What to say after China except that Lewis Hamilton’s tactical victory for McLaren has blown the title wide open, while further back Mercedes has shown definite signs of improvement, as Nico Rosberg’s spell in the lead proved.
After Melbourne and Malaysia the paddock was depressed, with many suggesting Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel were on track to do a ‘2004’, when Ferrari dominated to such a degree that most teams stopped developing their cars after three races in order to concentrate on their 2005 challengers. They went on to trounce Ferrari, ending the Scuderia’s hegemony…
After the recent overtaking fests, particularly in Malaysia, the last thing F1 needs is for teams to give up now with 16 races to go – 17 if Bahrain sorts its political unrest, and gets reallocated a date this year. Yes, it seems unlikely, but D-Day is 1 May, when the FIA meets to consider the situation.
Thus it was heartening after the Chinese race that the overall feeling was Red Bull faced more than just a McLaren challenge, particularly if Ferrari gets its act together. The red team has a major upgrade ready for the next round in Turkey, and with Felipe Massa being the Istanbul’s most successful driver (three wins in the six races to date, all with Ferrari), the Italian team is obviously looking forward to strong showings there and going forward.
With Renault’s ingenuous ‘blown’ floor – the exhausts exit at the front, then blow spent gasses all the way under the car to the rear to increase downforce – this year propelling the black/gold cars up the grid and on to the podium twice in the opening two races, we effectively have four teams able to mix it with reigning champion Sebastian Vettel and RBR.
Then there is SebVet’s internal challenge: If Hamilton was the winner on Sunday, the man of the race was certainly Mark Webber. The Australian misjudged his tyre allocation and pace in Saturday’s first qualifying session, gridding 18th. A long race was on the cards, particularly when he made up only a single position after 15 laps, but thereafter he picked them off one by one to end just a couple of seconds shy of team-mate Vettel.
It was a gritty drive, and his string of ‘purples’ – F1’s timing system highlights fastest laps in that colour – proved that he was ‘on it’ from beginning to end. Last year Red Bull’s abhorrence of team orders kept Sebastian honest, and that situation has not changed, nor has Mark slowed down.
Where Vettel effectively had a win in hand after two races (having 50 points to Jenson Button’s 26, with a win paying 25), after three races the gap to new second-placed driver Hamilton is 21, so Sebastian’s advantage has been reduced. A few more results like Sunday, and it could be down to 15 or so after five races…
That said, on Saturday he planted his car on pole by 0,7 seconds. However, in the process he used up a set of ‘option’ tyres, which scuppered his race strategy, enabling Hamilton to ‘do’ him five laps from the end of a race, which saw six drivers leading at different stages before ceding their leads through tyre degradation.
With KERS, the DRS moveable rear wing and rapidly degrading tyres the fear after Malaysia had been that there had possibly been a little too much overtaking. A balance is necessary if the art, effectively Formula 1’s currency, is not to be devalued. Consider it in rugby terms: five or so tries per match are thrilling; a try a minute would detract from the skill required to squarely plant the ball behind the line.
Interestingly, in China Ferrari’s Sporting Director Stefano Domenicalli was of the opinion that degrading tyres contributed to China’s nailbiting race more than did the effects of KERS and the DRS moveable wing, although these certainly helped.
All of which totally justifies Pirelli’s decision to put the show ahead of brand image, something the previous sole tyre supplier point-blank refused to do.