2010 Chinese Grand Prix (Shanghai, Round 4, April 16th – 18th)

Shanghai International Circuit © FIA

Following disappointing retirements in the first two races of the season, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was relieved to finally come home victorious in Sepang, but the niggling doubts about the Austrian squad’s reliability must surely have been playing on his mind throughout the Malaysian weekend. Now those doubts have been eased following a relatively easy win in Kuala Lumpur; however Red Bull must also be thinking that the Chinese Grand Prix may be one of the last races where they have a clear advantage over the field. In three weeks time, the Championship moves to Europe and the annual technical development battle will begin in earnest. Questions remain about the possibility of Red Bull’s ride height/active suspension system, but those accusations and theories remain unproven and team boss, Christian Horner was bullish about the legality of the RB6. Meanwhile, Ferrari have been trying out a variation of McLaren’s RW80 with limited success, but seem happy with some of the improvements are in the pipeline.
Something that was quite apparent about Friday practice was the incredibly low numbers in attendance at the Shanghai circuit with FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone openly criticising the promoter of the race for not giving the Chinese event enough of a push – figures been spread about the crowds for Friday practice were around a few thousand people, which is shockingly low for any international event. There have been rumours in the past few years, that if any races are to be dropped from the calendar, then the two main candidates to be dropped are China and the mid-season race in Turkey; however Ecclestone has been keen to make clear that the race is pencilled in for future seasons. There were outside difficulties too for some of the teams and crews as rising ash from the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajoekull, has stopped a large amount of air travel within Europe and caused a general chaos in the travel industry. Members from some teams and car components were left stranded in Europe, including the BBC’s own Eddie Jordan – all of whom will be seen in Barcelona when the Spanish event does eventually come around.

The first practice session started out rather cool in Shanghai, albeit rather sunny with similar conditions expected for Saturday; however early forecast predict rain for the Grand Prix itself. One driver that did not have to think about the conditions on Friday morning was Antonio Liuzzi, who sat out the session and was once again replaced by reserve pilot, Paul di Resta.  Not for the first time this season, a McLaren clocks the fastest time as Button pipped Rosberg and Hamilton at the end of the session by less than a tenth-of-a-second. With their RW80 device put to good use down the 1km long back-straight, the British team were clearly fastest down the stretch – a factor that helped their cause no end. There were difficulties at Virgin as Timo Glock broke another front wing on the bumpy front straight, but problems also surfaced for Fernando Alonso, who suffered an engine blow-up after completing only six corners of the circuit – a huge worry for the Ferrari driver, now with two dead engines to his name.
Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi spent most of the session in the garage with a brake leak; however nothing could have prepared him for the massive accident he suffered at the end of the back-straight.  As the Swiss driver approached turn 13, his car suffered a wishbone failure on his right front suspension that ripped both front wheels clean off his car and pitched him hard into the barrier.  There was an additional scare of one of his wheels flying into the general admission area near the grandstands; thankfully no one was injured.  It was not a good day for the Buemi family as a whole for the young Swiss driver’s cousin, Natasha Gachnang, broke her leg in an accident at a GT1 qualifying session in Abu Dhabi.

With one destroyed Toro Rosso sitting in the garage being repaired, Buemi had no choice but to sit out the second practice session; whereas Liuzzi joined the track for the first time.  It would prove to be a difficult session for the 28 year-old Italian as he struggled to find good balance and grip in his Force India.  In this regard he was not alone – throughout the session the Virgin’s struggled with understeer, the Sauber’s had oversteer and the HRT’s had no balance at all.  This was epitomised by off-track trips by Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Lucas di Grassi and Pedro de la Rosa.  Michael Schumacher, Nico Hulkenberg and Vitaly Petrov were kind enough to use the run-off areas as well; however all three of those drivers had elements of speed in their machines.  An oil pressure failure ended Heikki Kovalainen’s practice run with ten minutes remaining – an irritation for the Lotus team as the Finn was on a heavy fuel run at the time.  At the front, Mercedes power represented the top four slots on the timing sheets; headed – once again – by Hamilton with Rosberg, Button and Schumacher in tow.  The rear end was again propped up by HRT with the Spanish squad 5.7 (Chandhok) and 6.1 seconds (Senna) slower than the fastest.
As Friday drifted into Saturday, it was announced that HRT had hired Sakon Yamamoto as their third driver.  The Japanese pilot had previously competed in Formula 1 during the 2006 and 2007 seasons for Spyker and Super Aguri before falling back to the GP2 series in 2008, where Yamamoto scored a fourth place finish in Hungary – his first ever points finish in any series outside of Japan.  On track Sebastien Buemi got in his first full session of the weekend with a time that put him 13th place and Rubens Barrichello got to try out the Williams version of the RW80 system, albeit with limited success.  Throughout the session, the fastest times swapped between Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and the Red Bull duo, the top times were set either side of a red flag that was brought out by an accident involving Vitaly Petrov.  The Russian driver stopped the session after he went wide exiting the final turn, spearing into the barrier by the pit lane entrance – it was an incident that was very nearly matched by Felipe Massa once the session got under way when he went wide at the same point.  The sixty minute session finished with Webber on top; ahead of Hamilton, Vettel, Button and Alonso.

Before the qualifying session got under way, both Chandhok and Kamui Kobayashi received five place penalties due to gearbox issues; although it is unlikely to truly affect Chandhok’s grid position considering the pace of the HRT car.  As expected the six new cars were dropped after Qualifying 1; however Kovalainen and Chandhok did not help their respective causes by having spins during their runs.  De la Rosa also had an off but made his way through to Qualifying 2, which is something that could not be said for Liuzzi – the Italian never quite feeling comfortable with his car over the early part of the weekend and wound up 18th on the grid.  During the second part of qualifying, Schumacher came very close to dropping out; the seven-time World Champion recording a time only 0.033 of a second faster than Barrichello.  The Williams veteran had a much larger gap over his young team mate Nico Hulkenberg, who slotted into 16th on the grid – nearly one second slower than the Brazilian.  Both Sauber’s and Toro Rosso’s also didn’t make it through to the final part of qualifying and were joined by Petrov who planted his Renault in 14th.
The morning session revealed false neutral gears during McLaren’s runs and these issues raised their head’s again during qualifying on at least three different occasions; however it did not stop Hamilton being fastest during Qualifying 1 and 2, although he could not reproduce this during the final session.  A stunning lap from Sebastian Vettel ensured a fourth consecutive pole position for Red Bull, ahead of his team mate Webber, while Alonso and Rosberg were just one-tenth behind in 3rd and 4th places respectively.  Button again qualified ahead of Hamilton with both McLaren’s on the third row, while Massa, Kubica, Schumacher and Sutil filling out the top 10.

