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View from the Pit Lane: China

An in-form Lewis Hamilton hits the front in Shanghai
By Karun Chandhok
C4F1 technical analyst

Well that was a heck of a race wasn’t it? 

I really enjoyed it but, more importantly, it was a real indication to us after the first race of the season in Melbourne that the fight at the front wasn’t a one-off. It looks like this is going to be a world championship battle between Ferrari and Mercedes that goes all the way down to the wire.

The C4F1 team had a bit off off-track excitement when we had an accident on the way to the circuit on Friday, which was interesting! 

Nobody was injured and we were fine but being parked in the opposite direction of a four-lane road in China in a minibus was not what we had planned.  Alas for Steve Jones he missed all the excitement as he was in a different bus but you can see our video of it on Twitter and Facebook.

Cold front freezes out F1

The fireworks on Sunday followed a damp squib on Friday. When we arrived at the Shanghai circuit it was cloudy and overcast and there was a very limited spell of running in first practice. 

I spoke to Sergio Perez during the session and he said it was so cold that it reminded him of when we drove at Pembrey Circuit in Wales when I used to driver-coach him in F3!

A lot of drivers were scrambling around looking for wooly hats and jackets – and, for the record, McLaren and Renault seemed to be the best-equipped.

As the weather closed in, the cars then spent the entire afternoon session in the garages. The grey skies meant that the medical helicopter couldn’t land at the local hospital and so, for safety reasons, the FIA chose not to let the cars run. 

As a driver that is quite disruptive, especially at this early stage in the season, as you arrive to a race weekend with a plan of various things you want to test and evaluate with your engineers at the track. 

China is also a different beast to Albert Park. The layout is so different and there are long, radius corners where you are really loading the front-left tyre. 

It would have been really tough for the drivers to miss that running but on the flip side it was the same for everybody, so no disadvantage to anyone or advantage was gained. 

Contingency plans

However, the whole scenario didn’t paint F1 in a great light. There are millions of hardcore fans around the world who tune in for practice and we met plenty of people at the track who had flown in from the UK, Australia and other parts of Europe to watch a three-day grand prix. 

It also seemed even more ridiculous when the Porsche Super Cup started 10 minutes after FP2 was cancelled. The sport needs to have contingency plans in place throughout the weekend. 

Thankfully Saturday dawned dry and after FP3 we had the prospect of Mercedes and Ferrari running close in qualifying and so it proved to be. 

That’s where a top-quality driver like Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel earns their number one status. They both took a leap of faith and were ahead of their teammates by some margin with Hamilton on pole ahead of Vettel by 0.186 seconds.

Slick gamble for Sainz

The forecast for Sunday – yes, back to the weather again! – was for rain all the way through the day. It was probably also one of the coldest F1 weekends I’ve ever experienced and poor Lee was shivering away for two-and-a-half hours as she waited to speak to the drivers.

I went to the front of the grid just before the national anthem and found Carlos Sainz there too. I asked him why he was there so early and he told me he’d decided to go onto the slick tyres rather than the intermediates and the rest of the Toro Rosso team thought he was mad, so he’d legged it to the front to get away from the discussion!

It was a very bold move from Carlos and it worked out well for him in the end as he started P11 and got to seventh.  He knew he would be last on lap one but he also guessed he would end up in the top six by lap 10 and sure enough he was sixth by lap eight when the race restarted. 

It was a brave choice but I do think he got a bit lucky when the safety car came out for Antonio Giovinazzi’s accident.  If it hadn’t appeared he would have lost a lot more in those opening laps. But he rolled the dice and it worked out well for him and he was one of the drivers of the day. 

Max was the man

What can we say about Max Verstappen? He started P16 and he finished on the podium, it was just incredible. He has this amazing ability and feel to find grip at parts of the circuit that others are seemingly not able to exploit. 

In that first part of the grand prix Max was the man. The confidence that he’s got is amazing. He’s not lairy or out of control, if you look at the moves that he makes he is very calculated. He passed Daniel Ricciardo in a straight fight, and Daniel is a top-notch racing driver! 

