Conclusions From The Chinese GP

Date published: April 18 2011

Hamilton does what he does best, but both Lewis and Webber exploit the tyred rule…

Lewis Hamilton does what he does best, but both Lewis and Webber exploit the tyred rule…

It Doesn’t Get Better Than That
A sensational grand prix, culminating in a sensational victory for Lewis Hamilton. F1 doesn’t get any better than that.

If we were being ultra picky then Hamilton’s final overtaking manoeuvre, taking him into the lead of the race for the first time, would have occurred on the final lap rather than with four still to go, but the 2011 Chinese GP is an instant entry into the pantheon of all-time great grands prix – a pantheon which, it must be admitted, hasn’t been given an update for too long a time.

Sunday’s race had everything: sleight of strategy, stunning overtakes, a charge from the back of the grid, and, courtesy of Jenson Button’s uninvited housesitting as a third Red Bull driver, a humorous dollop of farce. From start to finish, it was an exhilarating spectacle.


Hamilton Did What He Did Best
Seasoned McLaren watchers will be aware that every Hamilton victory is immediately ordained by the man himself as the “best” of his career. So it was no surprise to hear him immediately declare as much in Sunday’s post-race press conference. Yet, like the boy crying wolf, he might have been telling the truth this time, and if, as he said later, it was “the best grand prix I’ve raced in”, then that too was largely of his own making. The bravery and daring of his overtakes were the centrepiece of his stand-out performance in a stand-out race.

From pre-start to finish, Hamilton’s drive was simply a thing of brilliance. Utterly unperturbed by the pre-race drama which saw his leaky car only make it on the grid with thirty seconds remaining, he made McLaren’s three-stop strategy work out as victorious with a series of overtakes that his team-mate simply could not match. Past Button, past Rosberg, past Massa and then past Vettel where the Red Bull least expected it. That’s how a race should be won – and that’s why Hamilton remains F1’s Box Office attraction.


Credit To Vettel For Something Different
It’s been mentioned a few times recently around these parts that Vettel remains relatively unproven as a racer and that wheel-to-wheel combat may not be his forte. Credit, then, for the World Championship leader’s driving when defending against the far quicker Hamilton in the closing stages. It may have been ultimately in vain, but it was noticeable that he managed to rebuff Hamilton for far longer than Button, Rosberg or Massa managed to do, and did so until a stage when he had effectively become a sitting duck to the McLaren. On the lap that followed Hamilton taking the lead, Vettel was over a second slower.

Christian Horner made the valid point afterwards that Vettel was within four laps of making his two-stop strategy a race winner, but four laps is an awfully long time in F1 and Hamilton held a comfortable five-second lead at the chequered flag. Moreover, Horner’s claim that Vettel had been P3 at the time of the first round of pit-stops when Red Bull opted to put him on a two-stop strategy was slightly economical with the truth because Vettel had already overtaken Hamilton and, though he entered the pits in second, he exited in first ahead of the garage-hopping Button.

When they review the grand prix, Red Bull’s ultimate conclusion might well be that while the two-stop strategy was half right – Vettel did, after all, comfortably beat Button to the line – it was the wrong choice for victory. A more general conclusion, in view of what also occurred in Malaysia when Hamilton was terminally derailed by Nick Heidfeld’s fast-starting Renault, is that leading at the end of the first lap has become absolutely vital this season because strategy has become so critical. Tyre choices are key and only the leader has the luxury of a full set of strategic options to unlock victory with.

Red Bull’s costly undoing in China was that, by thinking Vettel was in third, they went defensive and reactive rather than, as in Australia and Malaysia, aggressive and proactive.


Pirelli Are The Newcomer Of 2011
All credit to the newbies for delivering precisely what was asked of them. Their tyres are perfect because their perfection has a distinct limit which is then immediately followed by a sharp drop-off. The result is wonderfully varied racing.

The only downside is a potential exploitation made particularly obvious by the details of Mark Webber’s charge from 18th to 3rd, which highlighted how little a driver can lose from a disastrous qualifying session so long as he has a fast car and has kept plenty of new tyres in reserve. Having only used the standard number in Friday’s practice sessions and then just one set of prime tyres in Qualy One, the Aussie was able to blitz through the field on Sunday propelled by three different brand new set of options. Had the race carried on for a couple more laps, he might even have won.

Tellingly, the majority of Webber’s passes were not made in the DRS zone but in other areas of the track where his fresh rubber offered such a grippy advantage. Fresh tyres are the current king of 2011 and a host of teams – but particularly Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes – must all now be wondering whether they would be better off not running in Qualy Three in order to keep back another set of tyres, or sets, for Sunday’s race. The gain achieved from fresh tyres currently far exceeds grid position.

That type of exploitation was also half the story of Hamilton’s weekend, with the Englishman only making one run for pole position in Qualy Three so that he had one more set of new tyres for the race than either Vettel or Button. In the final reckoning, that strategy was probably a decisive factor in his win.

Whether such a loophole is good for F1 is debatable. It certainly isn’t good for Saturday’s spectacle. One topic that ought at least to be discussed during F1’s upcoming three-week sabbatical is whether an extra set of option tyres should be set aside for the ten cars that make it through to the final round of qualifying. Otherwise, it could literally become a non-event.


No Valid Excuses For Dozy Button
And then there was one. Whereas Hamilton, Vettel and Webber all excelled, the man in fourth was no better than average. And maybe something worse.

Jenson Button’s race was a major disappointment with the 2009 World Champion trounced by his team-mate in every facet of performance, including his speciality of tyre preservation. “The rears just didn’t work,” he bemoaned. Yet while that malfunction would explain why Button was unable to match he speed and overtakes of Hamilton in the second-half of the race, it doesn’t offer any sort of explanation for his embarrassing pit-stop aberration. Button claimed he was unsighted and distracted by something in his cockpit, but a F1 driver should be able to find his garage blindfold.

It will be