The rain that had been expected on race day duly arrived not long before the race, but it remained intermittent and relatively light; however come the start of the race, the track was not yet wet enough to require intermediate rubber. A relatively poor Friday and Saturday turned to embarrassment for the Virgin squad, as they left Timo Glock up on his jacks as the field pulled away for the warm-up. He joined his team mate, Lucas di Grassi and HRT driver Chandhok in the pits for the race start. The rain continued to teem down as the red lights went out, but the field had the perfect opportunity to pit for intermediate tyres on lap 2 – as everyone wound their way through turns 5 and 6, Liuzzi lost the back end of his Force India, thereby finished his race and that of Buemi and Kobayashi with a shattering crash. The safety car emerged for three laps and everyone, bar Rosberg and Button, dashed into the pits for new tyres – a decision that would ultimately decide the race for the McLaren driver.
It transpired that much of the race action (and controversy) would indeed take place in pit lane – there were 68 stops in total during the Grand Prix; with Alguersuari and Hulkenberg venturing down the pit lane 6 times apiece. Alguersuari shed his front wing on the track and in the pit land entry; this brought out a questionable second safety car and some more stops. Fernando Alonso certainly did his bit by stopping on five occasions, although one of those was for a jump start when his Ferrari clearly got of the line before all five lights went out. It wasn’t the only time the stewards – aided by Alexander Wurz – were tested though, as Alonso barged passed Massa on the pitlane entry (no penalty given) and Hamilton was thought to have been unsafely released into Vettel’s path (Hamilton was reprimanded). A reprimand was also given to Vettel for forcing Hamilton off the driving lane prior to exiting the pits. It was a tale of a messy race versus a good run from then on as Massa, Vettel and his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber struggled in the difficult conditions thereafter. A second place start for the Australian was no guarantee of a 2nd place finish and an uncertain wet weather set-up, saw him tumble down the order to finish in 8th position. On the other hand, Alonso and Hamilton charged back up the field despite their mishaps – and in doing so provided some wonderful overtaking manoeuvres.
Indeed the best battle of the race was between the McLaren driver and the returning Mercedes pilot Michael Schumacher. It was not a race reminiscent of the seven time champion of old, as he continues to struggle in his new team, but for three laps there brief flickers of the past master as he fought wheel-to-wheel with the younger man. Alas, Schumacher dropped down the order as the race wore on and what looked like a 9th place finish became 10th when Massa shoved the German off the circuit at the beginning of the final lap and all the time, his youthful team mate Nico Rosberg is looking better and better. Rosberg himself drove a fine race, bringing the car home for a podium spot after leading early in the race; although for the most part his Chinese Grand Prix was largely uneventful, he was glad to see the chequered flag wave as the hard charging Alonso crept up on the Mercedes very quickly in the last laps – as they crossed the line, the gap was only two seconds.
Once again, both Renault drivers delivered superb drivers and were rewarded for their efforts although it’s not inconceivable that they could have had more – Kubica’s race appeared dented by the second safety car and Petrov lost 4th place during the race with a spin, although the Russian still claimed 7th place. The French/Swiss squad still faired much better than their midfield opponents though as both Williams’ drivers coming home out of the points and the sole finishing Force India and Toro Rosso cars crossing the line well down the line. For Sutil, it was even more disappointing – after running well early in the race, he fell backwards out of the top ten, while Alguersuari had an afternoon to forget. After Kobayshi’s turn 6 retirement, Pedro de la Rosa sealed another awful day for Sauber as his Ferrari engine gave up after 7 laps – one wonders if Peter Sauber will indeed find a buyer at the end of the year as his 2010 season quickly goes sour.
Of the new teams, both Lotus and HRT impressed, although they are still well down on general pace. Further hydraulic problems for Trulli didn’t dampen the Lotus mood after a 14th place finish for Kovalainen, who ran as high as 6th early on and for the second consecutive race, both Senna and Chandhok brought their HRT cars to flag. As for Virgin, the Richard Branson branded team seem to still be the fastest of the infant squads, but it hardly matters much when one finish from eight is registered – both of the red and black cars retired again in Shanghai.
In the end Button only had to stop twice and while it was not easy race by any stretch, he certainly commanded the field in hazardous conditions with aplomb. The reigning World Champion only really needed to make one overtake in the race and he did that on the 19th lap as he swiped the lead off of Rosberg. If McLaren were disappointed with their qualifying position on Saturday, they were ecstatic with their race result on Sunday – a steady drive to win and a frantic drive to claim second; the first McLaren 1-2 since the 2007 Italian Grand Prix. However, the question remains, can McLaren’s technical updates deliver this pace in the dry when the Grand Prix circus hit Spain in three weeks – doubtless Red Bull will aiming to keep their dry weather advantage with their updates… and then some.
Race Rating: 4 out of 5

Shanghai, Chinese Grand Prix (Round 4, April 18th)
1  BUTTON       McLaren
2  HAMILTON     McLaren      +1.5s
3  ROSBERG      Mercedes     +9.4s
4  ALONSO       Ferrari      +11.8s
5  KUBICA       Renault      +22.2s
6  VETTEL       Red Bull     +33.3s
7  PETROV       Renault      +47.6s
8  WEBBER       Red Bull     +52.1s
9  MASSA        Ferrari      +57.7s
10 SCHUMACHER   Mercedes     +61.7s
11 SUTIL        Force India  +62.8s
12 BARRICHELLO  Williams     +63.6s
13 ALGUERSUARI  Toro Rosso   +71.4s
14 KOVALAINEN   Lotus        +1 lap
15 HULKENBERG   Williams     +1 lap
16 SENNA        HRT          +2 laps
17 CHANDHOK     HRT          +4 laps
R  TRULLI       Lotus        +30 laps
R  DI GRASSI    Virgin       +48 laps
R  DE LA ROSA   Sauber       +49 laps
R  BUEMI        Toro Rosso   +56 laps
R  KOBAYASHI    Sauber       +56 laps
R  LIUZZI       Force India  +56 laps
R  GLOCK        Virgin       +56 laps

