Chinese GP - Sunday - Race Report
By Dan Knutson
Lewis Hamilton pulled off a grand slam in the Chinese Grand Prix as he started from pole position in his Mercedes, led every lap, set the fastest race lap and won.
"It's been a fantastic weekend," Hamilton said after his fifth win in China, "and I'm very, very grateful for all the efforts that the team have put in to enable us to be where we are and where I am today.
"It's very overwhelming when you have a weekend like this, because I'm just a link in the chain and, when you really think about it, there's thousands of people involved, hundreds and hundreds of people involved in me being up here and us being where we are. So, congratulations to all of them. I hope they're all celebrating back home. I hope they're feeling the spirit, I hope they're feeling the fight‚Ä¶ because it's on."
Sebastian Vettel chased hard after Hamilton and took second place in his Ferrari in the race which started on a wet track. He and Hamilton each have one win and one second so far this season and thus are tied at the lead of the championship with 43 points.
Max Verstappen earned the fan's "driver of the race" vote by charging from 16th to third in his Red Bull.
While Hamilton led all the way and won by 6.25 seconds, he could not relax in the closing stages because Vettel was going flat out.
"In those final 20 laps Seb and I were just pounding around as fast as we could, exchanging fastest lap times," Hamilton said. "That's what racing is all about. In the future there will be times when we don't have a Safety Car and we won't have that gap. I'm excited for that. It's very close and there were times when it was hard to match Sebastian."
Vettel's view: "I kept pushing to keep some pressure on him, while asking my engineer what pace was needed for me to catch him. I think that pace-wise we were a match today, sometimes he was faster, sometimes I was: if we can fight with Mercedes also in Bahrain that will be again good news. We can still improve."
Verstappen called his race "very special."
"When I woke up this morning I never expected to be on the podium," he said. "It was a very good first lap, I passed nine cars I think which is very positive. The conditions really helped me get past the cars as quick as I could, that was important as I knew it would only dry up and get tougher to pass. I always enjoy driving in the wet so I made the most of the fun conditions early on. I think in the first 11 laps I got up to seventh place which set me up for a strong finish."
The rain had stopped before the race began, but the track was still slick enough to warrant the drivers using Pirelli's intermediate rain tire. Toro Rosso's Carlos Sainz, however, gambled on the super soft slicks.
Rookie Lance Stroll was eliminated on lap 1 when his Williams got hit at Turn 10 by Sergio Perez's Force India. That brought out the Virtual Safety Car.
"I was in front, knew the corner was mine and had to turn in eventually," Stroll said. "It was just unfortunate as that was my race over. I got hit and then the car was broken, most likely with a puncture and damaged suspension."
Perez: "There was contact with Stroll in Turn 10, which gave me a puncture. I don't think he saw me on the inside because he didn't give me any space."
Many drivers dived into the pits to get slicks including Vettel who switched to the soft compound. But Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull), Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) and Verstappen stayed out.
Then, as he was on lap 4, rookie Antonio Giovinazzi spun and crashed his Sauber in the final bend, just as he had done in qualifying. That brought out the real Safety Car.
The top five switched to slicks, with the Red Bull drivers going on to the super softs and the other three on to the softs.
Bottas made an expensive error when he spun while following the Safety Car.
"I made a good start but it didn't go so well from there," he said after eventually finishing sixth. "Yes, we lost some time in the pit stop but it was nothing compared to what we lost with my mistake. I was trying everything I could to get temperature in the tires behind the Safety Car but went too aggressive and lost control of the car.
"It was entirely my fault. I'm really sorry for the team and the points we lost today. It took few laps to get the tires working after the spin but in the end my pace was okay."
The Safety Car came in at the end of lap 8, and once things had settled down Hamilton led over Verstappen, Ricciardo, Raikkonen, Vettel, Sainz and Fernando Alonso.
Alonso kept the McLaren in the top 10 until it expired on the 34th of the race's 56 laps with a broken driveshaft.
"We started from P13 in very tricky conditions," he said, "and after a few laps we were running in sixth position. That was a big surprise and was thanks to an amazing couple of laps. I was hoping those tricky conditions would continue as other cars were spinning off here and there, and, as we said yesterday, we maximized our opportunities as we were overtaking 'for free' at some moments.
