The Chinese GP was one of the very best dry races I have had the pleasure of commentating on. Over the course of 97 minutes, seven different drivers shared the lead nine times, with the outcome of the race only becoming apparent in the final few laps.
McLaren’s three-stop strategy outsmarted Red Bull’s two-stopper for Sebastian Vettel, allowing Lewis Hamilton to sensationally steal the victory and become the first double winner of the race. Vettel made a poor start but, after his outstanding qualifying time and rumored light tire wear, we still expected him to triumph.
With a series of audacious overtaking moves, including a bold pass into turn one on his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, Hamilton won what he describes as one of his best ever races. “I exist to win” – that’s how he describes his life right now.
From an interview in the post-race show on the BBC red button service, it became clear that Hamilton was using his Kers power system very astutely, saving it up during the lap to use it strategically for overtaking when the chance arose.
A very calm head for a man who only made it out of the pit lane to the grid with 30 seconds to spare after his engine flooded with fuel. He made a great start, too, and bravely kept his foot in when Vettel tried to squeeze him on the frantic run down to the first corner.
And so a crazy afternoon began, one which would leave many drivers struggling to remember the detail and chronology of their eventful races. There were shoulder shrugs aplenty as some failed to really fathom how they had been running, say, a competitive second, made no errors, yet finished sixth.
It is clear that Mercedes and Ferrari have a better race car than qualifying one. Nico Rosberg led for Mercedes at one point, while Felipe Massa had very respectable pace in his Ferrari, beating team-mate Fernando Alonso for the second time in eight days.
Despite Hamilton’s brilliance, my driver of the day was Red Bull’s Mark Webber. After a mistake in his tyre choice and temperatures in qualifying, he lined up 18th on the grid. Starting the race on new hard tyres, he was only 17th after 15 laps of sliding around with the midfield. But then he dipped into his unused stock of shiny new soft compound Pirellis and flew.
He was regularly more than two seconds faster per lap than the leaders as he tore through the field to a spectacular third place. There were raging battles all down the field, including two bodywork crunching contacts into the final hairpin of the last lap. The race was breathless and I was nearly without voice by the end of our show. All the drivers had a story to tell.
There can be no doubt now that the combination of the Pirellis, which wear out quicker, the Kers energy recovery and power system, plus the adjustable rear wing – or drag reduction system (DRS) – has made for a lot more wheel-to-wheel action and unpredictability.
The tyres have made the biggest difference. There are so many aspects to consider: whether soft or hard compound, new or used rubber, the effect a fuel load has on a car’s handling and how hard a driver has to defend or attack, especially early in each stint. I believe another key factor, which has not been spoken about much, is the decision to drop the adjustable front wing.
The drivers used to have a six-degree range of adjustment to tune the car aerodynamically through the race. Now, if the drivers have an imbalance because the track has evolved or temperatures vary, they must wait for the next pit stop for a manual trial-and-error adjustment by the mechanics.
Many cars also seem to have ongoing Kers reliability issues. The system is generally considered to be worth at least three tenths of a second per lap and thus up to 20 seconds per race. The Chinese Grand Prix was won by less than six seconds.
Still, 23 of the 24 starters crossed the finish line, a new record in F1. The only retirement was Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso, which lost a wheel that was not fitted correctly at a pit stop.
Mercedes got both cars into the points; Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus outperformed Pastor Maldonado’s Williams, while a long battle between Alonso and Michael Schumacher rekindled old memories.
It was a spectacular success for McLaren but let us not forget that, despite a wrong strategy call, Vettel still finished a close second to Hamilton, with Webber closing in very hard.
It was a difficult day for Button. He lost out psychologically to Hamilton and will wince at the replays of him stopping in the wrong pit garage and being passed by Hamilton.
So what happens now?
Expect teams to embark on frantic simulator work and digital car development in the three weeks before the Turkish Grand Prix, where we are guaranteed to see the highest Pirelli tyre demands yet.