From Lap 7 there wasn’t much to choose between the two Red Bull drivers and as the race went on we saw Ricciardo come back at him and Verstappen struggle in the final stint.

But to go from 16th to fourth in those first half a dozen laps was just amazing stuff from Verstappen and he was absolutely driver of the day in my book.

Hamilton hits the front

Lewis Hamilton was in good form all weekend. 

It was nice of him to make an effort for the fans on Friday when he got out of the car and went across to the grandstands with a few signed hats to toss into the crowd.

I think Hamilton is really excited by the prospect of a world championship battle with Vettel. It’s been a very long time since he’s had to raise his game against somebody in another team. 

Against Nico Rosberg he always believed he was the fastest man with the upperhand, and he only lost the 2016 championship because of bad luck.

This brewing duel with Vettel has given Hamilton a renewed sense of motivation. 

When you are fighting someone in the same team the battle becomes all about making sure we’re all on the same engine mode, making sure we all have the same updates – whereas when you’re fighting someone in another team the way you go into battle is different because you have to galvanize the whole team to work for you. 

Hamilton has to do two things: 1. He has to beat Vettel as often as he can 2. He has to spend the first half of the year establishing himself as the number one in the team as at some stage Mercedes and Ferrari may have to apply team orders.

The whole philosophy of how Hamilton battles will be different to the last three years. A fight within Mercedes would be more of the same for him and could start to get political but with Vettel it is a clean, straight fight.

It’s also going to be fascinating for all of us watching to see whether Mercedes and Ferrari can develop the cars at an equal rate throughout the season – or if one team will nose ahead in the development race too. 

So close to two in a row for Vettel 

Vettel’s race was a story of what could have been in China. 

When he pitted under the Virtual Safety Car it looked like the right decision and I was in the pit lane thinking ‘this is going to work out for him’. 

But the irony was that Ferrari’s third driver Giovinazzi brought out the safety car which, in turn, allowed the Red Bulls, Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas to get ahead of Vettel and compromise his race.

In contrast to Raikkonen, Vettel was in a situation where his attitude seemed to be, ‘I’m going to get on with it’. He sat in a train behind Ricciardo and Raikkonen, who wasn’t doing anything innovative to get past the Red Bull, and he started planning ahead. 

At Turn 1 and 2, Vettel would take a wider line than the guy on the inside. To generate downforce you want the airflow flowing cleanly onto your car, so he used unconventional lines to set up his passes on Raikkonen and then Ricciardo into Turn 6.

Raikkonen was behind Ricciardo for a long time but Vettel soon got past his teammate and then the Red Bull within two laps and then he was away.

At that point he was 13 seconds behind Hamilton, and he finished six seconds behind the leading Mercedes at the flag. Given the drivers are all in tyre and engine saving mode at the end of the Grand Prix, the fastest laps are still revealing.  Hamilton did a 1:35.378 and Vettel a 1:35.423 while their teammates were half a second down and the Red Bulls further away.  

Can anyone stop the duel?

Hamilton and Vettel – who have seven world titles between them – are once again establishing themselves as the A-Listers in their team and world championship favourites. 

In China, these guys clearly laid down a marker that the 2017 title is going to be about them unless Raikkonen and Bottas can really get it together. It’s in their hands, they have the tools. I’ll be interested to see if they can raise their game or whether team orders start to come into play in the second half of the season.

For now, it’s great for F1 to have two giant teams fighting it out at the front. The story continues this weekend in Bahrain.

Mercedes and Pirelli both told me in China that the data set is so small that it would be wrong to try to draw trends on who’s hot or not until after the first four races.

It’s worth highlighting that Bahrain is the first “normal” circuit of the season as Albert Park is more of a street circuit and Shanghai is a bit of a one-off. 

So, Bahrain is the first circuit which could potentially give us an indicator for the rest of the year – and it’s live on Channel 4.