Chinese GP brought new challenges daily. Guess who mastered them all?


The Shanghai circuit gave F1's teams a new test on every day of the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix weekend, with a familiar result: a double victory for Max Verstappen, well ahead of everybody else

Max Verstappen looks focused wearing his crash helmet at 2024 F1 Chinese Grand Prix

Mark Thompson/Getty via Red Bull

On F1’s return to Shanghai Max Verstappen gave a celebratory little power slide out of the hairpin on his final lap, which he completed 13sec clear of the field despite having had a previous 10sec lead wiped out by a safety car. Fernando Alonso made a remarkable save late in the race, rescuing his Aston Martin from around 40-degrees out of line exiting the final turn. Through the twisting Turn 9-10 the cars struggled to get their power down and went through there in an edgy dance between lateral and longitudinal grip.

But actually none of that was the real stuff of significance, merely dramatic flourishes. The real challenge of the Chinese Grand Prix was keeping the tyre surface temperatures between the front and rear axles equalised. To slide the fronts enough to bring them up to the temperature of the rears.

That was Sunday’s challenge, at least. That of the sprint the day before had been a more traditional control of rear tyre core temperatures, a challenge in which the Red Bull and the Ferraris were the best. But with the Ferraris stuck for half the sprint in a train led by the tyre-degrading Aston of Alonso, they didn’t get anywhere near challenging the Red Bulls.

But the track was changing from day to day, as was the wind and the temperature, so the challenge was new each day on F1’s first visit here since pre-Covid days. Verstappen was the master of any of the challenges. The only time that combination had faltered even slightly was in the wet SQ3 of sprint qualifying when the Red Bull’s reluctance to generate tyre temperature had him only fourth on the grid, with Lando Norris’s McLaren on pole by a resounding 1.3sec from Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Alonso. The Ferrari, just like the Red Bull, had struggled to generate good tyre temperature, but that was thought to be part of the same usage trait which would make it faster than the McLaren, Mercedes and Aston in the dry. Which it was in the sprint race, but there’s fast and then there’s Max Verstappen’s Red Bull which after taking the lead from Hamilton pulled out 1sec per lap.

Lando Norris runs off the track next to Lewis Hamilton at the start of the 2024 F1 Chinese GP

Norris started on pole for the sprint but ran wide in Turn 1 tussle with Hamilton

Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty

That was expected to be the template for the Grand Prix itself – and it was accurate regarding Verstappen. But everything else was very different. Norris’s McLaren, which had suffered such heavy thermal degradation in the sprint, was the only car which came close to Verstappen in how it could meet the tyre-equalising challenge of Sunday and one-stopped its way to a great second, splitting the two-stopping Red Bulls. Once Sergio Perez had found a way by Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, he’d used up a lot of his tyre and could offer no challenge to Norris.

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The Ferrari was around 0.5sec per lap slower than Norris once both were on the hard tyre. Ferrari had set the car up with a lot of understeer, which it had expected would pay benefits in the race by protecting the rears from overheating even though it cost qualifying pace. It didn’t work out like that. However, Leclerc, like Norris, benefited from an opportunely-timed VSC (for Valtteri Bottas’s broken-down Sauber) to get a cheap pitstop. Carlos Sainz in the sister car had already pitted – and that 10sec difference in pitstop time was all that separated them at the end, in fourth and fifth.

They’d had a bit of a territorial moment into the first turn which had allowed George Russell through, but the Mercedes didn’t have the pace to maintain that and finished behind them in sixth. This was three places ahead of team-mate Hamilton who, with a desperate radically different mechanical setup, had started 18th and finished ninth in a car which understeered monstrously. His grid slot was due to nothing more than an error under braking in qualifying, which was some comedown after his race-leading sprint performance.

He was temporarily eighth, with Oscar Piastri seventh, but only because Alonso had made a third stop. On new tyres the Aston came back through the field, passing Hamilton and Piastri’s damaged McLaren. It was in chasing Hamilton that Alonso rescued his wild moment out the final corner. He’d starred in the opening few laps, passing Perez into the first turn and briefly giving chase to Verstappen. But no way could the Aston run at that pace without destroying its rubber. Hence the early stop onto his only set of hards which meant his strategy was ruined when the safety car came out only a few laps later. The late stop for new rubber helped him to fastest lap.

Fernando Alonso passes Carlos Sainz in 2024 F1 Chinese Grand Prix

Mid-race change to soft tyres saw Alonso gain places — but he had to make another stop

Fred Lee/Getty Images

The only one of the five top team cars not scoring was Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin. He’d hit Daniel Ricciardo’s RB in the safety car restart queue, the RB in turn hitting Piastri. Stroll got a penalty, Ricciardo took a retirement and Nico Hülkenberg’s Haas took the final point. Zhou Guanyu became the first Chinese driver to take part in the Chinese Grand Prix, finishing 14th in his Sauber. A bigger crowd than had ever attended before cheered him to the hilt.

Like that, F1 re-acquainted itself with China.