Lewis Hamilton took pole position and a lights-to-flag victory in a Chinese Grand Prix that confirmed hints from Australia of a season-long fight with Ferrari if Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport is to achieve a fourth straight Constructors’ Championship success. Valtteri Bottas finished sixth after an unfortunate spin behind an early-race Safety Car that cost him 10 places.
Valtteri: Lewis is definitely the quickest team mate I’ve had
Poor visibility prevented the medical helicopter from landing at the local hospital on Friday, so a truncated first practice and cancelled second session meant that all qualifying and race research had to be conducted in a single hour’s free practice on Saturday morning. The Mercedes team did a strong job and Lewis responded with the 63rd pole of his career and the 75th for the Silver Arrows in 150 F1 Grands Prix.
With similar race pace evident between Mercedes and Ferrari, qualifying has taken on additional significance, as Lewis acknowledged: “Pole may be just an 8m advantage but, come the end of the season, it may amount to much more than that...” Lewis is now just two short of Ayrton Senna’s 65 pole positions and five adrift of Michael Schumacher’s all-time record 68.
For Valtteri, who recorded a time just 0.19s slower than Lewis, there was the frustration of again being pipped to a front row slot by Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari – this time by a miniscule one thousandth of a second, or just under 6cm…
“Lewis is definitely the quickest team mate I’ve had,” Valtteri admitted. “It was pretty much expected from a three-time World Champion. But what I’m seeing is that it’s possible to match him. I know that I’m very close now and I will improve. We are going to have some good fights in the future. At the moment, though, it’s about getting good points and going step-by-step. I am feeling better and better in the car.”
Lewis: I think the choice was right on the margin
The race day forecast was for unpredictable weather and, sure enough, a damp track confronted the drivers as start time approached, meaning difficult decisions for team strategists. The headline may be that Lewis took pole and led all the way – but winning is never straightforward in such conditions.
The first quandary facing the team was whether to start on Pirelli’s intermediate tyre or to take a gamble on slicks. Mercedes was one of the few teams to explore slick-shod laps on the way to the grid. The conclusion was that, owing to the wet state of the track through Turns 14-16, slicks represented an unacceptable risk. Carlos Sainz, who started 11th, was the only driver to take the gamble. He paid the price when lack of traction off the grid relegated him to the back before he suffered a spin.
Another opening lap incident, in which Lance Stroll and Sergio Pérez made contact, gave rise to a Virtual Safety Car and another tricky decision for the team: do you come in at that early point for slicks and take a risk on having sufficient grip? Among the first six, Ferrari alone opted for that strategy with Vettel, who was tracking Lewis in a first lap race order of Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas, Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Kvyat.
“I think the choice was right on the margin,” Lewis confirmed. “But my Intermediates were fine and there was no need to risk coming in. It’s often when you want to gain something that you take that risk. I could still maintain a decent pace with the tyres that I had.”
Valtteri: One guy, by pure force, lifted up the rear of the car!
Mercedes concluded that with sufficient evidence of drivers struggling to stay on the track, more incident was likely. The trade-off to consider was an approximate eight second gain for a stop under the VSC versus the risk of going off the road on slicks or losing more time than such a gain while trying to generate tyre temperature.
Discretion did indeed prove to be the better part of valour when, on lap four, Antonio Giovinazzi lost his Sauber out of the final turn and brought out the Safety Car proper. The upshot was that Ferrari and Vettel never got to see the upside of their gamble as the rest of the field piled into the pits under the full Safety Car and gained even more time, trapping the Australian GP winner behind both Red Bulls, team mate Räikkönen, and Valtteri.
The cost to Vettel could be gauged by Valtteri having a problematic stop that cost him positions to both Red Bulls and Räikkönen yet remaining ahead of the Ferrari.
“There was a problem with the rear jack and the car dropped to the ground,” Valtteri explained. “One guy, by pure force, lifted up the rear of the car!”
Then, as the Safety Car prepared to pull off after seven of the race’s 56 laps, things went from bad to worse for Valtteri, who suddenly found himself down in 12th place.
Valtteri: I felt we were slightly quicker than Ferrari today
“I spun behind the Safety Car, a mistake I’m really not proud of,” he candidly admitted. “I got a call in Turn 7 that the Safety Car was coming in, so the straight out of Turn 10 was the last real chance to do some weaving and generate tyre temperature. I was trying to get the tyres warmer than the cars around so I could attack at the restart, but I went too far. I had a bit of a slide then over-corrected and spun onto the grass – a silly mistake. These things happen but it’s really s*** when it happens to you!
“It was slow getting the car back off the grass and I lost a lot of time and tyre temperature. Later, in free air, the car was handling pretty well except for a bit of a struggle with some understeer that was causing quite a lot of tyre wear to the front left. But the car was fast and Lewis proved it. It was a winning car today, so I’m very disappointed with sixth.
I won’t dwell on it, though. I need to move on. I know the pace is there. We just need to keep going and the results will come. I think there was a chance to fight for a 1-2. I felt we were slightly quicker than Ferrari today.”
If things went well for Hamilton in those early laps, there was still an awful lot of work to be done and plenty of unknowns. Was the tyre going to make it to the end, or not? And, how would teams react?
Those questions were key to tyre selections made. For example, whereas Mercedes elected to put both Lewis and Valtteri onto the Soft compound yellow-wall Pirelli slick, Red Bull went for the SuperSoft compound red-wall tyre with both Ricciardo and Verstappen. That led to Mercedes managing the situation in the early laps of the stint until knowing the likely direction of the race.
Lewis: We were very close in lap time
In such circumstances, where the driver has less information at his disposal than the team, it’s important to keep him informed – hence a team radio message to Lewis telling him that the Red Bulls, close behind, were on a softer tyre that was unlikely to be able to make it to the end. Although not the case at this race, such information can prevent a driver from defending too hard and risking an incident or from over-using his tyres.
The veracity of that was proven by a number of communications between Verstappen and Red Bull, which referenced the need to generate more temperature to keep the tyres alive on both sets of SuperSofts run by the young Dutchman – the problem being not so much wear as lack of temperature. The Soft compound tyre chosen by Mercedes, meanwhile, had more resilience to that and worked well on the W08.
So well, in fact, that Hamilton said he could comfortably have gone to the end on a single set of Softs, although that proved unnecessary. When Hamilton asked the team about such a strategy after 20 of the race’s 56 laps, he was told, “we’re flexible.”
“From the get-go I felt I had the pace to control the race from the front,” Lewis explained. “But if it wasn’t for the Safety Car it would have been a flat-chat race against Sebastian with just a couple of seconds between us the whole race, probably. We were very close in lap time but the team did the right job in terms of reacting to the scenarios. Sebastian was unfortunate and I didn’t really understand what was going on behind because I had the Red Bulls there and the Ferraris weren’t getting past. At that time I was quite chilled – but later, when Sebastian got behind, we had a real race on our hands, although I had a good gap.”
Lewis: How has the gap come down from 12s to 8s?
The extent to which Lewis was controlling the situation can be gauged by his lap times. After several laps in the high 1:37s / low 1:38s, approaching half distance through laps 21-27, he upped the pace to mid 1:37s on being informed that Vettel had fought his way back up into second place.
On lap 32, Lewis produced an impressive 1:36.71 lap, some 28 laps into his stint on softs, to increase his lead to almost 12.5s. Vettel pitted for a fresh set of Softs two laps later and was 0.08s slower on his ‘golden’ first lap, finding another four tenths next time around as he generated more temperature. Mercedes brought in Lewis for another set of soft Pirellis two laps later. Once back out and up to speed, Lewis’s lead had shrunk to 9.4s. And when, on lap 40, Vettel lapped at 1:35.423, the Ferrari’s fastest lap of the race, the margin was down to 8.26s.
“How has the gap come down from 12s to 8s?” Lewis asked on the radio.
Part of the explanation was that at the point Vettel pitted, Hamilton’s lead over Räikkönen was 24.2s, just marginally more than required for a stop. Having experienced the rear jack problem with Valtteri earlier in the race, the team believed that it was wrong to target a perfect stop and risk emerging behind the second Ferrari if there was a further issue. Once the pit stop window was available it always made sense to pit Hamilton a second time – but better to surrender a little of Lewis’s advantage to the fresh-tyred Vettel in order to gain a more comfortable stop window to Räikkönen.
Lewis: It really is great to win against Sebastian
While it was natural for Lewis to be wary of Vettel’s potential pace in the closing stages, in fact he was able to validate Valtteri’s belief that the Mercedes had the legs of the Ferrari at this track in these conditions by recording the race’s fastest lap, a 1:35.378, some 0.05s quicker than the Ferrari, four laps after Vettel had thrown down the gauntlet. As both men throttled back in the closing stages, a delighted Lewis took the chequered flag for his first win of 2017, some 6.25s to the good.
Behind them, the Red Bulls were third and fourth, almost 40s in arrears, both being caught by Räikkönen who, in turn, had Valtteri bearing down on him – the second Mercedes taking the flag just 0.73s behind the second Ferrari. From his early race spin, Valtteri had surrendered just over 20s to Lewis in 50 laps during a race in which he was forced to battle his way past Kvyat, Magnussen, Alonso and Sainz on track.
Leaving China with a 54th Grand Prix win under his belt, there was no disguising Hamilton’s pleasure at both a job well done by driver and team – and the prospect of a fascinating season taking on the strongest of adversaries.
“It really is great to win against Sebastian, a four-time World Champion at his best who is phenomenally quick. And also with Ferrari at their best in a decade, I think. We are at our best as a team too, and I feel like I’m at my best. The ultimate fighter always wants the best battle because when you come out on top it’s so much more satisfying. I’m loving this fight!”
The reality is that with the contest so tight, race wins will go to the man and team that gets everything right on the day. With Lewis and Vettel tied at the top of the Drivers’ Championship on 43 points apiece, Mercedes lead Ferrari by a single point, 66-65, in the Constructors’ Championship battle. It’s that close. Roll on Bahrain and the challenge of warmer temperatures!