Chi­nese Grand Prix re­port

LIT­TLE TROU­BLE IN BIG CHINA

Motor Sport News - - Headline News -

Nico Rosberg’s seem­ingly blessed start to the 2016 sea­son con­tin­ued to the third round as he dom­i­nated the Chi­nese Grand Prix in spite of los­ing the lead at the start.

Rosberg was on im­pe­ri­ous form at the cir­cuit on which he scored Mercedes’ first vic­tory in its mod­ern era back in 2012, but he was helped by chaotic scenes in his wake. Team-mate Lewis Hamil­ton started from the back of the grid af­ter his car suf­fered an ERS com­po­nent fail­ure in qual­i­fy­ing, and the two Fer­raris that might have chal­lenged for vic­tory also lost ground when they col­lided at the first cor­ner.

Se­bas­tian Vet­tel fought back to fin­ish sec­ond, ahead of Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat, in a tightly con­tested bat­tle for the re­main­ing po­si­tions be­hind Rosberg. Kvyat’s team-mate Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, who qual­i­fied sec­ond and led for three laps be­fore suf­fer­ing a high-speed blow out, re­cov­ered im­pres­sively to take fourth place ahead of Kimi Raikko­nen, who also had to pick his way through the field.

Hamil­ton made a fight of it with Ric­cia­rdo and Raikko­nen as they charged through, only to lose im­pe­tus and fin­ish seventh be­hind the Wil­liams of Felipe Massa af­ter his tyres ran out of steam dur­ing the course of a long fi­nal stint.

Qual­i­fy­ing

On Fri­day the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture dropped be­tween the two qual­i­fy­ing ses­sions, then all through Satur­day morn­ing dark clouds pe­ri­od­i­cally un­leashed plen­ti­ful rain. The only con­sis­tent el­e­ment was the blus­tery wind – and even that shifted di­rec­tion from time to time, some­times blow­ing against the flow of traf­fic on the long back straight, some­times across it.

The track was mostly dry in time for qual­i­fy­ing, ex­cept for two large pud­dles across the front straight caused by run-off from the twin ‘wings’ that con­nect the grand­stand to the pad­dock com­plex. A ridge in the as­phalt at the first pud­dle was enough to set Pas­cal Wehrlein’s slick-shod Manor aqua­plan­ing as he crossed it at full chat with his DRS open, pitch­ing him into a spin and then into the bar­rier.

Af­ter a 20-minute stop­page, Q1 got un­der way again, with most driv­ers elect­ing to use the grippy but short­lived su­per-soft rub­ber – un­favoured for the race – in the early run­ning. Hamil­ton was al­ready due a five-place grid penalty for a gear­box change ahead of the event, but the ERS prob­lem forced him to re­turn to the Mercedes garage with­out set­ting a time.

Rio Haryanto also got no fur­ther than Q1 in the sec­ond Manor, and nei­ther of the Re­naults es­caped – Kevin Mag­nussen and Jolyon Palmer were leapfrogged by the Saubers of Felipe Nasr and Mar­cus Eric­s­son in the fi­nal min­utes. The luck­less Este­ban Gu­tier­rez, who missed much of prac­tice with var­i­ous tech­ni­cal prob­lems, com­pleted the Q1 ca­su­al­ties.

With just over a minute of Q2 to run, Nico Hulken­berg’s front-left wheel parted com­pany with his Force In­dia at Turn 10 and the ses­sion was red­flagged. Although the usual sus­pects had al­ready banked quick enough laps to progress to Q3, sev­eral driv­ers who might have been in the hunt – in­clud­ing Massa, Fer­nando Alonso and Jenson But­ton – had to aban­don their fi­nal runs. But­ton later com­plained that the

ser­vice ve­hi­cle he had seen parked in the pit en­try ear­lier in the ses­sion was in a more dan­ger­ous place than Hulken­berg’s stricken car.

An ex­cit­ing fi­nal seg­ment jus­ti­fied the grudg­ing de­ci­sion of the sport’s stake­hold­ers to drop the half-baked elim­i­na­tion qual­i­fy­ing sys­tem used in Aus­tralia and Bahrain, where the ac­tion had fiz­zled out in Q3. Prac­tice had sug­gested Fer­rari’s SF16-H was quick enough for pole po­si­tion but Rosberg beat both the red cars to it, kick­ing off his fi­nal run with an un­promis­ing first sec­tor but then go­ing fastest of all over the rest of the lap.

