2017 Chinese Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 10th April 2017

Mark Hughes reports from Shanghai and the second Grand Prix of 2017

The second 2017 instalment of Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel turned on a random factor, just as at Melbourne. This time fate favoured the Mercedes man. Ironically, it was Ferrari’s third driver, Antonio Giovinazzi, who arguably cost Vettel the victory, his lap-four crash in the Sauber wiping away the advantage Seb looked likely to have gained by having pitted at the end of lap two to switch from inters to slicks under a Lance Stroll-induced virtual safety car.  

It was a gamble, but one that looked like it may well have worked – though Mercedes disagrees. Ferrari had been encouraged into making it because it was running behind Hamilton, who had secured pole and won the start. For Mercedes, it wouldn’t have been a risk worth giving up the lead for. But with the boldness of less to lose, Ferrari brought Seb in.

The stakes were high, as was the risk of going off. Carlos Sainz was the only driver who’d started from the grid on slicks and had immediately spun – just as had Hamilton when he’d tried them on the out-lap from the garage. The track was drying quick, but was still damp into the Turn 14 hairpin and downright wet under the building at the start of the pit straight. But so long as you could stay on track through those parts, the slicks looked likely to be comparably quick to inters – plus there was an eight-second bonus to be had through pitting when the rest of the field was restricted to VSC speeds. Had Giovinazzi not crashed almost as soon as the VSC was rescinded, then Vettel would almost certainly have had track position over the Mercedes after Hamilton had stopped for his slicks. Mercedes reckons the window for slicks wasn’t yet there on the third lap and Hamilton would’ve continued to have been quicker than a slick-shod Vettel for a couple of laps. Maybe so, maybe not – the evidence isn’t there one way or the other. But would Hamilton have been enough faster to have made up the 8sec Vettel would’ve found from stopping under the VSC? 

There’s every reason to believe Vettel would have established track position and used it to take a second consecutive, albeit closely fought, victory. 

But that’s not what happened. With Sauber wreckage strewn all over the pit straight, a safety car was deployed with the pack instructed to follow it through the pitlane to avoid potentially tyre-damaging carbon shards. This helped Hamilton doubly. It allowed him to pit with no time loss to Vettel. But more specifically than that, with every car coming through the pitlane regardless of whether it was stopping, the positional advantage that Vettel would normally have benefitted from – even at safety car speeds – of taking the pit straight rather than the pitlane didn’t apply. So Hamilton, Ricciardo, Räikkönen, a starring Verstappen – up nine places on lap one – and Bottas all emerged from the pits before Vettel. They’d got to change tyres for free and Vettel was sixth instead of first. By the time he’d fought his way back up to second, it was half-distance and Hamilton was 11sec up the road.  

With the two-stopping Red Bulls then beginning to catch Seb fast on their new tyres, Ferrari was forced to defend from them rather than attack Hamilton and brought Vettel in for a second stop before it was too late. This created a gap big enough for Hamilton to also pit for a second time. Thereafter Seb gave renewed chase, the pair flat-out as they sought to match the other’s pace. “Those last 20-odd laps pounding around flat-out, exchanging fast times, are what racing is all about,” enthused Hamilton. “But there’ll be times when we don’t have a safety car to help and there won’t be that 6sec gap. And they’ll be right there. The last 10-12 laps he was doing 35.6 and I was doing 35.8. It would’ve been hard for us to do those times.” It suggested that the Ferrari was again kinder on its rubber, just as at Melbourne, even on a cool, overcast Shanghai afternoon. Next we go to Bahrain. “Ferrari is very good in hotter conditions,” Hamilton pointed out. “These were quite good conditions today for our car. When it steps up in temperature…” 

