Fifty-three minutes before Lewis Hamilton dramatically spun out of the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai yesterday, he had sped confidently into the lead as the race began on a wet and slippery track.
The McLaren-Mercedes driver had opened up a 10-second lead over the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen by the time he made his first scheduled pit stop on lap 15. That handed the Finn the lead, which he maintained until his own stop on lap 19. Hamilton, pushing hard, retook the initiative as the Ferrari driver rejoined. Further back, Felipe Massa in the second red car was locked in battle with Fernando Alonso. All four front runners kept their original tyres through their first stops.
It rained a little more around the 26-lap mark, and suddenly Raikkonen was taking big chunks out of Hamilton's lead. From 4.6sec on lap 25 it was down to 3.1 on lap 26 and a mere 0.8 by lap 27. They spent much of the 28th side by side, but after Hamilton had fended off one move by the Finn he slid wide and the Ferrari driver pounced and immediately opened up a significant advantage.
The previous day Hamilton had spoken of the Ferrari's characteristic of being kinder to its tyres in a race, and here that was proving crucial. If he could carry on to his scheduled stop, however, he might still have a chance. But it was clear he was struggling for grip as, further back in third place, Alonso was closing in. Hamilton finally pitted on lap 31, by which time Alonso was right on his tail. As he turned into the tight left-hander that leads into the pit lane, Hamilton slid helplessly into the gravel, and there his race came to its ignominious end.
"The tyres were finished," he said, "it was like driving on ice."
Now it was a fight between Alonso and the two Ferraris, but it was a stalemate situation that saw the order of Raikkonen, Alonso, Massa maintained to the end.
"I am very happy!" Raikkonen said. "It is a really great result for me and the whole team, who did a truly excellent job. We needed this win and we got it."
Alonso was happy, too. "Today was a very good result for me," he said. "It was difficult towards the end on the wet Bridgestone tyres as they were practically slick, but we stayed out as long as possible to get through the final shower, which was the right decision as I was able to come out ahead of Felipe on my final stop. Although this result is a boost to my chances in the championship it is still not going to be easy."
There was one happy Englishman in the place. That was Jenson Button, whose fighting race for Honda netted him fifth place.
"A fantastic race today and I'm very happy to come away with four points and our best result of the season," he said. "I struggled at the start as the car was not working well in the wet conditions and I had no grip, so I ended up slipping back. When the track dried out we decided to go for the dry option tyre and a light fuel load. From then I started setting fastest laps, which was a great feeling. It was a fun race with a lot of overtaking and very close driving."
Race result: 1 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1hr 37min 58.395sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) McLaren-Mercedes 1:38:08.201; 3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:38:11.266; 4 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:38:51.504; 5 J Button (GB) Honda 1:39:07.061; 6 V Liuzzi (It) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 56, 1:39:12.068; 7 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber 1:39:12.619; 8 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault 1:39:19.145; 9 H Kovalainen (Fin) Renault 1:39:19.581; 10 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 1:39:23.080; 11 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:39:25.076; 12 A Wurz (Aut) Williams-Toyota 55 laps completed; 13 J Trulli (It) Toyota 55; 14 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 55; 15 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 55; 16 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 54; 17 S Yamamoto (Japan) Spyker-Ferrari 53. Not classified: R Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber 35 laps; L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 30; R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 25; A Sutil (Ger) Spyker-Ferrari 24; A Davison (GB) Super Aguri-Honda 11.
Drivers' standings (after 16 of 17 races): 1 Hamilton 107pts; 2 Alonso 103; 3 Raikkonen 100; 4 Massa 86; 5 Heidfeld 58; 6 Kubica 35; 7 Kovalainen 30; 8 Fisichella 21; 9 Rosberg 15; 10 Coulthard 14; 11 Wurz 13; 12 Webber 10; 13 Trulli 7; 14 Vettel 6; 15 Button 6; 16 Schumacher 5; 17 Sato 4; 18 Liuzzi 3; 19 Sutil 1.
Constructors' standings: 1 Ferrari 186pts; 2 BMW-Sauber 94; 3 Renault 51; 4 Williams 28; 5 Red Bull 24; 6 Toyota 12; 7 Toro Rosso 8; 8 Honda 6; 9 Super Aguri 4; 10 Spyker 1.
Remaining race: 21 October: Brazil (Sao Paulo)