With a view to sav­ing a set of su­per-softs for the race, Fer­rari waited un­til the very last mo­ment to send Vet­tel out for a one-shot run, but he fell short of Rosberg and Raikko­nen. Both Fer­raris ran a lit­tle wide at the hair­pin, but in truth Vet­tel’s lap was al­ready not quite good enough. Raikko­nen was al­most on par with Rosberg un­til he shipped four tenths of a sec­ond to the Mercedes in the fi­nal sec­tor. To com­pound Fer­rari’s angst, Ric­cia­rdo then de­moted Raikko­nen and Vet­tel to third and fourth.

Race

Hav­ing set his Q2 time on the soft tyre – and only used one set – Rosberg was the sole fron­trun­ner to start on that com­pound. Pirelli pre­dicted that the ideal strat­egy would be a three-stop race, with two stints on the soft and one on the frag­ile su­per-soft, but couldn’t say defini­tively whether it would be bet­ter to dis­pose of the su­per-soft first or leave it un­til the end. Cir­cum­stances would ren­der this sce­nario moot, since Rosberg ended up stop­ping just twice and run­ning to the end on medi­ums.

Ric­cia­rdo got the bet­ter start and swept into the ris­ing, tight­en­ing Turn 1 first. Rosberg elected not to con­test the cor­ner, tuck­ing into his slip­stream, rel­a­tively un­threat­ened from be­hind be­cause the Fer­raris on the sec­ond row were slow away from the line. Raikko­nen locked a wheel and slid wide be­fore gath­er­ing it in again, while Vet­tel looked to the in­side line but then had to change course sud­denly as he spot­ted Kvyat ap­proach­ing from aft “like a tor­pedo”.

Vet­tel turned his team-mate’s car broad­side and then spent the rest of the lap apol­o­gis­ing to the team from his new po­si­tion of eighth, be­hind Ric­cia­rdo, Rosberg, Kvyat, Ser­gio Perez, Hulken­berg, Car­los Sainz and Massa. If Hulken­berg par­layed the first-cor­ner tan­gle neatly to run fifth, hav­ing started 13th, Valt­teri Bot­tas was less for­tu­nate. Hav­ing started fifth, the Wil­liams driver was hung out to dry at the pe­riph­ery of Turn 2 af­ter hav­ing to go around the out­side of Raikko­nen, drop­ping to 10th. Lewis Hamil­ton was also in the wars, los­ing his front wing be­tween Turns 2 and 3 as Nasr swerved across his bows.

Both Raikko­nen and Hamil­ton had to pit for new noses, but the race would come back to them. Such is the Red Bull’s straight­line deficit that Ric­cia­rdo was al­most cer­tain to lose the lead as soon as DRS be­came avail­able on the third lap, but he could never have pre­dicted that his rear-left tyre would lose pres­sure and shred it­self as Rosberg breezed past on the back straight. Pirelli would later put the fail­ure down to de­bris, most likely at the first cor­ner.

To clear that de­bris and the mess left by Ric­cia­rdo’s dis­in­te­grat­ing rub­ber, race con­trol de­ployed the safety car, set­ting in mo­tion an­other strate­gic shake-up. Massa had com­plained be­fore the race that low grip caused by Pirelli’s in­sis­tence on high min­i­mum tyre pres­sures would ar­ti­fi­cially pro­mote over­tak­ing, but in­stead it was the sheer va­ri­ety of strate­gies that turned this grand prix into a riot of pass­ing ma­noeu­vres.

Mercedes called Hamil­ton in twice dur­ing the full-course yel­low to tick the reg­u­la­tory box that re­quires driv­ers to use two of the three avail­able tyre com­pounds. He com­pleted one lap on the su­per-softs be­fore hand­ing them in for softs, los­ing no ground since the race was still neu­tralised.