Qualifying

“It’s a track where you have to push hard, really hard braking into the slow corners, big commitment through the high-speed sections. It just rewards an aggressive style.” The words are those of Hamilton in response to being asked why his record is so spectacularly good around this track with the symbolic layout in the foggy industrial Shanghai hinterland. This generation of car and tyre demands even more of the same – and this was the basis of his 63rd career pole (and Mercedes’ 75th). But the current traits of the Mercedes W08 and the performance of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari made him sweat for it, just as at Melbourne. Hamilton’s first Q3 run, while marginally fastest at the time, would have left him on the second row had he not improved upon it significantly on his final attempt. The W08, while viscerally impressive in its acceleration and grip – particularly through the tricky Turn 9-10 combination, which Hamilton was taking as a single, committed sweep – was bouncing on its damping in places the Ferrari was rock steady, skipping its rear out under power where Vettel was able to pour the gas on without a thought of steering correction. Hamilton’s lap was a spectacle, Vettel’s a vision. Around here the silver Merc was a potent but demanding piece of kit, requiring visibly more driver input than the smaller and more supple Ferrari. “I’d say we’re probably more stable through high-speed sections,” considered Hamilton, “but yes, they’re definitely more agile.” 

The Ferrari is physically smaller, 160mm shorter in wheelbase, a major part of the reason why its weight distribution can be varied with ballast while the Merc’s cannot, the W08 currently running at 6kg above the minimum. Around this place, with its long, tyre-scrubbing turns 1-2 and 12-13 placing the car’s limitation upon the front-left tyre, being able to vary weight distribution was a valuable trait. The Mercedes was compensating with sheer grunt, appearing still to carry an engine mode advantage in Q3. The end result was Hamilton shading Vettel by 0.187sec and an identical first two rows to Melbourne, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen on row two respectively shaded by their team-mates. 

Vettel’s time was a scant 0.001s faster than that of Bottas. “I’m feeling more comfortable in the car every lap I do,” said Valtteri. In which case it was unfortunate for him that Friday practice was fogged off. The problem wasn’t the damp track conditions, but the cloud cover near the FIA-approved hospital 38km away that would have precluded the medical helicopter from being able to fly. A few laps were completed on Friday morning and none at all in the afternoon. With the forecast similar for Sunday, serious consideration was given to running both qualifying and race on Saturday. 

The last thing Räikkönen needed was cancelled practice sessions. He’d been planning on trying a new set-up following his qualifying difficulties in Melbourne, but considered it too risky with just one Saturday morning session before qualifying. Understeer again made him slow in the early part of the lap and his fourth-fastest time was 0.3sec off his team-mate’s. 

The deletion of the practices made no discernible difference to the competitive order, which essentially confirmed what Melbourne suggested. That was bad news for Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo recording what he felt was an on-the-limit final Q3 lap that left him over 1.3sec adrift of pole. The Red Bull RB13 is nowhere at the moment, with a tiny set-up window that cannot properly connect up low-speed balance with high-speed and a general lack of rear-end grip through the high-speed sections. Max Verstappen was one from the back with a software-induced engine misfire. 

The Williams was threatening Red Bull’s status as third-fastest car and Felipe Massa recorded a solid sixth-fastest lap, with rookie team-mate Lance Stroll making it through to Q3, where he was within 0.7sec of his team-mate to go 10th. His inexperience was reflected in the fact that he lapped progressively slower in each of the sessions, but he was error-free and generally much more composed than in Australia. 

Nico Hülkenberg’s seventh on the grid was a genuine reflection of where Renault is at, his time less than a tenth away from Massa’s. There was virtually nothing between Sergio Pérez’s Force India and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso in eighth and ninth, a couple of tenths adrift of the Renault. Carlos Sainz was a couple of tenths off Kvyat and failed to make the Q3 cut to line up 11th, ahead of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda (“That’s all there is. I am driving it like an animal,”) and the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Antonio Giovinazzi. 

