Race Review: China 7th-9th Of April, Round 2

Introduction

As I said in my last post on this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, the teams did not have their usual time to prepare for the race. And yet there were plenty of great performances despite the setback. I suppose that, in truth, everyone was on the same level and the amount of preparation time was the same across the board; some just coped better than others during the race. In comparison to Australia the race was a much improved spectacle and of that I am glad, especially as “it might set the tone for the rest of the season” in terms of both teams and racing as David Croft observed. But more about the race and it’s changeable conditions in it’s full entirety later. For now, let’s look at each driver and team in isolation once more, again in order of constructor positioning. As before many thanks go to Jos Matthews for her photos from out there in China, getting me as close as possible to the action that I can be for now

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Race winner: Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes (1st & 6th)Mercedes-AMG-Petronas-F1-Team-Logo
Lewis Hamilton, P1:
Hamilton’s love affair with the Chinese Grand Prix continued with aplomb this weekend. The Brit has won 5 times here in his 10 year career, with 3 additional podiums too bringing his trophy haul to 8 for the Shanghai circuit. The result also keeps alive Lewis’ remarkable record of having won a race in every year he has competed in F1. This victory was rather straight-forward on the face of it for Lewis, as his silver arrow led from start to finish. However, there were some good strategy calls from the team under the Safety Car period: They chose to keep Lewis out for track position, despite pressure from those behind to pit for quicker tyres, as it always is vital for the prospects of a driver. Another pole to win conversion for Hamilton then; but he understands that Ferrari, had they not pitted Vettel when they did would have been far closer than the 8 second gap at the end of the race. The end-race radio message from Hamilton of “We keep pushing” could not have been clearer: whilst Lewis says he has “huge respect for Sebastian” he will still be in fear of ever looking at the back of a red car again this season. A close fight then? Or will Lewis pull away from here?

Valtteri Bottas, P6:
A strange and frustrating race this weekend for Bottas. Having qualified off the pace of Hamilton down in 3rd, the Finn will have only wanted to push forward to challenge his team-mate for first time this season. However, a strange mistake behind the safety car dropped Valtteri down the field: whilst trying to warm his tyres by scrubbing them across the surface of the track he span his Mercedes onto the grass and took two attempts to bring it to the right direction. The result was that both Red Bulls and Raikkonen finished ahead of him, but the most telling stat is that his team-mate finished 48 seconds ahead. It also probably didn’t help his confidence that his race engineer called him Nico by accident. Bottas will be dearly hoping he can redeem himself in Bahrain in a week’s time; an opportunity that post-race Valtteri said he was “very happy” was such a short time away.

Team Summary:
Mercedes are back on top again in the constructors; that is the be all and end all of this weekend. Granted it is only by 1 point, but ahead they are. Still though, their rivals are closer to them than they have been in previous years, so Mercedes of course cannot lift off. Taking this form into the next races will be important if they want to build any real gap to Ferrari. The Brackley side will also hope that Bottas can up his performance levels and get on equal pace terms to Lewis: a tough ask, but it is what he was brought in for after all.

Ferrari (2nd & 5th)scuderia_ferrari_logo_red-bgnd[1]

Sebastian Vettel, P2:
The defining moment of Sebastian was when the team chose to pit him under Virtual Safety Car conditions following Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez coming together. Whilst pitting for the dry tyres was s good call and put him in a strong position, the crash of Giovinazzi put the ball back into Hamilton’s park; allowing the Brit to save time in the pitstops. As for Sebastian’s racing, he is easily rubbishing foolish suggestions prompted from his Red Bull days: that he is only capable in the lead of the race. The German chased down both Ricciardio and Verstappen and passed them in impressive over-taking displays, before clawing back the gap to Hamilton. Now tied with Lewis at the top of the table, Vettel will hope to hit back in Bahrain and outscore the Brit: as we stand the championship fight between the two of them is well and truly on.

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Vettel’s car in the podium Parc Ferme. Credit to Jos Matthews.

