• Karun Chandhok's ESPNF1 column

Thirty seconds to disaster … but glory instead

Karun Chandhok April 20, 2011
McLaren mechanics finish the job on the grid © Sutton Images

I was sat watching the television screens in the Team Lotus garage as everyone else cleared out to the grid. The cameras hovered around the No. 3 McLaren; Martin Whitmarsh looking pensive, Phil Prew with his hand on the radio button, constantly giving out information and presumably a countdown to the closure of the pit lane. The mechanics rolled out huge clumps of paper roll to soak up the fuel that was being pumped through the flooded engine and overflowing down the car's sidepod. All this time, the yellow helmet stayed still, looking calm and composed, trusting his multiple-championship winning team to deal with the crisis in hand. With 40 seconds to go before the pit lane closed, the McLaren pulled out of the garage and charged into the pitlane, causing a wandering Paul Di Resta, among others, to jump out of the way.

Fast forward nearly 24 hours and I was sat in the departure lounge at Pudong Airport, coincidentally surrounded by McLaren mechanics and engineers. It had been a while since the pre-race mayhem and, although they had been on a good night out to celebrate in the meantime, it was clear there were still plenty of stories to share. Stories of running to the grid holding the last two bits of bodywork to cover the rear suspension, or of tightening bolts just enough for the car to do the lap to the grid and finishing the job on the start line; clearly it was the first quiet moments of reflection they'd had. They as a team had won the Chinese Grand Prix, for had the boys taken just 30 seconds longer Lewis would've been forced to start from the pit lane and would probably not have enjoyed one of the finest victories of his career. I'm always in awe of the mechanics' abilities to work so quickly in awkward, funny angles, often without being able to see what they're doing and this weekend the crew on Lewis' car certainly earned their money.

The Chinese Grand Prix on the whole was one of the best dry races in modern F1. Not since the Japanese Grand Prix in 2005 have we seen so much overtaking and action amongst the leaders. As I said in my last column, it does appear that the 2011 regulations and the change in tyre supplier have worked exceedingly well to spice up the racing, and hats off to everyone involved - F1 is certainly back with a bang!

McLaren and Lewis Hamilton outfoxed Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel with tyre strategy in China © Sutton Images
The Pirelli tyres have opened the door for a lot of lateral thinking in terms of strategy. After suffering in Sepang a week ago, Lewis chose to save one set of option tyres from qualifying for the race, but as it turned out he had to switch from a two-stopper to a three- and the benefit of that new set pretty much went out the window as he ended up doing a short stint anyway. Red Bull went with a two-stopper for Seb with his final stop at the end of lap 31. For a while the reigning world champion's pace on the prime tyre looked OK, but then, slowly but surely, Lewis started to reel him in and while the Mclaren was lapping in the mid-high 1:40s, the leading RB7 had slipped in to the 1:41s and was slowing with every lap. In the end Seb was easy meat for Lewis but it was a brilliant contest for 51 laps, often at different parts of the circuit thanks to the differing strategies.

Hindsight's a painful thing and you could always say Red Bull should've and could've done something different. But their race was compromised at the start when Seb dropped two places. They then tried to do something different to McLaren but in the end fell five laps short. Having said that, 18 points, the lead of the world championship and a car that is still the quickest out there is a handy thing for Seb to have as the circus heads back to Europe.

I was so pleased to see Mark Webber have a good day - he's deserved it for weeks. Qualifying was a disaster which partly originated from the lack of running in FP3. A few hours before the race I said to Ted Kravitz at the BBC that, if I was Mark, I would ask to start the race on the primes - getting them out of the way while the pace of the car is compromised by traffic - and then run three short stints on options, culminating in an aggressive attack when most the others are on primes at the end. Nice to see my strategic thinking isn't too bad! At a track where overtaking is possible, the strategy was worth the gamble for Mark. It must be very encouraging for the Aussie to have had the race pace to fight his way through and now hopefully he can start the European season in strong form.

Nico Rosberg showed the potential of the Mercedes in China © Getty Images
Mercedes and Nico Rosberg in particular showed a good turn of speed this weekend. I hear that there were a few commentators getting fairly excited about the prospect of a first win for Nico but it was pretty clear that being one of the earliest to pit on laps 12 and 25, he would be on a three stopper and the pace on the primes at the end wasn't quite on par with the Mclarens. The weekend offered plenty of encouragement for the Brackley-based squad however, who comfortably outpaced Renault and finished ahead of Ferrari in the battle to be the third best team.

Ferrari had a very odd race. Once again they lacked pace in qualifying - 1.4 seconds off pole and 0.7 seconds off Jenson in second - but at one stage in the race both drivers looked in contention for a podium and an outside shot at a win. Felipe was having his best race in a long time and hung on to the back of the leading Red Bull for a long time on a similar two-stop strategy. Until about lap 40 his pace wasn't a million miles away from the RB7, but from that point on he seemed to suffer more tyre degradation than Seb and it became a losing battle against the chasing pack. Fernando's race was compromised when he lost ground to Felipe at the start and again when he followed Michael Schumacher for eight laps after his first stop. He lost about six seconds behind the Mercedes and that proved to be crucial for his track position later on.

As I said before, the tyre rules and the circuit characteristics offered plenty of room for lateral thinking in terms of strategy. In Lewis or Mark's case the three-stopper worked brilliantly, whereas for us at Team Lotus two stops seemed to be the way to go. For the first time a new-for-2010 team beat an established team's car in a genuine, purely-on-pace, dry race, with Heikki finishing ahead of Pastor Maldonado's Williams - another notch on the team's belt. There's no doubt about the massive amount of work that's needed to catch the midfield pack and to be in a position to battle for Q2, but certainly the team are pushing hard and the upgrade due for Barcelona should help in that quest.