- Chinese Grand Prix - The Final Stint
A round-up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly from the 2013 Chinese Grand Prix
- Chinese Grand Prix
Alonso for the title?
Fernando Alonso has a bigger gap to the lead of the championship than he did this time last year, but tonight he will be far more confident of his chances of securing a third title than he was 12 months ago. For the first time since the British Grand Prix in 2011 - an anomaly of a race in an otherwise Red Bull-dominated year - a Ferrari won by more than ten seconds and the F138 truly looked like the class of the field. In qualifying Alonso was still short of Lewis Hamilton's pace, but on the medium tyres over long stints nobody else came close. It's clear that Alonso has a car to fight for the championship, but we shouldn't get too carried away just yet as tyre and circuit characteristics are having a major influence on performance this year. Bahrain will be a completely different prospect with the soft and hard compound tyres and much higher track temperatures. If he can win again in Sakhir then he will start to emerge as the championship favourite, but right now that's still a pretty big if.
Red Bull divided
After directly disobeying his paymasters in Malaysia, Sebastian Vettel had a chance to show contrition in China. Instead he admitted he would do the same again purely because he did not feel his team-mate Mark Webber deserved the win. With those comments he further undermined the authority of team boss Christian Horner and gave the finger to the team that has made him a superstar. The remarkable thing is that he chose to inflame the situation when he had the perfect opportunity to play things down. At some point since Malaysia he appears to have been backed in his actions rather than punished for them and you have to wonder why Horner didn't taken a firmer line. We've known for some time that Helmut Marko is a powerful influence within the team and a strong ally of Vettel, and if the Austrian is backing his prodigy then perhaps Horner is too preoccupied with his own intra-team politics to effectively sort out the rift between his drivers. It is impossible to imagine the likes of Ron Dennis or Sir Frank Williams being made to look so emasculated, but they are team owners rather than team managers. Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz appears to have turned a blind eye, but is that such a surprise when Marko is his closest advisor?
The Story of the Weekend
- Shock Daniel Ricciardo - Never looked like threatening to break in to the top ten, but pulled out a brilliant lap in Q2 to make the last part of qualifying and backed it up with a strong drive that is very well timed
- Shocker Esteban Gutierrez - Poor in qualifying and a rookie mistake took him and Sutil out of the race ((Dis)honourable mention: Mark Webber)
- Best overtake Romain Grosjean - He put a lot of faith in Nico Hulkenberg to pull off an impressive move in to the high-speed turn five
- Best lap Sebastian Vettel - The final lap of the race was his fifth on soft tyres but he still took seconds out of Hamilton and added real excitement right to the finish line
- Worst lap Lewis Hamilton - Not really a slight on his driving but on lap five he lost out to both Ferraris in a matter of metres and watched his hopes of victory effectively disappear
- Drive of the day Fernando Alonso - There was much squabbling and place swapping elsewhere, but Alonso didn't put a wheel wrong and made victory look very, very easy
Cut Pirelli some slack
Pirelli has been having a bit of a rough time of late. In Malaysia, Red Bull claimed it has too much downforce and is damaging its tyres more quickly as a result, complaining that Pirelli's tyres were too extreme. A similar theme was appearing with regards to the soft tyre this weekend in China - with Lewis Hamilton questioning whether it was the right choice of compound - while panic was setting in amongst some pundits that we would see a boring qualifying session. The end result? Qualifying saw a few quiet spells which resulted in the drivers getting one lap to pull out a time in Q3, meaning a five-minute wait set up the potential for drama. Then we had a mix of two- and three-stop strategies which delivered an entertaining race and plenty of overtaking (which would have been more exciting if it wasn't for DRS making it too easy), which exactly matched Pirelli's remit. On top of that, those who didn't set a time in Q3 weren't rewarded like those who did, which ultimately means Pirelli got it spot on. And just to show that Pirelli is listening, in Spain we should see an extra set of tyres available in first practice to make sure the cars hit the track.
Mercedes on the rise
It may have been on the track where Nico Rosberg won from pole last year, but you'd have got long odds on Lewis Hamilton taking pole in China at the end of last season. Mercedes has shown that it has the qualifying pace to put itself in contention for race wins, but the race pace still seems to be lacking slightly. While Hamilton said after the race that he was pleased with back-to-back podiums, Ross Brawn admitted it is a sign of how far the team has come that he was actually disappointed with third place. The turnaround has been quick but the hardest step to make is always the final one and Mercedes is now expected to be competitive at every circuit. Rosberg has been unlucky so far but Hamilton's mindset will already be exactly as it was at McLaren - to fight for the championship - and sitting just 12 points behind Sebastian Vettel after three races hints at a consistency which Mercedes was lacking in 2012.
What now for Webber?
Things couldn't have gone much worse for Mark Webber this weekend. He spent the majority of Thursday and Friday batting away questions about Malaysia, his car was under-fuelled and sent to the back of the grid on Saturday and on Sunday the a wheel quite literally came off his wagon and put an end to his race. None of those incidents were his fault, but perhaps the first two clouded his judgement when he went to overtake Jean-Eric Vergne and ended up t-boning the Toro Rosso on the apex of turn six. To add further insult to the injury dealt to his championship chances, Webber was given a three-place grid penalty for Bahrain as a result of the Vergne collision. It was no wonder therefore that rumours spread around the paddock after the race that he has signed a five-year deal to race Porsches in the World Endurance Championship from 2014. After everything that has happened at Red Bull recently it would make perfect sense for Webber to agree a contract with a company like Porsche. He still has a lot of unfinished business at Le Mans after his Mercedes days and a five-year deal would see him still challenging for wins into his 40s. But just because it makes sense doesn't mean it's true. Webber is one of the grittiest and most determined fighters on the grid and everything that's happened so far this season might just persuade him to fight harder for longer.
It was announced during the race that no fewer than eight drivers - Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean, Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Chilton - would be investigated after the chequered flag for using DRS under yellow flags. It transpired that they had actually been using it away from a yellow flag zone but at a time when the DRS was supposed to be disabled. No penalties were handed out, which will have seemed very confusing to a casual fan, and it's because the root of the problem was not with the drivers but with the FIA.
A technical issue means the FIA can't automatically disable DRS on all cars from race control as it did previously, and similarly drivers don't get warning lights from race control on their dashboards. This is a problem which first reared its head in Australia, which was slightly understandable at the first race of the season. With Malaysia coming just a week later then it wasn't exactly a surprise to see a repeat of the problem at Sepang either. However, with a three-week break between the second and third races it really should have been sorted by this weekend. For a sport at the cutting edge of technology, it's a bit embarrassing that it's taking so long for the FIA to find a solution.