The latter took no part in the second session on account of having crashed heavily at the final corner of his Q1 lap. He would later take a grid drop for a new gearbox. Ironically, the crash was the only reason the Saubers got through Q1 as the yellow flags thwarted the laps of Romain Grosjean, Jolyon Palmer, Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne, at least two of whom would have got through otherwise. Both Grosjean and Palmer had suffered incidents on their first Q1 runs, which ultimately proved costly. On his second attempt Grosjean’s first two sector times were faster than anything team-mate Magnussen would subsequently record in Q2 and had looked good for the top-10, while both Palmer and Ocon were on laps that would have seen them vying with their respective Renault and Force India team-mates. McLaren’s Vandoorne was late out onto the track after an operational problem in the garage, leaving him 16th, 0.5sec off Alonso. His first ever experience of the track had been in that morning’s practice. 

Grosjean and Palmer were subsequently penalised for failing to slow sufficiently for the Giovinazzi accident and would start from the back row. 

Race

The morning rain varied in intensity between hard and drizzle but petered out around an hour before the 2pm start. It was still miserably cool and overcast, but a stiff breeze helped dry the circuit quite quickly. 

Several drivers – Hamilton, Bottas, Ricciardo, Sainz and Pérez – opted to drive to the grid on slicks, but only Sainz chose to remain on them for the start. Hamilton in fact had spun at Turn 14. It just wasn’t quite dry enough. Even Toro Rosso thought Sainz was taking a crazy gamble. Palmer at the back pitted at the end of the formation lap for a set of super-softs and would start from the pitlane. 

The start: Hamilton’s perfect from the grippier outside line, Vettel slotting in behind, Bottas doing the same to Raikkonen a row behind, Kimi then overtaken around the outside of one/two and down the inside of three by Ricciardo. Kvyat’s instincts in these moments were terrific, vaulting him from ninth to sixth, Alonso was similarly aggressive and up to 10th from 13th. Sainz, passed by all and sundry off the grid, spun on his slick super-softs and rejoined at the back, passing the similarly-shod Palmer a few corners later. 

But from 16th on the grid Verstappen in his wet track element was passing cars on all sides. “One or two positions at the start, I got another car inside Turn Two, another on the outside of three. I was just trying to find the grip because when you’re behind a car you lose a lot of downforce, so just looking for free space and everything just happened. Also Turn Six, Seven, Eight. Yeah, nine cars is quite a lot to pass in one lap…” Sixteenth to seventh in one lap. Quite remarkable.

Stroll didn’t seem to intuit that Pérez’s Force India was partly alongside on his inside and made for the Turn 10 apex as if he had a free track, the resultant collision spearing the Williams into a gravelly retirement. That put Alonso eighth. Up front Hamilton and Vettel were pulling out big chunks over the pack. Hülkenberg pitted from the midfield at the end of the lap, gambling on a set of slicks – but just as he left his box the race came under the VSC for the Stroll incident. Hulk’s race was effectively ruined from that point but he’d later compound that with illegal overtakes during the VSC and safety car periods, guaranteeing extravagant penalties at his next stop. 

Vettel was not alone in gambling on slicks at the end of the second lap, the 8sec time advantage of doing so under a VSC a big temptation. So long as you could stay on track, of course. Following the Ferrari into the pitlane at this time were Kvyat, Alonso, Massa, Perez, Magnussen, Ericsson, Ocon, Grosjean, Giovinazzi and Vandoorne. There was some confusion in the Force India pits and Ocon was called in but waved on as the crew readied themselves for Pérez, who had suffered a slow puncture from the Stroll contact. It lost Ocon around 15sec after pitting next lap. All the pitters and a VSC slowing the pace had been a Godsend for the slick-shod Sainz, vaulting him from the back to seventh. Vettel had rejoined sixth, behind Verstappen in the VSC queue. The McLaren boys had got Alonso out ahead of Kvyat and vaulted Vandoorne past the Saubers. 

That’s how it was all poised as the VSC was withdrawn towards the end of the third lap and the two Mercs sprinted off from Ricciardo, Räikkönen and Verstappen. Towards the back Ericsson ran wide across the final corner run-off and his following team-mate Giovinazzi looked to take advantage, but was over-enthusiastic in burying the throttle through the still-wet section under the media centre building that traverses the track. His wheels spooled up to make the Sauber uncontrollable, depositing him hard into the wall for the second time in two days. The following Grosjean was distraught. “The same guy spun in front of me!” The safety car came out and Vettel’s earlier tactical advantage was neutralised and then penalised as the others got their stops for free and the whole pack was routed down the pitlane. 