Shanghai, Qualifying (April 17th)
3rd Session
1  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m34.558s
2  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m34.806s
3  ALONSO        Ferrari       1m34.913s
4  ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m34.923s
5  BUTTON        McLaren       1m34.979s
6  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m35.034s
7  MASSA         Ferrari       1m35.180s
8  KUBICA        Renault       1m35.364s
9  SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m35.646s
10 SUTIL         Force India   1m35.963s
2nd Session
11 BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m35.748s
12 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m36.047s
13 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m36.149s
14 PETROV        Renault       1m36.311s
15 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m36.422s
16 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m36.647s
17 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m37.020s
1st Session
18 LIUZZI        Force India   1m37.161s
19 GLOCK         Virgin        1m39.278s
20 TRULLI        Lotus         1m39.399s
21 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m39.520s
22 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m39.783s
23 SENNA         HRT           1m40.469s
24 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m40.578s

Shanghai, 3rd Free Practice (April 17th)
1  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m35.323s
2  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m35.564s
3  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m35.691s
4  BUTTON        McLaren       1m35.747s
5  ALONSO        Ferrari       1m35.857s
6  ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m35.913s
7  SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m36.262s
8  KUBICA        Renault       1m36.343s
9  MASSA         Ferrari       1m36.416s
10 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m36.634s
11 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m36.879s
12 LIUZZI        Force India   1m37.031s
13 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m37.192s
14 SUTIL         Force India   1m37.240s
15 PETROV        Renault       1m37.339s
16 BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m37.585s
17 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m37.664s
18 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m37.784s
19 GLOCK         Virgin        1m39.579s
20 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m39.616s
21 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m39.749s
22 TRULLI        Lotus         1m39.776s
23 SENNA         HRT           1m40.316s
24 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m41.141s

Shanghai, 2nd Free Practice (April 16th)
1  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m35.217s
2  ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m35.465s
3  BUTTON        McLaren       1m35.593s
4  SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m35.602s
5  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m35.791s
6  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m35.995s
7  SUTIL         Force India   1m36.254s
8  ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m36.377s
9  KUBICA        Renault       1m36.389s
10 ALONSO        Ferrari       1m36.604s
11 MASSA         Ferrari       1m36.944s
12 PETROV        Renault       1m36.986s
13 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m37.421s
14 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m37.431s
15 BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m37.657s
16 LIUZZI        Force India   1m37.804s
17 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m37.867s
18 TRULLI        Lotus         1m39.624s
19 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m39.947s
20 GLOCK         Virgin        1m40.233s
21 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m41.008s
22 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m41.107s
23 SENNA         HRT           1m41.345s
24 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    no time

Shanghai, 1st Free Practice (April 16th)
1  BUTTON        McLaren       1m36.677s
2  ROSBERG       Mercedes      1m36.748s
3  HAMILTON      McLaren       1m36.775s
4  SCHUMACHER    Mercedes      1m37.509s
5  VETTEL        Red Bull      1m37.601s
6  KUBICA        Renault       1m37.716s
7  PETROV        Renault       1m37.745s
8  WEBBER        Red Bull      1m37.980s
9  SUTIL         Force India   1m38.008s
10 MASSA         Ferrari       1m38.098s
11 ALGUERSUARI   Toro Rosso    1m38.161s
12 KOBAYASHI     Sauber        1m38.375s
13 DE LA ROSA    Sauber        1m38.421s
14 HULKENBERG    Williams      1m38.569s
15 DI RESTA      Force India   1m38.618s
16 BARRICHELLO   Williams      1m38.678s
17 BUEMI         Toro Rosso    1m39.939s
18 TRULLI        Lotus         1m41.531s
19 KOVALAINEN    Lotus         1m41.779s
20 GLOCK         Virgin        1m41.830s
21 DI GRASSI     Virgin        1m42.181s
22 SENNA         HRT           1m43.875s
23 CHANDHOK      HRT           1m43.949s
24 ALONSO        Ferrari       no time

Driver Team Points
1. Jenson Button McLaren 60
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes GP 50
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 49
4. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 49
5. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 45
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 41
7. Robert Kubica Renault 40
8. Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 28
9. Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP 10
10. Adrian Sutil Force India 10
11. Vitantonio Liuzzi Force India 8
12. Vitaly Petrov Renault 6
13. Rubens Barrichello Williams 5
14. Jaime Alguersuari Scuderia Toro Rosso 2
15. Nico Hulkenberg Williams 1
Constructor Team Points
1. McLaren 109
2. Ferrari 90
3. Red Bull Racing 73
4. Mercedes GP 60
5. Renault 46
6. Force India 18
7. Williams 6
8. Scuderia Toro Rosso 2

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