Chinese Grand Prix report
LITTLE TROUBLE IN BIG CHINA
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.
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.
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…”