Issue 12: Chinese Grand Prix Review

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21 April 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a lights-to-flag victory. His team-mate Nico Rosberg made a poor start and spent most of the race fighting to overtake the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari to finish a distant second. Alonso drove brilliantly to claim third finishing only 1.5 seconds ahead of Daniel Ricciardo who in turn trounced Sebastian Vettel. McLaren endured a pointless afternoon.

Forza Fernando!

The Chinese Grand Prix sadly did not match the thriller in Bahrain two weeks ago. This was largely due to Nico Rosberg’s poor qualifying and getaway from the grid. This saw him slip down the order at the start and ensured Hamilton would go unchallenged at the front. The Briton was once again in imperious form. His victory, the third in a row, together with a hat-trick of poles, meant that he is the indisputable winner of this first phase of the 2014 F1 World Championship. Hamilton is currently out-driving and out-thinking Rosberg. He is still four points behind his rival in the title race, but there’s no doubting which Mercedes driver holds the momentum. Hamilton reaffirmed the value of leading from the front and repeated his trick of going that bit faster than the competition whilst using less fuel. By the end of the Grand Prix, he’d used in the region of 7% less fuel than the Red Bulls and about 4% less than Alonso, but finished over 23 seconds ahead of the first non-Mercedes car. Quite a margin. Some will argue that it is easy to dominate with such a car advantage, but for how long has Hamilton had to watch as others – mostly Vettel – enjoy the sort of car that he has underneath him now? Nevertheless, the most impressive driver was surely the Spaniard in his Ferrari. To come home ninth in Bahrain was embarrassing, but Alonso drove like hell to finish third in China. He dragged that under-performing car well clear of the Mercedes customer teams and even the Red Bulls. Alonso launched off the line and in his true fighting style, brushed off a collision with Felipe Massa’s Williams at the start, to give the Scuderia the perfect tonic after their dismal race in Round 3. This was no taxi drive. The contrast with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen’s performance could not have been stronger. He finished over a minute ahead of the Finn. You just don’t do that to other world champions. Yes, Raikkonen struggled with the set-up of his F14-T from Practice One in Friday morning, but that gap will make uncomfortable reading for the ‘Ice Man’.

The usual characters, namely Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas, put in the other stand-out performances of the race. Ricciardo in particular, is making a habit of sticking it to his illustrious team-mate. Again, we heard: Red Bull to Vettel: ‘Seb, let Ricciardo through he is faster than you’. Eventually, Vettel yielded to the Australian upstart (on Lap 26), but did not follow him home by any means. The German finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate. And not only did he leave Vettel for dead, Ricciardo spent the last few laps worrying Alonso in another of his now trademark gritty drives that make him so entertaining to watch. Ricciardo’s qualifying performances at Toro Rosso in 2013 indicated his speed, but to race the way he has done against a multiple world champion shows real mettle. Vettel’s problems reportedly centre around his inability to find the corner entry performance he wants from the car together with difficulties in preserving the tyres. That the German is struggling to adapt is somewhat of a surprise, but perhaps he is still driving to a level that the RB10 is not yet capable of. In any case, Ricciardo’s grit and Vettel’s toils make for a fascinating – and very welcome – intra-team battle at Red Bull.

The Hulk and Bottas once again showed their class as best finishers of the Mercedes customer teams. In the process, they put into perspective the pretty dismal performance of the other Mercedes-powered team, McLaren.

What’s happened to McLaren?

It was McLaren’s turn to look red-faced post-race after Button and Magnussen finished a lap down in 11th and 13th respectively in Shanghai. The double podium finish they achieved in Melbourne must feel like a long time ago now. It seems that the MP4-29 has a narrow performance window; if the track and ambient temperatures are too hot, as in Sepang, McLaren struggle to get the most out of the car due to the cooling demands required. However, if it’s too cold, Button and Magnussen can’t get enough heat into the tyres, the fronts in particular, so they grain. On current form, McLaren are the third-fastest Mercedes customer team, which is a pretty bad place to be for a team with such heritage. A lot is riding on their upgrade package for the next round in Spain.

The second-place championship battle behind Mercedes

True to expectations, the Chinese Grand Prix demonstrated that the competitive order behind Mercedes will switch around this year. Alonso showed that Ferrari can rise phoenix-like from a poor performance in the previous race, thanks to some upgrades, a good qualifying and a strong start. Likewise, Williams qualified well despite the wet weather, indicating that they are getting on top of the set-up of the FW36 and adding downforce. However, they again struggled to convert their speed into strong points, which is becoming an unfortunate theme for them this season. Apart from introducing unpredictability into the racing, the ever-evolving competitive order will mean that the battle for second – or perhaps that should be third – in the championship will be close for much of the year. At every race, Red Bull have been at or near the top of the battle for second overall. However, they’re being aided – if indeed they need any help – by the fact that at one race they’re battling a Force India and the next a Ferrari. In short, the Mercedes customer teams and Ferrari are taking points off each other for the benefit of Red Bull and their charge to second place. To catch Mercedes, as Red Bull have said at every opportunity, they need Renault to deliver more power. They’re probably right. The speed trap figures from China showed Red Bull firmly rooted to the bottom, some 12mph slower than Mercedes. However, not all the Renault-powered runners are that slow in a straight line. Kamui Kobayashi’s Caterham, for example, was only 4mph slower than Mercedes. So Renault’s new specification, which enabled its teams to get more out of the Energy Recovery System, has made a difference to some of its teams following its introduction in Bahrain and China. But not Red Bull. This suggests that the performance differential between Mercedes and Red Bull is not purely powertrain-related. We know that their chassis is as good if not better than the Mercedes, so perhaps they’re not getting enough out of the tyres.

The circus travels to Spain for Round 5 in three weeks’ time.

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