Kimi Raikkonen, P5:
Kimi once again had a struggle of a race compared to his team-mate, as such he was frustrated on the radio, even interrogating his engineer as to “what the hell is going on” at one point. The elder Finn of the grid was complaining all race long of issues with understeer; a plague that has often returned in batches throughout his career. Raikkonen likes a car with a very responsive front end, as did Jenson Button: it is not necessarily a bad trait, as drivers simply prefer certain things in their cars. However, if the Ferrari does have a touch of understeer Vettel does not seem to notice as much as Raikkonen and it is hurting the latter’s ability to fight as high up the field as his team-mate. Next weekend could prove more promising for Raikkonen, he is somewhat of a Bahrain specialist having picked up 8 podiums at the circuit during his career.

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Photo of Raikkonen in action in China, credited to Jos Matthews.


Team Summary:
Ferrari will obviously not enjoy that they are once more behind Mercedes in the points. However, they will take some solace that the slight deficit is only due to a small mix up in strategy. It will be encouraging that in terms of pace they still seem to have the fastest car in race trim: they are not in a position like last season where they are desperately attempting to outsmart Mercedes, but instead are fighting on level terms. That being said, the Bahrain circuit is famously a power-track: the Scuderia will be aware that the Mercedes engine will be incredibly powerful in the desert.

Red Bull-Renault (3rd & 4th)
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Max Verstappen, P3:
An excellent race from the youngster once again. For once, a fully deserved winning of the “driver of the day” vote from the fans. Verstappen had a sordid qualifying, being knocked out in Q1 due to engine issues: however his start more than made up the deficit. The dutchman rose incredibly from 16th to 7th in first lap, some might even be so bold to say that opening lap performance was slightly reminiscent of Senna’s famous lap at Donington in ’93. However, Max, unlike Ayrton, was not without fault: he was scared into a mistake by a rampaging Vettel on lap 28 and had to pit once more after damaging his tyres with the resulting lock-up. He then impressively fended off his team-mate at the conclusion for a well deserved podium finish.

Daniel Ricciardio, P4:
A much better weekend for Daniel this time out following his dismal bad luck in Australia two weeks ago. Gaining a single place on his qualifying result of 5th, Ricciardio had a solid race: he will however be irritated that he could not beat his team-mate for pace in the last few laps to claim the podium position from him. Daniel will certainly not want to be usurped in the number 1 driver position by Verstappen, in addition the time is drawing increasingly close when Daniel will fully know if the Red Bull car can fight for victories this season.

Team Summary:
On that note, there are rumblings in the paddock that Adrian Newey is re-thinking the entire aero-dynamic concept of the Red Bull car; the current layout is just not good enough to fight for wins or the championships. Finishing 45 seconds behind the lead car is testament to that. The rumours, first heard brought to my attention by Martin Brundle indicate that “the deadline for turning it around is Austria” but you have to ask is that too late? Whisper this very quietly, but it seems for the first time in close memory that Newey and Red Bull might have dropped the ball at a regulation change. For now a 3rd and 4th finish is very positive and they will hope to repeat the feat in Bahrain, despite the slightly underpowered Renault engine.

Toro Rosso-Renault (7th & DNF)
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Carlos Sainz, P7:
‘The race of Carlos Sainz’ at China was a comedic and joyful episode. The desire of the young Spaniard to start the damp race on the slick supersoft tyres was greeted with disbelief by both race engineers and team owner Franz Tost. However, whilst a large risk which resulted in some hair-raising moments for Sainz, the risk paid off as the track conditions came towards him. The introduction of the safety car also aided Sainz, as unlike almost everyone else he did not have to pit for dry tyres. In F1 calculated risk is the name of the game and Carlos Sainz nailed it today. On the return to the garage he triumphantly told his boss “I will never forget your face” after the demand for a dry start; but he got it right and the team-owner did not.

Daniil Kvyat, DNF:
On the contrary, Kvyat had a rather unfortunate weekend. Despite qualifying in an impressive 9th position above his teammate, what Ted Kravitz has described as a “hydraulics issue” forced him out of the race on lap 18. That disappointment leaves him 8 points adrift of his team-mate and he will hope to claw that deficit back in a weeks time. Overall, Kvyat has still had a strong start to the season considering the confidence knock he received from his time at Red Bull.

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The Toro Rosso garage in China: Again thanks to Jos Matthews

Team Summary:
Toro Rosso are threatening to show my prediction for them, in a lowly 8th, to be complete garbage. Their car certainly looks competitive and their drivers are making smart decisions to wring as much performance out of the chassis and engine as possible. Obviously it is yet to be seen how well the car will be developed as the season runs on, but having an up to date Renault engine will definitely help that effort. As for this weekend it is a promising job well done.

