Fernando Alonso delivered a perfect performance for Ferrari here in China yesterday to thrust himself firmly back into the World Championship battle.
The Spaniard had few challengers on a day when Sebastian Vettel ran out of kilter on tyre choice, along with his main rivals, and had to settle for a valiant fourth. It was Alonso's 31st grand prix triumph, and one of the sweetest after his recent retirement early in the Malaysian GP.
"Definitely this was a fantastic race for us, the perfect Sunday with no problems," he smiled. "We were able to manage the gap to the guys behind, but it was not so easy to understand the race at times as we were overtaking the McLarens and Sebastian at times, as they were running different tyre strategies. There were moments of action as we had to manage all that, but the team did a perfect job."
After making a great start, Alonso took the lead from Lewis Hamilton, the first Englishman to take pole position for Mercedes since Stirling Moss, on the fifth lap. Later Alonso overtook Vettel for the lead on the 31st lap and for the rest of the afternoon he simply had to keep up his rhythm.
For second-placed Kimi Raikkonen, Hamilton, who finished third, and Vettel, things were much less relaxed.
The Finn's race was compromised by a horrible start, in which he fell from second to fourth at the end of the opening lap. Then he had a collision with the McLaren driver Sergio Perez on the 16th lap, which damaged the nose of his Lotus.
"I got a good run at him through turn three and then after the kink I went round the outside of him in turn four," Raikkonen said. "He moved over and put me on the grass. I tried to avoid him but couldn't because I was right there alongside him, so we crashed, but the kerb saved me and gave me the grip I needed to keep going."
Over the radio the normally implacable Finn was heard to yell: "What the hell is he doing?" Surprisingly, his car did not lose too much performance and he was able to contain Hamilton's continual challenge to the flag.
"There's no way to tell how much it affected us. Obviously, the car was not designed like that so it wasn't something that helped us. I wanted the team to change the nose during the pit stop, but they thought it was OK and didn't want to lose time. I was surprised how good the car still was with quite a lot of damage. There was just a bit of understeer, which hurt the front tyres a bit."
Hamilton could tell you afterwards what every inch of the Lotus looked like. He managed to keep ahead of Raikkonen all the way through to the final pit stops, but after making his own stop on the 37th lap he could not help dropping behind the black and gold car. But he never let up the pressure as he chased it home. At the same time, he was under increasing pressure himself from Vettel.
While the top seven qualifiers all had to start on the soft-compound Pirelli tyres on which they had set their grid times, Vettel was able to choose to start on the mediums, which were much more durable, because he didn't record a final qualifying time. Fellow countryman Nico Hulkenberg did the same, in his Sauber.
That put Vettel out of step with Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton where pit stops were concerned, as the early leaders forsook their soft tyres within the first seven laps. Thus Hulkenberg was able to lead between the seventh and 14th laps, chased by Vettel, who overtook the Sauber when it was slightly delayed in the pits. Later Vettel was able to lead laps 24 to 29, before Alonso used fresher medium-compound tyres to sweep back ahead.
The rules require drivers to use both tyre compounds, so Vettel had to switch to a set of softs as close to the end as Red Bull dared leave it. That dropped him from second to fourth place on the 51st of the 56 laps, and after that he charged after Hamilton. The battle became a cliffhanger when the Mercedes driver, his own medium tyres now worn out, encountered backmarker Giedo van der Garde's Caterham on the penultimate lap.
"Who is that in there?" Hamilton ranted over the radio as he was trapped behind the green car, before finally managing to dodge past. By then Vettel was right on his tail, but as the German also lunged by the Caterham he ran wide at the next corner, and that gave Hamilton the breather he needed to preserve his second consecutive podium finish for his new team - by two-tenths of a second.
"I'm really happy with today's result, which is great for the team," Hamilton said. "It was a good race for me. I'd love to have won, but I'm quite happy with third. The other guys were a bit too fast for us today. I kept applying a little bit of pressure to Kimi, but I couldn't get close enough to try and overtake. Then I was a bit unlucky with some traffic, when the tyres were finished by the end.
"We're not quite there, and I'm not really sure where we are losing out. Today the overall pace was not there, and definitely there are a couple areas we can focus on. We just need to keep bringing aerodynamic updates and to keep improving."
31: Career grands prix for Fernando Alonso - level with Nigel Mansell in fourth for all-time race wins
2005: Alonso's victory in Shanghai was his second Chinese triumph - eight years after he won in a Renault en route to the title
9: Different seasons in which Alonso has won a race - only three drivers have won in more
5: Different winners in the last five grands prix - including the last two races of last season
4: Wins in China for Ferrari - Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello