Chinese GP 2009
APRIL 20, 2009
Race Report - Shanghai surprise
If it had been dry in Shanghai, it would almost certainly have been a different story... but on Sunday morning the clouds turned to drizzle and then to rain and the winds came whipping in across the flatlands on which the Shanghai International Circuit sits. It was miserable. All the planning and the number-crunching that had kept the engineers busy on the Friday and Saturday went out the window, and suddenly it was a question of seeing what happened.
And what happened was that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were unbeatable in their Red Bull-Renaults.
The young German was on pole position and as it was decided to start the race behind the Safety Car, that did not change. The Safety Car would remain out for the first seven laps. This was not classic motor racing and the F1 world really needs to have a serious thought about whether or not it is best to start races behind the Safety Car.
Such was the extent of the Renault grandstanding in qualifying that on that lap Alonso went into the pits for more fuel. The mirror was held up in front of Renault and the picture was not a pretty one. With Alonso down the back it was left to the Red Bullies to lead with Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button playing a waiting game. The Red Bulls needed to speed away to make the most of their light fuel loads. This they tried to do but progress was slow. They led until their stops, Webber on lap 14, Vettel on 15. That put Button into the lead after he had passed team-mate Barrichello on lap 11. Behind them, there was some fabulous fighting as Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa went on to the warpath. Lewis climbed up to fifth place and then spun back to 10th. He then went back up to eighth but then the Safety Car was sent out again on lap 18 after Robert Kubica ran into the back of Jarno Trulli's Toyota. Robert was fortunate to be able to dive into the pits but poor Jarno could not get into pitlane and had to spend a lap driving around with the back end of his Toyota looking like a right royal mess.
"There was a lot of standing water and lots of aquaplaning," said Jarno. "When the Safety Car came in I made a solid start and my pace was OK in the early laps. But then I started struggling for grip, the pace just wasn't there and the longer it went on the more ground I lost. On lap 17 I just felt a big hit from behind and I lost my rear wing. I made it back to the pits but we couldn't continue."
As the Safety Car was calming things down there was another nasty moment when Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso was caught out and ran hard into the back of Vettel, unsighted in the spray as they came upon the slowing Trulli.
"I didn't see him and I tried to swerve to the right," said the Swiss driver. "It was not enough to avoid him. We changed the wing on my car and I'm glad I didn't spoil his race."
"I was lucky", Vettel admitted. "We build a very strong car!"
Vettel was at an advantage but a quick refuelling stop by Brawn had Button out in second ahead of Massa. His race, however, ended on lap 21 when the Ferrari shut down with an electronic glitch.
"We are very annoyed about what happened to Felipe," said team boss Stefano Domenicali. "He was driving an amazing race, when an electrical problem saw the engine die. He was third at the time and even though he had a heavy fuel load, he was lapping in the same time as the fastest and he would have almost certainly finished the race on the podium."
The racing was on again a couple of laps later and with a lighter fuel load Vettel began to pull away from Button and Webber.
The Brawn team knew that the Bulls were lighter and that Button ought to be able to emerge ahead again, but on lap 29 he went off and instantly Webber was back in second again. Two laps later Button grabbed the place back when Webber went wide but then Mark pulled off a lovely move and sailed around the outside of Jenson, catching the Englishman completely by surprise.
Vettel made his final stop on lap 40 and Button was ahead of him again but it was clear that Button would have to stop. Before Jenson could do that Vettel went ahead with an assured move.
"Everyone was struggling, all aquaplaning in pretty crazy conditions," Jenson said. "The last corner was a lake, you couldn't brake for it, and I was really struggling because the tyres were shuddering with no temperature in them. Every lap I thought I was going to throw the car off, so just to finish the race was an achievement, and it's great to get on to the podium. These guys were extremely quick, their car was working really well - cheeky!
"For me, I felt I was pretty much always out of control! I was just waiting for Mark to appear in front of me, because I was really struggling get heat in the tyres. In Turn Seven and Eight I had no idea where Mark was, it was such a shock as I couldn't see anything. It was impossible to do anything about it and it would have been silly to try to have challenged him."
"It wasn't quite do or die," Webber said with a big smile, "but it was one of the best moves of my career because I knew he wouldn't be able to see that I was there."
"I didn't have a clue where he was and he was alongside at turn eight and it was such a shock as you can't see anything when it is raining," said Button. "Then he just cut across the front and made the move stick. For me it was impossible to do anything about it. As soon as these guys get near you or alongside you, you cannot challenge them and it would have been silly to have tried."
