2014 Chinese GP report

by Mark Hughes on 20th April 2014

Three consecutive Lewis Hamilton victories to tie him with Jim Clark and Niki Lauda in the all-time winners list, the third consecutive Mercedes 1-2, but as a contest, the Chinese Grand Prix was a pale shadow of Bahrain two weeks ago.

This race underlined the fact that such is the Mercedes dominance both W05s need to be problem-free if we are to have a great race. If only one of them gets a clear run through the weekend, then it’s obvious what we’re going to get. Furthermore, the combination of high-speed corners with fairly adventurous tyre compounds (soft and medium) meant that the circuit was littered with marbles off-line, like this was 2011 again.

It meant cars not being able to run wheel-to-wheel through turn 13, the long, increasing-speed loop leading onto the long back straight. It also limited the effective width of the braking zone into the hairpin at the end of that stretch, discouraging dives down the inside.

Nico Rosberg’s weekend began to go badly when the rain hit the track on Saturday. It made the key to this whole event ragged improvisation rather than a methodical chase of perfection, swinging the balance away from him and towards Lewis. When the programme was about shaving the margins of set up and fine tuning tyre usage Rosberg was shaping to have the upper hand as Hamilton struggled with suspension problems.

Even with those fixed he was unhappy with his car’s balance. Would those small margins be the decider, into Rosberg’s favour after Hamilton’s recent twin victories?

Qualifying

The rain rendered all that moot, made qualifying a bold game of working out where the puddles were, feeling the car in the slippery surface and blinding spray, sitting on that difficult knife edge between pushing and patience. Hamilton did it with swashbuckling ease, Rosberg always looked a little more edgy, correcting more precarious moments.

On his penultimate Q3 lap he ran wide at turn 14, right up to the edge of the outer white line. The extra 30 metres he travelled in that moment ensured his GPS was out of synch – giving him false read-outs on the lap time delta upon his steering wheel. Believing he was 0.2s down on his previous best as he approached the final turn of his last lap – and not the 0.6s up he actually was – he decided to risk all in trying to find the imagined deficit through there.

He exited the turn backwards, leaving his previous best good only for fourth on the grid. Hamilton never looked in danger of not taking pole in these conditions and eventually sealed it by the margin of 0.6s from the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo who in turn was 0.5s clear of his team-mate Sebastian Vettel.

Yet again Danny had out-paced his quad-champ team-mate and the lap that counted was a beauty, the car dancing right on the edge through the surface change of the exit of the fast turn seven. He’d been quicker and more consistent than Vettel through the dry practice sessions too, and was easier on the tyres into the bargain.

The generic limitation around this track – unusually – is the left front. The never-ending right-hander of turns 1-2-3 and the long, long right of 11-12-13 absolutely kill it, dwarfing the degradation rates of the rears, which are relatively unstressed here.

Minimising the number of times you go through such graining pushes you towards a two- rather than a three-stop race, as does the unusually long pit lane. But it can only be done if you can make the option left-front last for a long enough stint that the remaining stints are not too long for the tyre life.

Everyone went in hoping to two-stop but open to the possible necessity of a three. Rising track temperatures reduced the tendency for graining, further pushing it towards a two. Every car apart from Kevin Magnussen’s 15th-fastest McLaren, started on the option tyre for its startlne traction and early lap performance. But thereafter the prime was the better tyre around here.

The lack of stop/start sections helped the Ferrari, a car with poor traction but good stability through the sort of high speed sections that comprise most of the middle sector here. So from being an embarrassment in Bahrain, two weeks later the F14T was half respectable here – all that is needed for Fernando Alonso.

Conversely, the McLaren – a car with a very apparent deficit in high-speed downforce – struggled badly here, with neither car making it through to Q3.

The race

Hamilton easily converted pole into the lead as the pack accelerated down to turn one. Just as in Bahrain, Felipe Massa’s Williams was even more impressive off the line. Its choice of gear ratios seem better suited to getaways than the cars around it and from row three it was immediately past the slow-away Merc of Rosberg and gaining fast on Ricciardo who’d started two rows ahead.

As Danny closed off the gap to the right where the Williams had been heading, Felipe swerved left into the gap between Ricciardo and Alonso. Fernando was gradually easing right until the Ferrari and Williams rubbed wheels, jumping the Ferrari briefly into the air – which actually seemed to accelerate it slightly – and Alonso was able to grind by Ricciardo for third through 1-2-3.

