the second place I got in Australia, this result shows that the car is competitive and that we are working in the right direction to always be in the fight for the podium."
Kimi Raikkonen might have been able to challenge Alonso, but accident damage on his Lotus meant that the Finn had to settle for second place. Lewis Hamilton qualified his Mercedes on pole but his car didn't have the speed to match the Ferrari and Lotus. He finished third after barely fending off a late race charge from Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel.
Pirelli provided is soft and medium compound slick tires for this event. The soft was more like a qualifying tire and would last less than 10 laps, so tire strategy and not pushing the car too hard on either compound played a key role in this race.
The top seven on the grid qualified and started on the soft tire. This group consisted of Hamilton, Raikkonen, Alonso, Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Ferrari), Romain Grosjean (Lotus) and Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso.)
Jenson Button (McLaren), Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg (Sauber), who rounded out the top 10, sacrificed grid positions in order to be able to use the more durable medium tire at the start of the race.
All the drivers except the McLaren duo of Button and Sergio Perez opted for three-stop strategy. The McLaren guys decided to tiptoe around and stop just twice for tires.
Mark Webber had run out of fuel in qualifying and had had the gearbox changed on his Red Bull, so he started the 56-lap race from the pitlane.
When the red lights went out, Hamilton swooped across to take the lead. Alonso and Massa slotted into second and third while Raikkonen, who had a software problem, dropped to fourth.
Just how long would the soft tires last? Four laps for Hamilton who pitted for a set of the mediums. Alonso led lap five and Massa lap six before they pitted. Now Hulkenberg, on the medium tires, took over the lead and held it until the end of lap 14. That was the end of The Hulk's glory, however, as he would finish 10th.
"It was quite a mixed race with mixed emotions," Hulkenberg said. "It was obviously very nice to be leading again, and to beat the front battling with the top teams. I had a reasonable start and some nice battles in the first couple of laps. I was able to gain some positions, but, somehow, towards the end of the race, we were losing or lacking a little bit of pace. Once you are in the lead or second you understandably hope for more. Nevertheless, it might not have been the true picture, as we were racing out of sequence with other people who were starting on soft tires."
Laps 14 to 16 saw some extra action. Webber collided with Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso, and Raikkonen and Perez tangled. While the Lotus was not badly damaged, it did lose downforce.
"Second wasn't quite what we wanted," Raikkonen said, "but in the circumstances it was the best that we could manage today. I'm not 100 percent happy because we didn't win, but it is what it is and second place is a good result after a bad start and the incident with Sergio (Perez.) It was quite difficult out there; obviously the car is not designed like that otherwise we would use it all the time, but I was surprised how good it was still. Of course there were some handling issues which was not ideal, but we just had to try to live with it and we still had pretty okay speed."
Webber pitted for repairs and headed back out on the track only to have his right rear wheel fall off. His race was over, and officials also penalized him three grid places in the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix for causing a collision.
"The start of the race was going okay," Webber said. "We elected to get rid of the soft tire quite quickly and then came back through the field pretty well. Regarding the incident with Jean-Eric, I was coming from a reasonable distance behind, Jean-Eric was really wide, but when we came close to the apex he wanted to hit it, which he is entitled to do, but by then I was committed to the inside and the incident happened. It was a couple of laps before our pit stop window, so I had to come in early. The guys thought the tire was fixed when we left the stop, but it came off on the out lap. We have had a few problems this weekend; I think we could have done something from our start position today, but it wasn't meant to be."
Button led laps 15 to 20. He would finish fifth.
"The race was always going to be tricky," he said. "We weren't quick enough to adopt the same strategy as the others, so we had to run longer than the rest and make two pit stops, rather than three. For us, a two-stopper was the fastest way to the end of the race. It meant I had to let others past me and protect the tires. If we couldn't run to our target lap, it would've destroyed our race. I had to cruise when I'd normally fight the others. It's not the most exciting way to go racing, but we got 10 points today because we did it. We know we still have a lot of work to do to challenge at the front, but we can take a lot of positives away from this weekend."
Alonso was back out in front for laps 21 to 23 and then pitted. Vettel took over first for laps 24 to 28. Alonso, on newer tires, passed Vettel on lap 29 and led until he made his final pit stop on lap 41. Vettel led one lap, but then Alonso passed him again and went on to lead laps 43 to 56.
While there were eight lead changes between six drivers, Alonso controlled the second half of the race.
"Definitely it was nearly a perfect Sunday for us with not any problem in the race," Alonso said. "The start was clean; it was good. We managed to overtake Kimi. And then in the first stint we managed to pass Lewis as well. The car felt a little bit better on the degradation side let's say. And then in the rest of the race, obviously you need to take care of the tires a little bit; you need to manage the gap with the guys behind. It was not so easy to understand the race sometimes. We were overtaking the McLarens, Hulkenberg, Sebastian (Vettel), so it was a little bit of a mix. So it was not an easy race, and there were some moments of action and the risk is there when you have to do an overtaking maneuver and you have to manage that as well."
Hamilton crossed the finish line in third place and just .203 of a second ahead of the charging Vettel.
"It was a good race for me," Hamilton said. "I'm quite happy with third. Of course I would have liked to have won but congratulations to Fernando, he did a great job and so did Kimi. They were both a little bit too fast for us during the race. I was able to apply a little bit of pressure to Kimi but not enough to get close to him and overtake. My tires were shot at the end and there was nothing I could do really to hold off Sebastian. A little bit unlucky with some traffic. Still, to get on the podium, really happy. Really happy with the points as well."
After two stints on the medium tire, Vettel pitted for the softs and a five lap sprint at the end of the race.
"After the last stop, the team told me there was quite a big gap to the cars ahead, but also a big gap behind," Vettel said, "so we thought we should go for it in the closing stages. When I came on to the long straight and saw Lewis at the other end turning into the hair pin I thought 'well, that's a bit too far', but obviously we had much more speed on the fresher tires. It was a little bit disappointing to lose out by such a tiny bit; a few corners more and we could have tried something. Nonetheless, our strategy seemed to work today. We knew it would be difficult and that it was crucial to get clean laps, but we didn't in the first stint. I was faster than Nico (Hulkenberg) but if you follow another car you lean on your front tires too much and it was hard to find the right compromise, but overall we can be happy."
After running third, Massa finished sixth.
"It's difficult to understand exactly what happened today because the start went very well," he said. "I was immediately quick and the car was working perfectly. At the first stop, I fitted the Medium tires and after a few laps I began to suffer with graining on the front. That meant I lost ground to other cars and it was probably down to a problem linked to the track conditions and my driving style. All weekend, I haven't felt comfortable with these tires and in the race, any attempts I made to save them was useless. But for this problem, I would certainly have been in the fight for the podium."
Daniel Ricciardo's previous best finish in F1 was ninth, so he was ecstatic with seventh. Paul di Resta (Force India), Grosjean and Hulkenberg rounded out the top 10.
And now it is on to the Bahrain Grand Prix, round four of the 2013 season.
"I expect a tough race again," Alonso said. "In Bahrain I think we will see different conditions and who knows how competitive anyone can be. But definitely, as I said before, from the races that we finished this year the car seems to be able to be on the podium, so we hope to be on the podium again in Bahrain."