Force India-Mercedes (9th & 10th)

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Sergio Perez, P9:
A collision with Lance Stroll on the opening lap threated to end Sergio’s race early this time out. But fortunately for him, the Williams driver came off worse in the interaction and Sergio was allowed to continue. However, it was not all straight forward, as the Mexican spent a lot of the race outside of the points following the safety car brought out by the Sauber crash. Eventually Perez and the car’s inherent pace showed through, even if it only carried him to P9 and to two points.

Esteban Ocon, P10:
The more impressive of the two Force-India drivers this weekend has to be Esteban Ocon. Qualifying right at the back of the field in P20 due to Giovinazzi’s Q1 crash, Esteban got his head down and made good use of the conditions and developments of the race to rise to 10th place behind his team-mate. For his first full season solid points will be the objective and he is certainly meeting those goals so far.

Team Summary:
This weekend was Force India’s second double points finish in succession; which means they have made a good steady start. However, their team goals from boss Bob Fearnley were said to be to finish 3rd in the constructors this season. Obviously they need to find a lot of additional pace from somewhere if they is going to be even remotely possible: currently they are nowhere near that. Ted Kravtiz on his notebook stated that there may be a “correlation problem” between wind-tunnel numbers and actual track performance; that is hugely concerning for them but perhaps when that is sorted they we will see them rise up the field more.

Williams-Mercedes (14th & DNF)
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Felipe Massa, P14:
For some reason, even though Massa’s Williams obviously had inherent pace enough to qualify P6 this weekend, after the safety car period he was never really on the pace again. He was complaining over the radio about a potential suspension problem, but the team were unable to find one at all. Simply put Felipe will hope for much better from the coming races as this weekend he did not convert strong promise to strong finish at all.

Lance Stroll, DNF:
Despite appearances this was a much better weekend that last for Stroll, as his retirement was entirely unfortunate and actually not his fault. Furthermore, by qualifying in P10, even if 0.7 seconds off his team-mate, he is showing that he might be beginning to get the grips with these cars and the world of F1 in general: the latter is certainly true as he referred to the media pen as the “lion’s den” which is not far off a good metaphor. Last time out he seemed to be very much prey, a rabbit in the headlights; I think the pup might be growing up quickly and is aiming to put to bed the unfair criticism he has suffered so far. We will never know how good his race might of been, but perhaps he would have suffered along with Felipe. One thing is for certain, a first points finish for Stroll will do wonders to give him confidence and he will hope for that in Bahrain, where the slippery Williams is often strong.

Team Summary:
Williams sitting in 6th will not be the goal for either Frank or Claire Williams, they slid a place in the constructor’s last season and will want to arrest the trend. What they need is for Massa’s experience and Stroll’s eagerness to compliment each-other as they both rack up solid points throughout the season. At the moment, all they have to show is Massa’s P6 from last time out: it is of course early to say but such sparse return should not be the norm for them this season. As I said above the characteristics of the Williams should suit the Bahrain circuit, hopefully both drivers do better for them next week.

Haas-Ferrari (8th & 11th)

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Kevin Magnussen, P8:
A solid showing from K-Mag this weekend was a nice refreshing reminder that he is actually a very talented driver: the Renault last season did not allow him to show his abilities, but maybe with this car he finally can show what he is made of. Magnussen is a driver who finished 3rd on his F1 debut, and in achieving that is up alongside Lewis Hamilton who also achieved a podium at Australia in 2007. So far his career has ‘slid’ from McLaren downwards, although let’s be honest; I am betting he is happy he did not keep his McLaren seat at this moment in time…But more on that later, as yet again…Hang on. Anyway, a good race for Magnussen who will hope for more of the same.

Romain Grosjean, P11:
After being caught up in the Q1 double-yellow flags, Grosjean received penalties for speeding and was dropped some positions. However, he did the best he could to drag his car increasingly towards the points, it would have been disappointing for his team-mate to get the first team points of the season rather than himself. As Grosjean said on his twitter he “Pushed hard, had some great overtaking but we were starting from a bit too far” and that sums it all up.