Hamilton’s stop onto softs was accomplished smoothly but the following Bottas was delayed after the rear jack collapsed. By the time the Merc was man-handled back up, Valtteri had lost places to Ricciardo, Räikkönen and Verstappen. He exited just ahead of Vettel and Sainz in the safety car queue, with Alonso following on from Kvyat. The latter’s excellent run would soon be brought to an end with hydraulics failure, with Vandoorne joining him in retirement as the McLaren lost fuel pressure. Everyone was now on either the soft or super-soft slicks. Red Bull had opted for the super-softs, consigning themselves to two-stop races. “For us, that was the fastest way,” explained Christian Horner. “In these damp conditions, with our car as it is at the moment, to turn the soft tyre on is a bit too much.”

The message went out that the safety car was coming in at the end of the seventh lap and Bottas began to warm his tyres, preparing to attack Verstappen on the restart. But he lost control outside of Turn 10 – and spun. He dropped many places and would spend the rest of the afternoon trying to limit the damage to his race, later apologising over team radio for what he described as an ‘amateur’ performance. 

As the pack was let loose and Hamilton sprinted away once again, Verstappen was hounding Räikkönen, looking to capitalise on the faster warm-up of his softer tyres. He made a beautiful move around the outside of the Ferrari at the fast sweep of Turn Eight to go third, now with only his team-mate between him and leader Hamilton. Kimi was soon complaining of a power unit glitch that had him having to deploy more battery power to defend from team-mate Vettel. This was all great news for Hamilton; the only guy with comparable performance was four cars back as the Red Bull and Ferrari teams found themselves with their faster car stuck behind their slower one. 

Ricciardo had opted for more rear wing than Verstappen and was struggling with understeer but defending hard. The DRS was proving strangely ineffective even down the long back straight. Neither Verstappen nor Vettel could make it work well enough to pass their team-mates. On the 11th lap Verstappen launched a late-braking move down the inside of Ricciardo into the tight loop of Turn Six. He was through and set off in chase of Hamilton, a couple of seconds ahead. But the Mercedes driver had things under control. Even on the harder tyre he had pace in hand always to keep himself just out of the Red Bull’s reach. He kept checking his mirrors, expecting to see a red car, which he suspected would represent a rather tougher challenge. 

Vettel was stuck behind Räikkönen until the 20th lap. He had to resort to a very aggressive late-braking move around the outside of Turn Six to get by. Once past, he pulled away but those laps at Räikkönen’s pace had cost Vettel around 6sec to the leader. He quickly closed down upon the understeer-compromised Ricciardo and opted for the same route past as with Kimi – outside of Turn six - but Daniel made him work a bit harder for it, the pair banging wheels as they accelerated out of there. “I’d be lying if I said it was accidental,” smiled Ricciardo later. “I thought it would give the crowd some excitement.”

Vettel now set about closing the 5sec deficit to Verstappen, the Ferrari at this stage up to a second faster than the Red Bull. On the 27th lap, Vettel was able to use DRS down the back straight and in braking late to defend Verstappen locked up into the Turn 14 hairpin. Vettel was through. But Hamilton was over 11sec distant. Verstappen’s lock up had flat-spotted his tyres and he was in the pits next lap for an early change onto fresh super-softs. He exited behind fifth-placed Bottas but on much grippier tyres was able to pass the Merc into Turn Six.