Jenson was not sure why the Brawn could not compete with the Red Bulls but there is one possible explanation. The RBR5 is a car that is tyre-hungry in the dry. In the wet, when there is less grip, the disadvantage becomes an advantage. The Brawn is very kind to its tyres in the dry but in the wet proved unable to generate enough heat in the tyres. Button talked of feeling that the car was floating on the surface of the water, while Vettel and Webber were able to find grip.
The weather also probably helped the Red Bulls to survive. The team went into Sunday worried that the cars would fall foul of the same driveshaft problems that had made the qualifying day such a challenge. On a dry track the components would have had to cope with much heavier loadings, but in the wet the stresses and strains were lower.
It also helped that the race was started behind the Safety Car. This is never popular with the fans, but the drivers are keen to keep everyone safe.
"I think we've seen the Safety Car work quite well on releasing the field in a much more controlled fashion," Webber said. "I think that we've learned a lot in 10 years in Formula 1 that there's no real need to have a standing start is not really necessary. We can use the Safety Car and it works quite well."
The top three were really in a race of their own but behind them Rubens Barrichello was also having a fraught time, with a number of different off-track moments
"I only had three brake discs working on my car for the first 19 laps which made it even more difficult for me to keep the car on the road," he said. "Thankfully the problem resolved itself when the brakes heated up during my first pit stop and I had a good pace from then on. Unfortunately it was a bit too late."
In the end the fifth place went to Heikki Kovalainen, who was thus able to celebrate his first points of the season. He was also able to beat Lewis Hamilton. After his early charges, Hamilton had a number of incidents which dropped him behind Kovalainen.
"Our strategy was spot on," he said. "Finishing higher than fifth was not possible today and I'm very pleased to have scored four solid points without making a single mistake - despite some massive moments!"
Hamilton also fell behind the Force India of Sutil, but the German did not last long before he lost control of the car and piled into the wall on lap 51.
"We took a risk with the strategy with a very early stop and it was a long way to go with one set of tyres," he explained. "Then it started to rain again and it was very hard to keep the car on the circuit. Sometimes even in a straight line in fourth or fifth gear I was struggling with aquaplaning and I was very lucky to keep the car on the circuit for so long."
Hamilton duly took back sixth place.
"I had some fun in the early laps," he said. "Unfortunately I destroyed my tyres quite early on. I made a few too many mistakes today but I still gave it my best. This afternoon was a real struggle but I'm glad I got some points for the team."
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh explained the decision to go for a one-stop strategy.
"We were never going to be able to live with the Red Bulls or the Brawns today, " he said. "The track was wet throughout the race, and the longer stints that our strategy dictated inevitably caused more wet-tyre wear than that experienced by the two-stoppers; but, despite the challenges posed by that extra wet-tyre wear, our drivers both coped very well. So, overall, an encouraging result."
It was not a great day for Toyota, but Timo Glock ended the day in seventh place, having yo-yoed up and down the order. He started from the pit lane with a heavy fuel load on wet Bridgestone tyres. He quickly made up ground and was up to 11th by the second Safety Car. He then damaged his front wing and had to pit but then fought back up the order again.
Buemi survived his brush with Vettel and then showed some true grit as he held off Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard eventually overtook but Buemi went ahead again when Alonso spun. Fernando finished ninth.
"We were very competitive in the early stages," said Buemi. "I got past Raikkonen and Hamilton, but after that I struggled a bit.
Sebastien Bourdais finished 11th after a couple of spins.
"I don't think we should have raced as there was so much aquaplaning," he said. "The fact the cars have a lot less downforce this year, aggravates the situation as it's hard to get the car down onto the track surface. I could have spun 15 or 20 times and Sutil's crash showed what could have happened."
Raikkonen was 10th and figured only briefly at the end of his long first stint. He then tumbled back to 14th but could not get temperature into his rubber. With Massa out early the team failed to score a point for the third consecutive race, a painful experience for a team that is used to success.
BMW Sauber also had a miserable time. Heidfeld looked like he might score points but then faded after a collision with Glock. He finished 12th, just ahead of Kubica, who had a torrid time, running into Trulli and later damaging his nose a second time. Fisichella finished 14th but the performance was nothing to write home about.
Williams had another shocking day, which is hopeless when one considers how fast the car has run. Nico Rosberg complained about his visor, which made it impossible to see, but then things began to look a bit better. Sadly, he switched to intermediates hoping that the rain would finish. It did not.
Nakajima looked hopeless all day and spun a lot before retiring with a transmission problem.
Nelson Piquet continues to look like a man who is better suited to sports car racing. He spun a lot and had to replace the nose of his car twice.
The F1 circus is not very fond of China and as the rains pelted down, many raced to get to the airport to leave.
Time is short. It is Bahrain in a few days.