2014 Chinese GP results

1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 1h33m28.338s
2. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes +18.062s
3. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari +23.604s
4. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull-Renault +27.136s
5. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault +47.778s
6. N Hülkenberg, Force India-Mercedes +54.295s
7. Valtteri Bottas, Williams-Mercedes +55.697s
8. Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari +1m16.335s
9. Sergio Pérez, Force India-Mercedes +1m22.647s
10. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso-Renault +1 lap
11. Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
12. Jean-Éric Vergne, Toro Rosso-Renault +1 lap
13. Kevin Magnussen, McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
14. Pastor Maldonado, Lotus-Renault +1 lap
15. Felipe Massa, Williams-Mercedes +1 lap
16. Esteban Gutiérrez, Sauber-Ferrari +1 lap
17. Jules Bianchi, Marussia-Ferrari +1 lap
18. Kamui Kobayashi, Caterham-Renault +1 lap
19. Max Chilton, Marussia-Ferrari +2 laps
20. Marcus Ericsson, Caterham-Renault +2 laps

Retirements
Romain Grosjean
, Lotus-Renault 28 laps
Adrian Sutil, Sauber-Ferrari 5 laps

Daniel’s swerves had cost him momentum, allowing Vettel to zap by him for second even before turn one. Massa continued just behind Ricciardo, the Williams apparently undamaged from its hit. Valtteri Bottas in the sister car made heavy contact with Rosberg, slewing him sideways and losing him many places, while Rosberg continued in seventh, behind Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India.

The Mercedes team had lost all telemetry contact with Rosberg’s car and although he felt that his dummy getaway had been near perfect, changes are usually then made on the clutch settings based upon estimated evolution of grip levels on the now-rubberised grid slot. Without the data feed to allow this, the car had bogged down horribly on the start proper. He slipstreamed the Force India down the back straight and squeezed ahead wheel-to-wheel through turns 14 and 15.

Hamilton crossed the finish line already 1.5s clear of Vettel, as Alonso hung on in a Ferrari with a visibly more understeery balance than the Red Bull. On the first lap he’d been massively faster than Vettel through the kink of turn five and tried sitting it out on the outside as they approached the wide hairpin of six but couldn’t quite make it stick.

He was at his opportunistic relentless best, though, and not allowing Seb off the hook. Ricciardo followed from Massa, the latter soon under attack from the recovering Rosberg, who would go past in the DRS zone down to turn 14.

Hamilton extended the gap by around one second per lap, hardly seeming to extend himself. Improvements to the Red Bull since Bahrain had found it some lap time, but it was around 20kph slower than the Merc at the end of the back straight – costing it 0.6s right there. Vettel was also finding himself going through the rubber faster than he’d have liked and by the eighth lap was already asking whether he should make his first stop. “No, there are no gaps in the traffic yet,” replied ‘Rocky’.

Massa’s Williams was suffering bad graining from around the sixth lap and he was brought in from sixth – on lap 10. The new rear tyres were mistakenly transposed, left to right. Correcting this delayed him horribly, losing him a minute and dropping him right out of contention.

Alonso and Hulkenberg were in next lap from third and sixth respectively, triggering Vettel in from second on lap 12. Rosberg also came in at this time. Alonso’s earlier stop undercut him ahead of Vettel, putting the Ferrari second while the lateness of Ricciardo’s stop on lap 15 ensured he was undercut by Rosberg. 

Hulkenberg ran fifth, around four seconds adrift of Ricciardo and a similar distance ahead of Bottas. All had rejoined on the medium-spec prime tyre. Vettel’s radio message at this time spelt out just how compromised Red Bull was strategically by its lack of straightline speed.

“I’m not going to be able to pass [Alonso]; he’s too fast on the straight. Is it worth backing off, saving fuel?” he queried. “Yes, it is,” came the reply. He was running third but being quickly caught by Rosberg who was having to read out his fuel display regularly as he passed the pits, so his team could ensure he remained on his allowance.

Running serenely out-front, ever-distant from those in vague pursuit, Hamilton could afford to give his front-left a relatively easy time and thereby stay out longer – which would pay back in the reduced number of laps his remaining two sets of tyres would be required to make.

