Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes struck back at Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari to win the Chinese Grand Prix this morning.
Vettel did eventually take 2nd place after early-race strategy cast him adrift at the bottom of the top six early doors.
Max Vertsapen made it three manufacturers on the podium in a race partially dictated by cool and, initially, damp conditions; although the Dutch had a tough job to hold his teammate Daniel Riccairdo at bay in the closing laps.
In a race that started as damp and greasy, Hamilton led from the beginning, but the pack was close together in his mirrors, as Vettel edged out Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) around the outside of the first turn and Ricciardo slotted into 4th ahead of Kimi Raikkoenen (Ferrari).
A second lap virtual safety period was triggered when Sergio Perez (Force India) pitched Lance Stroll into the gravel early on, ending Stroll’s race as his Williams became stuck in the gravel. This prompted Vettel to pit for soft Pirelli tyres, while the rest of the front runners stayed out, dropping the Ferrari to 6th.
This proved costly, as only moments after the lap four restart, Antonio Giovinazzi crashed hard on teh pit straight, bringing out a full safety car, allowing the remaining front runners to pits for fresh tyres.
Vettel gained one position under safety car when Bottas spun while warming his tyres, dropping the Finn to 12th position and picking up some damage in the process. Amidst all this, a great start and a cool headed strategy brought Verstappen to the Dutch teen to the top four, despite starting towards the rear.
Under the lap 13 restart, Hamilton pulled away from the now 2nd Ricciardo, while Verstappen passed Raikkonen for 3rd. Verstappen quickly made the 2nd place a short while later and began to chase Hamilton for the lead.
Now 3rd, Ricciardo began to struggle for pace, leaving the leading pair to stretch away. Thereafer Riccirdo, Raikkonen and Vettel closed in for a tight fight until the latter forced his way into 4th on lap 20 with an audacious move in turn six. Vettel made that a podium spot two laps later when he and Ricciardo went wheel-to-wheel through turn six, touching momentarily, as Vettel passed.
Out front, Hamilton stepped up the pace and pulled away from Verstappen, while the now free Vettel closed in on the Dutchman. Within six laps, the Ferrari was in range to attack; however this was nullified when Verstappen ran wide in the turn 13 hairpin, allowing Vettel to slot through into 2nd spot. Vettel closed in on the lead, as Hamilton began to struggle on ageing tyres, with gap reducing from 11s to 8s in a few short tours.
Anticipating stops, Vettel was called in for softs on lap 35, with Hamilton pitting two laps later; however this briefly split the pair as Hamilton continued to lead from the yet-to-stop Raikkonen and Vettel in 3rd.
Vettel took another second out of Hamilton and soon disposed of a struggling Raikkonen, but from there Hamilton stabilised the gap to the chasing man and even extended it slightly. The Mercedes man managed the race pace after that, rubber-stamping his authority on the Grand Prix and take the win.
The result leaves both Hamilton and Vettel on 43 points as they head to Bahrain next weekend and puts Mercedes in the lead of the Constructors Championship.
The fight for 3rd was more intense toward the end. Pitting on lap 30, Verstappen took another set of super-softs, falling to 6th momentarily. That became 5th when the Red Bull man passed the struggling Bottas , which became 4th when Riccairdo pitted for new softs on lap 34.
Eventually a frustrated Raikkonen was pitted on lap 40 – an inconceivable strategy, considering the Finn was losing over 2s per lap at that stage – bringing Vettel and Verstappen to 2nd and 3rd respectively, although the gap between the pair was significant enough for Vettel to only need to concentrate on the lead.
Ricciardo’s late race pace on super-softs brought him back into the game and he closed in on Verstappen as the race drew to a close. The Australian was helped somewhat by Verstappen’s inability to catch and pass the lapped Romain Grosjean (Haas), causing the Red Bull to suffer significant understeer.
Ricciardo spent the final laps under the rear wing of Verstappen, but despite constant pressure and a late lunge from Ricciardo, Verstappen did not budge. A good result for Red Bull on one hand; however the duo still ended the day half-a-minute adrift of the leading man.
Kimi Raikkonen’s tyre struggles rendered him a bit player, as he followed the Red Bull’s behind in 5th. His late stop gave him pace in the final laps, but it was too late to make a difference to those ahead. Bottas’ race never really recovered after his early race problems and the Mercedes man took a very disappointing 6th place.
Carlos Sainz finished 7th place following a topsy-turvy race that saw him battle with Bottas and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso on occasion. Sainz endured a torrid opening lap though. Starting on super-softs in damp conditions, the Spaniard drifted off the road in turn one, spun around in turn two and the clattered the barrier slightly as he recovered to the track, but battled his way back up the order, helped by starting tyre. As the rest of the field changed from intermediates to dry tyres during the safety car period, Sainz stayed out on his super-softs, and climbed up the order as others peeled away.
Kevin Magnussen (Haas) won a tight battle for 8th place, as he nabbed Perez in the closing tours. Perez pitted with only three laps to go, fearing losing chunks of time – it worked, keeping the Mexican ahead of his teammate come the chequered flag. They bested Esteban Ocon (Force India) who took another 10th place finish, after the Frenchman passed a struggling Felipe Massa (Williams) toward the end of the race.
Romain Grosjean recovered from a post-qualifying penalty and was the first non-points finisher in 11th, after a tough move on Nico Hulkenberg (Renault) in turn six gave him sight of the top ten. Hulkenberg endured a horrid race – after a poor start, the German illegally overtook cars under both virtual safety car and safety car to garner 15s of penalties in his first stop. Jolyon Palmer came home 13th from last following a post-qualifying penalty, while Massa fell to 14th on destroyed tyres by the chequered flag. Marcus Ericsson had a quiet drive to 15th and last.
Alonso retired just after halfway with mechanical issues in his McLaren. Once again, the Spaniard was running in the points at the time in a car that probably should not have been there. Daniil Kvyat’s day ended early when the power steering system failed on his Toro Rosso, while Stoffel Vandoorne made it an awful day for McLaren, when he parked with a fuel feed usage problem.
Although it is still early, the championship is beginning to hot up at this early stage, but with the cool, damp conditions for today’s Grand Prix, we may need to wait until Bahrain next week before we see a true reflection of the order in optimum conditions.
For now, Hamilton will take in the glory in Shanghai, but expect Ferrari to respond.