The second race of the season delivered our second race winner and second winning constructor. What
variety! In fact, the podium in China held drivers from three different teams. First was Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, second was Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari and third was Max Verstappen of Red Bull. It’s too early to say for sure, but 2017 looks to be a lot more competitive than the last few years.
Friday’s two practice sessions were cancelled because the weather grounded the medical helicopters that the FIA requires. So the drivers went into qualifying with only one practice session under their belt. Verstappen was unexpectedly caught out with some engine difficulties and didn’t make it out of Q1. Fernando Alonso of McLaren impressed by making it to Q2 despite running the power-challenged Honda engine. But the biggest story was at the sharp end of the field: who would make the front row? Hamilton was one of the first to complete his last flying lap and he set a new course record in doing so. Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari, who had set the course record just minutes before, was down in 4th. Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes was sitting in second position until Vettel came across the line and pipped him by mere hundredths of a second. Thus we started the race the same as Australia: Hamilton (Mercedes), Vettel (Ferrari), Bottas (Mercedes), Raikkonen (Ferrari). The Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo was next in 5th and Felipe Massa (Williams) was best of the rest in 6th.
The field started on a damp track and after some warm up laps on both the full Wet tyres and the Intermediates, everyone chose the Inters. Except one: Carlos Sainz started in P11 on the slick tyres. He gambled that the track would be dry enough for the slicks and he’d make up substantial time while everyone else pitted. Meanwhile, Vettel lined up almost outside of his starting box and aimed to the left, where Hamilton was. It was a notably aggressive stance from Vettel.
As the lights went out, Hamilton seemed to get off the line best, which meant that Vettel’s starting position was irrelevant. The top guys held their positions through the first two turns except for Ricciardo, who managed to get around Raikkonen on the outside. Meanwhile, at the back of the pack, Verstappen immediately made up several positions.
On the opening lap, Lance Stroll (Williams) turned into a left hander only to find Sergio Perez (Force India) in his blind spot. The rookie Stroll claimed that he “had” the corner, but Perez and the race stewards saw it otherwise. Stroll’s punishment was a race retirement as he was knocked off into a gravel pit. Stroll’s crash brought out a Virtual Safety Car, which slowed the entire field until his car was cleared. Under the VSC, the midfield and back of the pack pitted to put on slick tyres. Critically, so did Vettel.
It was a bold gamble. Vettel saved about 8 seconds on his pit stop by pitting under the VSC rather than racing conditions. Ferrari calculated that Hamilton would have to pit in a few laps (under green), and that 8 seconds would deliver Vettel the win. The gamble didn’t pay off.
Sauber’s Giovinazzi was one of the back markers who had pitted for slicks and he lost control of his car on the homestretch, slamming into the barriers and showering the tarmac with carbon shards. His race was over, but it also brought out a full Safety Car. The entire field slowed down behind the Safety Car and the leaders were able to pit under even more favorable conditions than Vettel. Vettel was now back in P5.
When the green flag was waved again, Hamilton took off into the distance. Ricciardo was holding up his teammate Verstappen while Raikkonen was holding up his teammate Vettel. (It was incredibly impressive that Verstappen recovered 14 positions in just a few laps). It’s early in the season, so neither team issued orders and let their guys race. That led to some incredible passing. Verstappen dove past Ricciardo and set on after Hamilton. Meanwhile, Raikkonen and Vettel were stacked up behind Ricciardo. Kimi was complaining about his car and couldn’t get past Ricciardo. After a few laps, Vettel took matters into his own hands and passed his teammate and then Ricciardo in the pass of the race that featured wheel-to-wheel racing (and touching).
Vettel continued to push well and picked up time on both Hamilton and Verstappen, eventually passing the latter for P2. Vettel was trading fastest laps with Hamilton, but the Mercedes driver seemed to be able to match Vettel lap for lap and crossed the finish line first with 6 seconds to spare. Behind them, Ricciardo was really pushing Verstappen for P3. Even with the DRS boost and seemingly fresher tyres, however, Ricciardo couldn’t make the pass. It was exciting racing.
Elsewhere in the field:
- Massa struggled to warm up his tyres and faded out of the points
- Bottas spun on cold slicks and did well to make up positions, but finished P6.
- Alonso had one of the best races as he thrived in the difficult conditions. He was running in P6 on a track expected to highlight the Honda power deficiency. Alonso said the McLaren was as fast through the corners as any car but super slow on the straights. Unfortunately, his race was ended with a driveshaft failure. #ThanksHonda
P1 Hamilton (Mercedes); P2 Vettel (Ferrari); P3 Verstappen (Red Bull); P4 Ricciardo (Red Bull); P5 Raikkonen (Ferrari); P6 Bottas (Mercedes); P7 Sainz (Toro Rosso); P8 Magnussen (Haas); P9 Perez (Force India); P10 Ocon (Force India); P11 Grosjean (Haas); P12 Hulkenberg (Renault); P13 Palmer (Renault); P14 Massa (Williams); P15 Ericsson (Sauber)