Kvyat, Perez, Hulken­berg and Sainz all pit­ted un­der the safety car to dis­pose of their su­per-softs. Vet­tel fol­lowed them in to do the same, briefly gained two po­si­tions by nip­ping past as Hulken­berg slowed al­most to a crawl at the pit en­try, and left with a new front wing as well. The ex­tra time to fit the new nose didn’t hurt him too badly, for although he emerged in 15th place he had not lost many net po­si­tions – many of the driv­ers be­tween him and the leader had started on soft tyres and didn’t pit un­der the safety car.

At the re­sump­tion of rac­ing, Rosberg sim­ply eased away from the gag­gle of non-stop­pers (Massa, Alonso, Wehrlein and Gu­tier­rez) that sep­a­rated him and Kvyat, whose fad­ing hopes of vic­tory now hinged on him pass­ing the slower cars ahead as soon as pos­si­ble. By lap 12 he had cleared Massa to run sec­ond but Vet­tel was also on the move, dam­ag­ing his front wing as he clipped the sec­ond Wil­liams of Bot­tas to snatch eighth place on lap 11, but not badly enough to war­rant an­other re­place­ment. Over suc­ces­sive laps he dis­posed of Gu­tier­rez and Wehrlein, then Perez, then Alonso.

Pit­ting for a fresh set of softs on lap 17 dropped Vet­tel to 11th but he would soon re­gain those po­si­tions as the driv­ers ahead made their stops. With Rosberg now well up the road, the fo­cus of Red Bull’s race be­came pre­serv­ing sec­ond place for Kvyat. The team brought him in two laps af­ter Vet­tel’s stop and he re­joined with only But­ton sep­a­rat­ing him from the Fer­rari. Vet­tel made short work of the Mclaren and con­tin­ued to close in.

On lap 35 Kvyat and Vet­tel pit­ted at the same time from sec­ond and third po­si­tions and emerged in that or­der, but Vet­tel used his DRS to go past on the long back straight. By then, Rosberg had the race thor­oughly stitched up. Over the course of a 16-lap stint on softs in the mid­dle of the race he was able to lap up to 2.3s quicker than his ri­vals, build­ing enough of a gap to run the last 20 laps on medi­ums and yield pre­cious lit­tle ground, ul­ti­mately cross­ing the line 38s ahead of Vet­tel.

Ric­cia­rdo, Raikko­nen and Hamil­ton fought through­out – with the mid­field­ers as well as one an­other – but it was the tim­ing of their fi­nal pit­stops that de­cided their fin­ish­ing or­der. Hamil­ton made his fifth stop of the race on lap 30, tak­ing on medi­ums that he then had to keep in good shape for the last 26 laps. Ric­cia­rdo and Raikko­nen stopped seven laps later.

Hamil­ton pushed through to snatch fifth from Bot­tas with 16 laps to run, then set off in pur­suit of fourth-placed Massa, but Ric­cia­rdo (on new medi­ums) and Raikko­nen (on new softs) caught him first. On lap 43 Ric­cia­rdo made a de­ter­mined move up the in­side at Turn 5, then hunted down and passed Massa a few cor­ners later. Then Raikko­nen, mak­ing im­pres­sive progress on the stick­ier rub­ber, pushed Hamil­ton wide at the hair­pin when DRS as­sis­tance on the back straight didn’t prove enough.

Ric­cia­rdo didn’t have enough laps left to catch his team-mate so had to set­tle for a fine fourth, ahead of Raikko­nen, while Hamil­ton couldn’t get close enough to Massa to re­lieve him of sixth place. With the Toro Ros­sos of Max Ver­stap­pen and Sainz bear­ing down on him, the world cham­pion was pleased to see the che­quered flag.

Af­ter­wards, as Rosberg cel­e­brated his sec­ond Chi­nese Grand Prix vic­tory, Vet­tel di­rected his ire over the Turn 1 fra­cas at a coolly un­re­pen­tant Kvyat.

“You came like a tor­pedo,” com­plained the four-time world cham­pion. “You’ll crash driv­ing like that.”

“But we didn’t,” ri­posted Kvyat. “So…”

Vet­tel and Kvyat ‘dis­cuss’ lap one Ric­cia­rdo jumps into an early lead as trou­ble starts to brew be­hind

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