As he made his way in at the end of lap 17, he’d used up just about all the rubber on the fronts, causing him to lock up and run off the track at the turn 14 hairpin. It lost him around three seconds and ensured he got out only around four seconds ahead of Alonso, thanks also to those late gentler laps while Alonso charged around on new rubber for six laps.

But now Hamilton had a clear track ahead of him and prime tyres that were six laps newer than those of the Ferrari. He could extend that gap at will, even whilst staying well inside the fuel limit. He had 39 laps and one more stop left, giving his two sets of fresh primes relatively little work to do, illustrating again the compounding advantages of the Merc’s raw speed.

Drivers' Championship

1. Nico Rosberg 79
2. Lewis Hamilton 75
3. Fernando Alonso 41
4. Nico Hülkenberg 36
5. Sebastian Vettel 33
6. Daniel Ricciardo 24
7. Valtteri Bottas 24
8. Jenson Button 23
9. Kevin Magnussen 20
10. Sergio Pérez 18
11. Felipe Massa 12
12. Kimi Räikkönen 11
13. Jean-Eric Vergne 4
14. Daniil Kvyat 4

“We made lots of changes to the car overnight Friday, but then of course it rained Saturday,” he recalled, “so I didn’t really know for sure how it was going to be today. But the car was really good. We made the right steps in anticipation.”

Rosberg continued to make progress through the field. “It’s quite enjoyable doing that in a fast car,” he said. “It’s a pretty good tool.” From nine seconds behind Vettel as he’d rejoined from his first stop, he was on the Red Bull’s tail within seven laps and past after nine, though the move itself was a bit marginal, the Merc down the inside all locked up into the turn 14 hairpin, forcing Vettel to go wide with him to avoid contact.

Side-by-side they ran through the next few corners until Nico was definitively ahead – with Alonso six seconds up the road from there, his next target. The Ferrari was going well and Alonso was brilliantly balancing out the tyre usage demands with the gap behind him. He’d used the undercut – of stopping first – to get ahead of Vettel, but that of course left him needing to do longer subsequent stints and he was very aware of how much to take from that critical front-left.

Vettel vs Ricciardo

Conversely, Ricciardo was now getting payback reward for the late first stop, his newer rubber playing its part in him closing quickly down on team-mate Vettel. Not for the first time this season Red Bull was faced with the prospect of asking Seb to move aside for Danny – only this time they were on the same spec of tyre. “What tyre is he on?” demanded Vettel in response. “Primes, but they are newer than yours.”

“Tough luck,” responded Vettel. This was lap 23.

“He’s on a two-stop,” further explained Rocky to Seb. Which was interesting as it implied that Vettel was looking at three-stopping. “Yes, Seb was just taking more from the tyres than Danny,” explained Christian Horner post-race. “So it was looking like we’d need to stop him three times. But the problem with that was finding the gaps in the traffic because with our straightline speeds we wouldn’t be able to get past on track.”

With some further encouragement to let Ricciardo on his way, Vettel went deep into turn one as the other Red Bull came down the inside. Once it was plain Daniel was not about to back out of the move, Vettel stayed well to the left and Ricciardo was through and going away.

These are difficult times for the champion, facing the fact that his team-mate is driving the same car faster yet taking less from the tyres. “I saw more and more that I didn’t have the pace,” he admitted. “There was no point in holding Dan back. I’m not yet where I want to be with the car, but it’s an on-going process.”

The battle for third

Because of the lack of suitable gaps in the traffic, Vettel remained on a two-stop – as did pretty much everyone else. As Hamilton extended his gap at the front, so the tense battle for second between Alonso, Rosberg and Ricciardo bunched up.

By the 32nd lap Rosberg was within one second of the Ferrari and it seemed inevitable the Merc would pass any time. So with nothing to lose, Ferrari brought Alonso in for his second and final stop, getting him underway again on his fresh primes in 2.8s.

Rosberg and Ricciardo – separated by around five seconds, but lapping at about the same pace – stayed out for a further three laps. Alonso’s earlier stop bought him brief respite, in that Rosberg was six seconds behind as he rejoined. But it was only going to ever be temporary, given the respective pace of the two cars.

Alonso was masterful during this phase. Everyone else was caning their fresh tyres on their out laps but for Fernando there was nothing to be gained from this, because of the inevitability of being caught by Rosberg. Instead, he monitored his pace sparingly so that he might have some tyre performance left when he needed it – as Ricciardo mounted what was sure to be his challenge. Rosberg was upon the Ferrari again by the 42nd lap, and driving effortlessly past it using DRS on the back straight one lap later.