Ricciardo made his second stop on the 33rd lap and in addition to new super-softs had some front wing added. “This brought the car alive,” he reported.  He rejoined behind Bottas but so quick were both he and Verstappen that not only did Mercedes bring Bottas in for an unplanned second stop (as he was about to be devoured by Ricciardo anyway), but it was putting pressure on Vettel. Two-stopping was turning out to be the faster way to run the race and Ferrari was forced to respond, bringing Vettel in while he still had enough margin over the Red Bulls not to lose places to them. This in turn gave Hamilton the space for a free pit stop. He’d already been commenting that the tyre grip was not holding up as well as he’d been expecting – and so he too was brought in. That was on lap 36, two later than Vettel – and that reduced what had been a 12sec gap to around 9.5sec. Which rather alarmed him. Vettel was chipping away at that gap too, still with the faint scent of victory in the damp air. Upon asking how quickly he’d need to gain on the Merc to be with it five laps from the end, Vettel was told 0.7sec per lap. Which was a rather dispiriting answer. With the gap at 7.7sec Hamilton reeled off what would stand as the fastest lap of the race, delivering the psychological blow to Vettel. 

In the other Ferrari, Räikkönen was finding himself between a tactical rock and a hard place. He’d earlier urged the pit wall to bring him in sooner rather than later if it was going to two-stop him. But with track position over the Red Bulls but not enough gap to pit without losing a place to them, they tried to keep him on a one-stop. But although he was second on the road (effectively third as his new-tyred team-mate would soon be upon him) thanks to not having stopped again, he was ever-slower. “Why didn’t we stop when I asked you? I asked twice. The front end is so poor now.” The Red Bulls were 15sec behind but lapping 2sec faster and there were 17 laps to go. “Come on!” he urged, after running through the maths over the radio. Eventually they relented. He was brought in on the 39th lap, fitted with super-softs and rejoined fifth a few seconds behind the dicing Red Bulls, a few ahead of Bottas. 

Things were becoming quite tense on the Red Bull pit wall. Ricciardo on tyres four laps newer than Verstappen’s and the balance of his car transformed, was now hunting his team-mate back down. Verstappen was becoming tetchy, especially about blue flags. They were only gradually edging up to Grosjean’s damaged Haas, almost a lap down but going reasonably quickly and keeping himself just out of blue flag range – much to Verstappen’s frustration, as he was still being effected by the dirty air. Ricciardo continued to haul him in. “As I pushed, the car began to be limited by the front left,” recounted Max later, “and I was getting understeer.” He was having to get very defensive about where he was using his battery power. 

The compromised Räikkönen and Bottas were not going quickly enough to catch the Red Bulls before the end, but were well clear of Sainz who was in a race all on his own once Alonso had retired the McLaren with a driveshaft failure immediately after trying to repass the Toro Rosso into the hairpin. Sainz was only behind the McLaren because he’d pitted for new rubber and Alonso had not. Just as in qualifying, Alonso seemed to be applying for a job application over the radio for much of the race. “How were they behind us?” he had asked incredulously as the recovering Bottas had passed. It was again, Fernando claimed, one of the greatest races of his life… Just in case any top teams out there weren’t noticing his efforts. 

Some way distant behind the seventh-place Toro Rosso, a forceful Magnussen got the upper hand in a struggle with Pérez, with Ocon hanging on just behind them for the final point. Massa had fallen away from this group unable to generate heat into the Williams’ tyres and having to stop three times, a disastrous 14th from sixth on the grid. 

Hamilton had his 6sec gap over Vettel but noted after that earlier fastest lap, he didn’t quite have the old-tyred pace of the Ferrari. He could be thankful for the cards he’d been dealt in taking this victory and was under no illusions about that. Verstappen hung on for the final place on the podium despite a last lap lock up into the hairpin that almost allowed Ricciardo to pounce. It had been a quite stunning drive from so far back. Raikkonen’s fifth place didn’t meet with a visiting Sergio Marchionne’s endorsement, but there were extenuating circumstances, and he kept Bottas off his back to the flag. 

“I think this is going to be one of the closest championship fights I’ve been involved in,” said the joint points leader Hamilton. “I’m really looking forward to it. The cars look better and are nicer to drive – and this guy [Vettel] seems to be able to pass cars too. So we’ll have to look at a video and see what he’s doing.” 

There is indeed much to appreciate about 2017-spec F1. 

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