"But then, when the track started drying out, we started to lose a little bit of ground even though we were still able to hold onto P7 for some time."
It took Vettel until lap 21 to get by his teammate Raikkonen, and then he banged wheels to get by former teammate Ricciardo and followed that up with a pass on Verstappen to take second place.
The Red Bull drivers pitted for more super softs - Verstappen after 29 laps and Ricciardo after 33 tours. Vettel came in for another set of softs after 34 laps and Hamilton did the same after 36.
Raikkonen got up to second place as he did not pit until the end of lap 39. That dropped him to fifth where he finished.
"It was not a very strong race," he said. "The car felt good with fresh tires, but we seemed to lose the front very quickly and I was struggling; in a place like this that's very tricky and gives a lot of lap time away. I feel that, even with that, we should have had a better result: maybe we could have changed the tires a bit earlier, but it's always easy to speak after the race, now we have look at the data and understand. This result is far from ideal but this is what we have got today."
Hamilton and Vettel now raced to the finish. Vettel got the gap down from 12 to eight seconds, but there was no way he was going to catch the leader.
Meanwhile, Ricciardo closed in right behind Verstappen. The latter was complaining that Romain Grosjean, who was about to be lapped but was still more than a second ahead, should get out of the way because the Haas was upsetting the Red Bull's downforce.
"We had quite a bit of understeer but just about managed to hold on to third place," Verstappen said. "These balance issues combined with being within two seconds of another car in the closing stages of the race made it really hard to drive, there were blue flags out but I still couldn't get past, this need looking into.
"The battle with Daniel at the end was hard as my car was not fun to defend in. I'm glad we hung on and obviously it was a great race to watch and for the team. I think on pure pace in the dry we are still a bit slow for a podium but all things considered today we definitely maxed it out."
Ricciardo had mixed emotions about finishing fourth.
"It's obviously disappointing to miss out on the podium as it was so close today," he said, "but as a team it's a good result to finish third and fourth. I lost a lot of time in the first stint as I struggled to keep my front tires alive and that pretty much put us out of a podium position. After the first pit stop I had good balance and speed which meant I could claw some time back and close the gap to the leaders.
"Towards the end of the race I could see that Max was struggling with his tires but as soon as I got close to him I also began to struggle with mine. The team let us race but even though I was in the DRS zone I was not really close enough to pull off a convincing move."
Sainz was certainly not disappointed to take seventh place.
"Wow! What a race, I just don't have words to describe it!" he said. "On the grid I said I wanted to start the race on slick tires and everyone thought I was completely mad! It sounds like a funny moment now, but when everyone took the blankets off the tires and my race engineer told me that we were the only ones the super soft tire I doubted my decision.
"When you're on the grid, about to start a race, and you take a tough decision like today's, there's a lot of weight on your shoulders, knowing that you might have blown away a good result for the team. But I then said to myself, c'mon trust yourself, it's the right thing to do! I knew the start and the first four corners were going to be very tricky - and they certainly were! But from Turn 6 onwards the track was fully dry and I felt confident, and the gamble definitely paid off."
Haas' new driver Kevin Magnussen wound up eighth.
"I had fun out there," he said. "I had a good car all the way through the race. I'd made a really poor start, so to come back from that and push, I was really happy. The car's been good today. I was able to look after the front tires, which I think was key, along with working with the team to get the car in the right window.
"The race was really well managed from the team. It was good strategy to get me out on the super soft after the intermediates. You had to fight for it, in terms of passing. It's not easy, but you also have grip, so you can take different lines and get close in alternative ways. It's so much more fun when you're fighting in the points."
And speaking of points, both Force India's men finished in the top 10 with Perez ninth and Esteban Ocon tenth.
"I could have been a couple of places higher up," Ocon said. "We had the correct strategy and started the race on the right tire, but on lap two there was a misunderstanding with the team and I drove all the way down the pit lane without stopping for tires. I was not supposed to come in and it cost me at least 15 seconds. It was a result of the confusion of those early laps, when everyone was diving into the pits. It's a shame to lose time like this, but in the end we scored a point and that's a positive."
The teams and drivers had little time to savor or lament their final results in China because as soon as the race was over it was time to pack up and head for Bahrain for round 3 the following weekend where the battle for the championship lead will continue between Hamilton and Vettel along with the rest of the players anxious to get in the mix.
The fight is on.