Constructors' Championship

1. Mercedes 154
2. Red Bull-Renault 57
3. Force India-Mercedes 54
4. Ferrari 52
5. McLaren-Mercedes 43
6. Williams-Mercedes 36
7. Toro Rosso-Renault 8
8. Lotus-Renault 0
9. Sauber-Ferrari 0
10. Marussia-Ferrari 0
11. Caterham-Renault 0

The Mercedes one-two had finally assembled itself with 14 laps left, Rosberg 16 seconds distant from the dominant Hamilton. As usual, Lewis had used less fuel than anyone else, his average at this point extrapolating out to a calculated total usage of just 93.5 of the allowed 100kg.

The equivalent numbers were Rosberg 98.2kg (understandably less economical given his much busier race through the pack), Alonso 98.3kg, Ricciardo 99.7kg, Vettel 100kg. Just as at every other race this year the Mercedes W05 was proving faster yet more economical – just plainly more efficient in its use of energy.

Alonso at this stage was seven seconds ahead of Ricciardo but the Red Bull was going faster. Daniel needed to catch Fernando by at least 0.5s per lap and he couldn’t quite maintain that within the limitation of both tyres and fuel and would go on to cross the line at the end of lap 56 1.2s behind the Ferrari.

Alonso had judged it beautifully when it would have been so easy to have taken more from the rubber when being chased down by Rosberg.

Would Ricciardo have caught Alonso?

Inevitably, it made one think back to how much time Ricciardo had lost when being held up by Vettel. Let’s look at that: Danny had enjoyed four laps in clear air on his new tyres before he arrived on Vettel’s tail on lap 21. His pace during those four laps was:

1m 43.3s
1m 43.2s
1m 43.2s
1m 43.5s (by which time he may have been getting aerodynamic interference from Vettel’s car)

He was stuck behind Vettel for the next five laps, during which time his pace was:

1m 43.5s
1m 43.6s
1m 44.4s
1m 44.9s
1m 44.1s

Once past Seb, he reverted to lapping in the mid 1m 43s. So it was clear he had lost something like 3.7s being held to Vettel’s pace – and he crossed the line just 1.2s behind Alonso. That’s not to say he could’ve passed – with his lack of straightline speed that would have been very difficult, even with the benefit of DRS. Besides which, the race didn’t officially last until its scheduled lap 56 laps.

Chequered flag mistake

“Yeah, I thought I was dreaming,” said Hamilton of seeing the chequered flag as he approached the line for the 54th time. “I momentarily backed off but then saw there was no-one on the [team] pit wall and got back on it. I radioed that I’d seen the chequer and the team said to just ignore it and keep going [for the last two scheduled laps].”

The flag had been hung out in error early by the race official – and thereby the end of lap 54 was when the race officially ended. Everyone raced for the final couple of laps, after which the chequer was shown again. The results stand as they were at the end of lap 54 – which means that Kamui Kobayashi’s penultimate corner pass in the Caterham on Jules Bianchi’s Marussia for 17th place didn’t count. All the other places remained the same.

Which meant Hamilton taking his third consecutive victory. Interestingly (or perhaps not), the last time a prematurely waved flag ended a Grand Prix was Kyalami 1968 when Jim Clark took his 25th victory. This was Hamilton’s 25th victory – and similarly resounding.

Rosberg was 18 seconds distant and still narrowly leads the championship on account of Hamilton’s retirement in Australia. Alonso was a further 5.5s back and now lies third. Ricciardo was fourth, having pulled out 20 seconds in 30 laps over team-mate Vettel in fifth. Hulkenberg produced another polished performance by bringing the Force India home sixth, narrowly holding off the attacking Williams of Bottas at both the flags.

Kimi Räikkönen's drive to eighth was a subdued one, having suffered a myriad of gearshift-related technical problems that had restricted his starting slot to 11th. Pérez's Force India was ninth, with Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kyvat taking points for the third time in his first four Grands Prix, defeating team-mate Jean-Éric Vergne along the way. Sandwiched between the Toro Rossos was Jenson Button’s McLaren, drastically lacking front-tyre performance and over a lap down on the identically powered victor.

Regardless of when the flag was held out, these are golden days for Hamilton. Golden days amid a smoggy Shanghai haze.

The next race (all times BST/GMT)

 

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