Lewis Hamilton began and ended his Chinese Grand Prix in dramatic circumstances but his calmness paid off both times to allow him to secure his first win of the season yesterday. It was a stunningly cool performance on a day of thrilling action.
Even before he reached the grid, Hamilton struck trouble when his McLaren refused to start in the garage. "I have no idea why," he said, while admitting that he was still in a daze after becoming the only man to win this race twice.
"I was more concerned for everyone else, because I could see they were doing their best to find the solution and fix it and I didn't want to be asking questions all the time. They told me there were six minutes left at the time, so I could relax. I had real confidence in the guys that they'd figure it out, and they did, with 30 seconds to go. I was nervous that just as I got to the pit-lane exit the light would go to red, but thankfully it didn't. On the grid the guys did a professional job and kept their heads cool, and here I am."
It was not an easy journey. An odd race began with team-mate Jenson Button leading him into the first corner, as Sebastian Vettel, winner of the previous two races, dropped from pole position to third. But just before Button and Vettel made their first pit stops on lap 13, Vettel sneaked by Hamilton into second place. Then he was confronted by Button momentarily filling his parking place in the Red Bull pit. Vettel's crew frantically waved Button through to McLaren next door, and the German beat the Briton out of the pits. Hamilton led for a lap before his own stop a lap later, which promoted Ferrari's Felipe Massa into the lead until he stopped two laps further on. That put Mercedes' Nico Rosberg ahead until he stopped for the second time on the 25th lap.
Vettel was now back in the lead until he stopped on lap 31, and after that it became apparent that Red Bull had opted for a two-stop strategy. So had Ferrari. After Vettel's second stop the Brazilian, right back on form at last and comfortably outpacing much-vaunted team-mate Fernando Alonso, had another two laps in the lead before Rosberg got another turn for the next six laps. Such are the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres this season, however, that the true shape of a race does not always emerge until the final stints. Thus, by the 40th lap, Vettel was leading again by 3.6sec from Massa, with Rosberg third from Hamilton, who had overtaken Button in the first corner on lap 36.
Steadily Massa reeled in Vettel, but it was the McLarens that were on the move as their three-stop strategies gave them fresher rubber when it mattered. And the ace up Hamilton's sleeve was the set of new tyres he had saved in qualifying. He overtook Rosberg on lap 42, Massa on 44, and then slashed a 3.7sec deficit to Vettel before forcing his way past at turn seven on the 52nd lap as the German struggled on his worn tyres. "He took me by surprise there," Vettel admitted with a smile. "It was a good move."
For a while it seemed that Button might follow his team-mate into second place for McLaren, but Mark Webber was now the fastest man on track. He had started 18th after problems getting temperature into his hard tyres in qualifying. He opted to get them out of the way early on, in observance of the rules that require drivers to use both types of tyre in the race. He didn't make much progress in his first 10-lap stint, but by now he was flying on his second set of softer-option tyres. As Button began to move in on Vettel, having passed Rosberg and Massa on the 45th and49th laps respectively, Webber was stalking him and dived by on the penultimate lap to make the podium after a superb recovery effort.
Three-stopping Rosberg was left with fifth place, ahead of the disillusioned Massa and a distant Alonso, while a battling afternoon left Michael Schumacher eighth. The Scottish rookie Paul di Resta again outpaced his Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil and was poised to score again, but heavy tyre wear enabled Renault's Vitaly Petrov and Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi to push him out of the points for the first time in his short but burgeoning Formula One career.
It had been a tense weekend for Hamilton, who was wound up tight after his recent disappointment in Malaysia, and there were times when things got edgy with his mechanics and engineers. The guy clearly needs to win, it's part of his DNA. And when he got a half-decent car, he delivered them the victory they all wanted, one that had seemed not just distant but downright impossible after McLaren's troubled pre-season test form.
"The emotion comes from the desire to win, to compete against the toughest drivers in the world," Hamilton said, "and when you haven't won for a while it feels like eternity. I tried to keep my mind fresh, and I was confident going into the race but worried at that one stage that I might not be in it.
"I was able to come through several cars, and couldn't believe I was catching Seb, who was doing a great job. Absolutely every inch, every second of the race, was incredibly enjoyable. I love to be able to race the others, to have the battles. They were driving well to defend their positions, which made it even more exciting."
There are some who deem Formula One, 2011 style, too confusing. Generally, they are the same people who once called it boring. But the Chinese Grand Prix underlined that the governing body has pretty much got it right, with Kers and the DRS rear wing. And anyone who doubts that Lewis Hamilton is the best racer out there right now should press the rewind button and savour it all over again.
Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai:
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1hr 36min 58.226sec
2 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:37:03.424
3 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:37:05.781
4 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:37:08.226
5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:37:11.674
6 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:37:14.066
7 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:37:28.848
8 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:37:29.252
9 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:37:55.630
10 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:38:01.499
11 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:38:06.983, 12 N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault 1:38:10.965, 13 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:38:28.415, 14 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:38:28.897, 15 A Sutil (Ger) Force India at 1 lap, 16 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 1 lap, 17 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari at 1 lap, 18 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams at 1 lap, 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at 1 lap, 20 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin Racing at 2 laps, 21 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 2 laps, 22 V Liuzzi (It) HRT-F1 at 2 laps, 23 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 at 2 laps. Not classified: 24 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Drivers' Championship: 1 Vettel 68pts, 2 Hamilton 47, 3 Button 38, 4 Webber 37, 5 Alonso 26, 6 Massa 24, 7 Petrov 17, 8 Heidfeld 15, 9 N Rosberg 10, 10 K Kobayashi 7, 11 Schumacher 6, 12 Buemi 4, 13 Sutil 2, 14 Di Resta 2, 15 Alguersuari 0, 16 Trulli 0, 17 Barrichello 0, 18 D'Ambrosio 0, 19 Kovalainen 0, 20 Perez 0, 21 Maldonado 0, 22 Karthikeyan 0, 23 Glock 0, 24 Liuzzi 0.
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Red Bull 105pts, 2 McLaren 85, 3 Ferrari 50, 4 Renault 32, 5 Mercedes GP 16, 6 Sauber-Ferrari 7, 7 Scuderia Toro Rosso 4, 8 Force India 4, 9 Lotus F1 0, 10 Williams 0, 11 Virgin Racing 0, 12 HRT-F1 0.Reuse content