Posted by Carrot on April 17, 2011 | No Comments
You are going to have to go back a long way to find a race more exciting than the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix. The most recent one I personally can think of is Brazil 2008 and that had the additional tension of a championship decider and being a rain affected race. China 2011 had no rain and no championship to decide and still gave excellent racing from start to finish. Pity anyone who decided to give the race a miss.
Lewis Hamilton ultimately came out on top for McLaren. Learning from the Malaysia Grand Prix, Hamilton ensured he had fresh sets of tyres available for the race and used them to charge through the field to be first at the chequered flag. The win was much more impressive when you consider that Hamilton very nearly missed the start when his engine was flooded by a fuel overfill, meaning he had to drive an incomplete car to the grid for the mechanics to fix before the start. While Malaysia was disappointing for Hamilton, China is a joy, using racing skill rather than technical prowess he managed to become the first person in 2011 to beat reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel. On the other side of the garage Jenson Button had a slightly disappointing race. Although he had the lead before the first corner, Button fell down the order during the race and ended up fourth. Driving into Red Bull’s pit stop area made for an amusing episode in the race, and I was thinking I should make a “Should have gone to Specsavers” joke in this article, but decided it’d be clichéd. It wasn’t driving into the wrong garage that cost him victory but the pace of everyone around him, his ability to nurse his tyres couldn’t save him from the raw pace of Hamilton or Webber’s charge on fresher tyres today.
Finishing out the podium after Hamilton were the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber. Vettel was jumped at the start, his first poor start of the season, and was then fighting traffic and tyres for the rest of the race. He was lucky to hold on to second place, a couple more laps would have seen Webber sweep past him and slightly better tyre preservation by Button would have seen the 2009 champion take him. The reigning World Champion was in a race of damage limitation, which he achieved, he returns to Europe with only seven points shy of the maximum total he could have obtained. If you’d have offered him that at the start of the year, especially after his start to the 2010 season, he’d have definitely taken it. Webber was my driver of the day, technical problems on Saturday morning meant he dropped out in the first part of qualifying, taking a brave strategy by starting on the prime tyres he was able to surge through the pack for the last half of the race. Eighteenth to third, there aren’t many racing drivers that could manage that at the pinnacle of motor sport. This race was again marred with KERS problems for the Red Bull team, Webber’s problems on Saturday and both units becoming inoperative for portions of the race. With McLaren now so close on race pace the team needs to crack these problems or their pace advantage will be for nought.
Mercedes scored their first real points of the season with Nico Rosberg coming home fifth, after having led the race for a number of laps, and Michael Schumacher getting eighth. The entire weekend was much better for the former Brawn team, the cooler temperatures meant they didn’t need to compromise their car with lots of extra cooling. Their pace was evident throughout the race, only Schumacher’s poor qualifying preventing him from being ahead of Fernando Alonso at the finish. Finally they’ve been able to show they’re on form with Ferrari and are able to improve for the season ahead.
Speaking of Ferrari, welcome back Felipe Massa, we’ve missed you in the year and a bit you’ve been away. Yes, he was driving the car last year, but it wasn’t the same guy who beat Schumacher and took the 2008 title down to the wire. Today I think we’ve seen the same man back behind the wheel. He came home in sixth, ahead of his team mate Alonso, in seventh, who crushed him psychologically last season. If Massa really is back on form then it’s going to be great television, especially since Massa seems to have found his form just before the Turkish Grand Prix, a race he owned for a few years.
Rounding out the top ten were Vitaly Petrov in ninth, making this Renault’s first race of 2011 not on the podium, and Kamui Kobayashi again scoring points for Sauber. This race really illustrated to the midfield that when the top four teams are on form and without race ending reliability problems the points positions are going to be hard to come by.
Outside the top ten, where most of the action was today, there are two stories of note. First is Paul di Resta, finishing ahead of his highly rated team mate again after out qualifying him in every race this season. It’s been an excellent return to single seaters for the reigning DTM champion, let’s hope that the team continue to give him the car to show his form throughout the year. Secondly is Team Lotus, who now have the race pace to attack the established midfield in the race. Whereas it was formation flying for the Virgins and the Hispanias at the back, Heikki Kovalainen managed to beat Sergio Perez in the Sauber and Pastor Maldonado in the Williams through pure pace. Based on this performance I’m expecting much better things from Team Lotus this year, perhaps even points before the end of the season.
The excitement today was directly due to Pirelli, their tyres have reinvigorated racing that had entered a stasis last year. Their input have allowed tacticians to be tacticians again and racing drivers to actually do some racing rather than just be a cog in the machine. Red Bull really were the experiment about tyre strategy today. Want to know the difference between a two stop strategy combined with pole position and a three stop strategy and eighteenth place grid start? Less than two and a half seconds. If you use Red Bull as you control group it certainly shows the fundamental change in Formula 1. The tacticians and supercomputers said that the quickest way to the finish was a two stop strategy, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton showed that the new paradigm in F1 is the requirement to be on tyres that you can race on for every lap. Tyre durability may have been king during the Bridgestone days, but now it’s tyre management and having tyres you can use when you need to. Worn tyres aren’t an annoyance any more, they’re something that leaves you defenceless.
Three weeks now until the European section of the season kicks off, no more early mornings for those of us in the Old World. That gives the field a reprieve but work will be hard to correct problems identified in the first three flyaway races. Of course, if their attention is only focussed on fixing problems then the rest of the field will out-develop them. It’s quite a conundrum for the teams, especially Red Bull when their nearest rivals for the season have got the KERS working without any problems. Though with Red Bull’s dominance in medium speed corners, Turkey should be a cakewalk for them, assuming they don’t run into each other like they did last year. Regardless I think we’ll all agree that it doesn’t matter who develops what or fixes what problems, just so long as the races are exciting as today’s then we’re all going to be very happy fans. Thank you Pirelli, see you all in Turkey.