Team Summary:
Haas will be happy to be off the mark this season after their unreliable season opener in Australia; they have got to see the real pace of the car over realistic race conditions and distances. They can now build on this and begin to address areas in development. I think that they will look to be fighting firmly in the midfield; I anticipate that come season close they will be closer to Force-India than I anticipated in my predictions.

Renault (12th &13th)renault-logo-C600
Nico Hulkenberg, P12:
Hulkenberg will be glad to have out-qualified Palmer yet again, up in P7 but, yet again as many drivers are, will be irritated by his final position due to the intervention of the VSC. He is already on record to have stated that the safety car period ruined his race, as “he was caught for overtaking under the VSC” and so much like Felipe Massa, Nico will be aware that still he does not know truly where his car stands yet. Perhaps P7 in qualifying will give him hope that he can score his first points for Renault in Bahrain.

Jolyon Palmer, P13:
Palmer was another driver who was undone by the Q1 incidents on Saturday, being relegated to the back of the grid after speeding through double-yellows. Despite branding the Renault car as “awful” after Australia, he will probably be taking back his hasty words as his car, along with strategy, was at least quick enough this race-day to carry him from the back to 13th. Strangely Jolyon elected to start from the pit-lane, possibly to avoid first lap comings together: but it was to no avail as far as points are concerned. Palmer, the same as Huldenberg will want to get off the mark as quickly as possible.

Team Summary:
Renault need to get going soon if they want to achieve their target of 5th this season; as the midfield is now more congested than ever, meaning a small amount of points could make all the difference to the positions in the table and the corresponding money received at the season’s end. I had anticipated the new regulations Renault doing better than it has so far in terms of sheer pace; but perhaps it is just that we have yet to see it over a full race distance. Maybe Bahrain will inform us further.

Sauber-Ferrari (15th & DNF)

sauber

Marcus Ericsson, P15:
P15 is where Ericsson qualified and where he finished, last of the finishers and lapped to boot. It is what I expect from the inherent pace of the Sauber and Ericsson. He beat his less experienced team-mate and that is probably the positive he can take; he will know though that another race has passed and there is one less to gain points for himself and his team.

Antonio Giovinazzi, DNF:
Oh dear. I, along with many praised Giovinazzi hugely in my last race review but this weekend he was a completely opposite driver: unfocussed and prone to error. Two crashes over the space of two days, both on the the exit of the final corner caused a lot of interference in the weekend. The first crash in qualifying ensured that he made it into Q2 by blocking other’s laps, for which he apologised in interview, but also meant he could compete no further. The second crash in the race caused the safety car to emerge, ruining some people’s races and pretty much handing the race to Hamilton. But I like Anontio Giovinazzi and I am not foolish enough to suddenly dismiss him as some people will have done in this fickle modern world. The difference, I think is preparation. In Australia he didn’t know he was racing until the day before and this time he actually had time to think about the weekend ahead: maybe that gave him time to actually be nervous. I hope he’ll be back and I think he deserves to be; everyone makes mistakes and he will learn from this experience.

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This should not be the last time we see Giovinazzi’s name above an F1 garage, despite his errors. Credits to Jos Matthews in the Shanghai pit-lane.

Team Summary:
Sauber will want to move on from this frustrating weekend as soon as possible, but with another race gone; the clock is already ticking on their ability to remain remotely competitive with their 2016 engine as well as their development. They could have made better use of the strategy opportunities for their remaining drivers; but perhaps next weekend will be fruitful.

McLaren-Honda (DNF & DNF)

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Fernando Alonso, DNF:
Oh Fernando, if only we could save you from your fate. Many argue that Fernando Alonso is the architect of his own down-fall, burning bridges at competitive outfits and having to move; yet he is to many the single best driver on the grid. He is enigmatic and confusing in this way, but no F1 fan wishes him to be struggling this badly; he is a huge name in the sport and the entire brand of F1 suffers with the fact he is not in a competitive team. Many unfounded rumours are already coming along about who he is trying to drive for next season, including a switch back to Ferrari and suggestions that he will offer to drive for Mercedes for free, much in the same way Ayrton Senna offered to drive for Williams for free in 1993, in a last attempt at another title. But I aim to do a post purely on Fernando’s plight and career at some point, so I will stick to this weekend for now. It is again highly impressive that he was running as high as 7th at one point: yet he was caught by Bottas and Sainz before eventually his car gave up yet again with a drive-shaft issue on lap 34. Two things are clear: Firstly, Fernando did very well to qualify in 13th and to run so high in the race again. Secondly it is certain that by making so much noise about his stellar performances in such a dreadful car, Alonso is most likely looking for a way out of the ailing McLaren team: marketing himself.

