2018 Chinese GP Review – By Bob Constanduros
Everyone is in full agreement that last weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix was a humdinger. We had a brilliant succession of leaders from all three leading teams: Sebastian Vettel to Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari, Valtteri Bottas getting past his compatriot just before half distance to put Mercedes on top and then Daniel Ricciardo coming storming through after not just one but two double stack pit stops by Red Bull. A brilliant Grand Prix then but most importantly, the question is why?
Let’s take a look at the weekend as a whole, because we saw those great swings of form throughout the weekend. Friday morning, and it’s a relatively cool 19 degrees with a 20 degree track temperature and overcast. A note in my book says ‘no timing’ so if I didn’t seem totally on top of it, that’s why. At least my Chinese co-commentators were there this time; they’ve been off doing ‘something else’ the last few years and I’ve been on my own on Friday. Lewis Hamilton ends up being quickest in this session, but there’s a rash of off-circuit excursions at the end of it, including Lewis.
FP2 starts with 17 degrees ambient and still 20 degrees track temperature. The notebook records ‘still no bloody timing’ although I think it appeared during the session. It was breezy; Hamilton goes off at turn 14 at the end of the straight, but get that vital braking point a fraction out and it’s easy to go off. He does it again later in the session. There’s lots of use of soft compound Pirellis; they’ve brought ultras, no super softs but then softs and mediums. There’s rain at the end of the session which will wash off grip for the Saturday.
Hamilton is positive after the day, saying the balance is good although teammate Bottas doesn’t concur, saying the car isn’t easy to drive. Ricciardo finds his car better on the harder compounds and that he lost time on the ultras. Verstappen says he needs better balance on the short runs.
Next morning and the temperature has plummeted to 12 degrees, the track not much warmer at 15 degrees and it stays like that for the day. The track is also damp to begin with. Hamilton goes off without damage three times during this session; Ferrari look much stronger while Ricciardo has engine failure and the team starts a race against time to change it before qualifying in two hours time.
Conditions are unchanged for qualifying; Ricciardo just makes it out in the dying minutes of Q1 as the Red Bull guys works miracles and change the engine in a record-breaking sub-two hours, crew of the 33 car giving a helping hand to their mates across the garage. At the end of qualifying, Vettel is fastest, stealing pole in the last sector from teammate Raikkonen but then comes Bottas, over half a second behind Vettel, with a lack-lustre Hamilton fourth and the Red Bulls next. The first four have all used softs in Q2, so will start on those, with the rest of the top ten on ultras.
Now, fast forward to raceday and suddenly its sunny – this is like an entire British summer in three days – it’s 19 degrees with a track temperature of 39, conditions we haven’t seen so far this weekend and therefore requiring new strategy and perhaps a different car in terms of handling.
And away we go, Vettel just keeping out of reach of Bottas who has taken second from Raikkonen who has fallen away, tailed by Hamilton. At the first pit stops, Bottas comes in a lap before Vettel and provides a brilliant undercut to transform a 3.4s deficit into a 1.2s lead. Raikkonen stays out for another seven laps, rejoining at the back of the Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull queue, once again the sacrificial lamb.
But we’re only at half distance and Bottas is only a second or so ahead of Vettel, the pair both on new mediums as are their rivals, intending to go to the end. There’s 28 laps of this in prospect when a communications mix-up with the Toro Rosso team sees the pair collide at the hairpin and the safety car is deployed. It comes out after Bottas and Vettel have gone through but both Red Bulls make a dash for the pits and having double stacked at their first pit stop on lap 17, they double stack again, but there’s more brilliance from the Red Bull guys and it goes perfectly. When the safety car goes in, Bottas leads from Vettel – still second but wingeing about the timing of the safety car – then Hamilton in third, Verstappen, Raikkonen and Ricciardo, the Red Bulls on new soft compound tyres, the rest on 16 lap-old mediums.
Now at this point it’s worth pointing out that Mercedes’ tyre choice had left them with no new sets of soft compound tyres for the race. They had new ultras, unlike their immediate rivals, but no new softs – unlike their rivals. Ferrari could have done the same as Red Bull, but didn’t. Toto Wolff says Red Bull’s strategy wasn’t on their radar and that’s because they didn’t have the tyres.
Now begins the fight back from Red Bull which you all know about and after overtaking Raikkonen on lap 37, the lap after the safety car goes in, the Aussie gets Hamilton on lap 40, Vettel on lap 42 – just – and Bottas on lap 45. It’s no contest. Verstappen has disappeared after his moment trying to overtake Hamilton but fights back to a close fourth behind the Finns, only to be penalised for colliding with Vettel. The Ferrari driver has fallen back with car damage after his brush with the Red Bull. Some of the major players had incidents and duly winged about them – did we mind? – while Hamilton was clearly out of sorts and some have questioned his motivation and state of mind. He has had it so much his own way for years that finding a car that was not as competitive as his rivals clearly hurts.
But what was so fantastic about the race was that it was so simple. Apart from Mercedes’s lack of soft tyres, it was all quite obvious and apparent, happening right there in front of us. All three teams had a fair crack at it, all three led – both Ferraris, a Mercedes and ultimately a Red Bull with the happiest winner you could ever wish for. Renault, McLaren and Haas looked competitive as usual but on this occasion all eyes were on the front and deservedly so. Vettel leads Hamilton by nine points – neither ultimately players in this Grand Prix – while Mercedes are a point ahead of Ferrari. Game on!