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Alonso heading out on track for another superb drive. Photo: Jos Matthews

Stoffel Vandoorne, DNF:
Meanwhile Stoffel, another clearly talented driver, is more likely to be stuck on the sinking ship for much longer than his more experienced team mate. After all, if Fernando simply cannot stand it any longer he could always just retire: for Stoffel that is not an option. Although, he was not stuck in the car for long; retiring on lap 17. His McLaren had a fuel issue similar to the one it suffered in testing around 2 months ago; you’d of thought that would have been sorted by now? Apparently not.

Team Summary:
I try so hard to be a McLaren fan, but it seems the team no longer want me to be, churning out dismal performance after dismal performance: what fully summarises the weekend is that in Q1 the Honda’s top speed in the trap was 314kph, the same as Verstappen’s Red Bull which only had 4 cyclinders cycling intermittently! Without Fernando Alonso at the team rest assured my blossoming like of the resurgent Ferrari would have taken over my affections. Indeed, without Fernando at the team who even are McLaren-Honda? They would just be a famous name, a name who are technically bottom of the standings and have been languishing down there for two whole years. Alonso brings them coverage at the very least; without him who really cares at this rate? There would be no other narrative to tell, apart from the same tales of woeful Honda reliability. I do not think this will happen this season, but finishing bottom of the standings is not an option. Another thing on the horizon is that the Concorde agreement, which gives McLaren money for simply being there, that expires in 2020: if similar terms are not renewed for McLaren where will they replace that money? No one wants to sponsor such an uncompetitive team. They need to sort themselves out and fast for this season and then ditch Honda before 2018 begins. Believe it or not but it could get even worse for McLaren in the long-term future.

Race Review & Analysis

There is a little less to talk about this week in terms of overall race analysis as it has mostly been covered in the driver’s sections of the post. In short summary, the race was a whole lot more entertaining, with just off the top of my head at least four times the over-takes as round 1. The other hugely interesting thing was of course the mixture between dry and wet tyres at the start of the race and also the strategy the teams had to implement during the safety car periods: both threw teams off a little and gave us an exciting mixed up order of running. I have no doubt that these events artificially heightened the number of over-takes, as did drivers being unprepared due to the Friday smog/cloud problem. But, if Australia was a 5/10 then this was definitely an 8: some stellar drives from Alonso and Verstappen kept us on the edges of our seats and whilst Hamilton led from start to finish it was not such a romp away as it was last year for Rosberg.

A short quick note on the overtaking: I still do think that there is a huge problem with the issue of ‘dirty air’ at the back of these cars. BUT during the race David Croft said something very important about how the drivers can also do their part to improve the show with a “change of mentality” about over-taking. Because the cars are now so fast and can push so much harder for so much longer maybe we are at the point where the drivers, because of their familiarity with last years regulations, are waiting for opportunities for overtakes that simply do not occur anymore: no longer can you just wait for the tyres of the guy in-front to ‘drop off the cliff’ and lose grip. Maybe, as Martin Brundle said, we will have “less over-takes, but they will be worth more and be more exciting” as the drivers adapt to this harder mode of racing each-other and take more risks instead of the waiting game of previous years. If this is the case that can only be a good thing.

Constructor & Driver Tables (BBC infographics)
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Next Time Out: Bahrain Grand Prix

So, the season begins to fall into place once again: whilst the pecking order is not yet as fully established we can begin to see an outline. But questions will never be over in F1: will Red Bull manage to up their game over the coming weeks and re-design their aero more efficiently? Will the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari remain this close? In terms of the constructors, how important will the Finnish ‘second drivers’ and the points they collect going to be if Hamilton and Vettel continue to go tit for tat? Will McLaren-Honda ever give Fernando the car he deserves? I hope you join me next time to see if we see any more answers, or just more questions.

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Respect and ambition define this rivalry: but how long will it last?
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