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Monday, 18 April 2011

Formula 1 - Chinese Grand Prix 2011

SPOILER WARNING: There are two spoilers in this picture: one at the front and one at the rear of the car

Normally the new circuits make for boring racing, because while the design may look good on Hermann Tilke's drawing board, they usually aren't that great for overtaking. This year however, the Chinese GP was so good it was practically a cheap knock-off of a more expensive European Grand Prix. There was so much action the TV directors couldn't keep up with it all!

This is due to a couple of factors, one of which is the new Pirelli tyres, designed to suddenly wear out. This has caused very tactical racing, with a large variety of strategies at play. Another reason was the new overtaking device called DRS, which allows a following driver to raise part of the rear wing in a certain area to improve straight-line speed and get past the car ahead, which cannot use DRS to defend. However, they can defend in the normal ways, so it's not a straightforward overtake. This was undoubtedly an aid to Mark Webber, who I'll get to later.

When the 5 red lights went out after a relatively long period (they can stay on for as long as race director Charlie Whiting sees fit, rather than a fixed number of seconds that the drivers could learn), championship leader Sebastian Vettel didn't have the revs up high enough for the best launch, meaning that the car bogged down off the line and was immediately swarmed by the two chrome-effect McLarens, both of which got past in the long, spiralling first corner. In fact, Nico Rosberg even had a go at the Red Bull, as he started in 4th place, just behind the current top three drivers in the championship, but Vettel eventually held him off. The top positions otherwise stayed as such in the opening laps, but they were mighty close, with 1st and 3rd place just two seconds apart. Michael Schumacher, however, finally flecked his Septuple-World-Championship muscles for the first time since his return last year, going from 14th on the grid to 9th place in just the first lap.

One-Wheel-Drive is not ideal
Just before the first wave of pit stops started, Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari was forced to retire after one of his Scuderia Toro Rosso mechanics didn't put the right rear wheel on properly, causing it to wriggle free after the first corner of his outlap. He valiantly soldiered on, perhaps thinking of when Schumacher got to the pits on three wheels in the 1998 Belgian GP, alas it wasn't to be today, and he became the only retiree. It wasn't the only Red Bull-based pit stop mishap today, however - Jenson Button clearly got used to stopping in the first pit box last year, as he pitted in with Vettel close behind and stopped in the Red Bull's pit area instead of his own team's box mere metres away. Vettel's mechanics swiftly gestured him out of their area and into his own, so that the Teutonic Champion could get a set of Option tyres. This mistake directly cost Button a place, as he subsequently left the pits behind him. After losing time and places on his worn out Option tyres, Lewis Hamilton got a fresh set of Primes (the harder, slightly less grippy, longer-lasting tyre choice) and quickly made up positions not by cruising past the likes of Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg and teammate Button as they pitted, but by overtaking them the old-fashioned way. This got him into 2nd place, where he stayed for almost the rest of the race...

Meanwhile, two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso spent most of his afternoon battling tooth-and-nail with seven-time F1 World Champion Michael Schumacher, with most of the passes happening at turn 14, at the end of the 1.2km straight that allows drivers to use the DRS, but only in the second half of it (the FIA made this decision because it felt that, if the DRS could be used for the entire straight, drivers would just sail past long before the corner and the overtaking would be considered "artificial" - this way the drivers were merely set up for a chance to pass in the end hairpin). The battle ended up with Alonso finishing ahead of Schumacher in 7th place. Scottish F1 rookie Paul Di Resta showed much promise after qualifying 8th and reaching 7th in the peak of his afternoon, unfortunately a third addition to his points tally was squandered by the fighting champions and Mark Webber (who I'm still saving for later). Kamui Kobayashi was also up to his usual tricks, with one skirmish leaving a noticeable hole in his Sauber's nose cone making the car look almost like it had chipped a tooth. BBC commentator Martin Brundle said "He won't mind that [...] It feels very refreshing when you get a 200mph breeze running through the cockpit". Certainly beats air conditioning for weight efficiency! Unfortunately, his Mexican teammate Sergio Perez - who, despite TopGear's idea of a Mexican, is neither feckless nor lazy - caused a collision and was given a drive-through penalty, putting him in 17th or so, an unfair contrast to the 7th place he achieved in his debut race at Melbourne, but this is a 19-race season, so one bad race here is nothing more than a learning experience. The third rookie this year, Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado, was happy to finish 18th, as it was his first finish in his three-races-so-far Formula 1 career, after reliability problems plagued his Williams Cosworth in Australia and Malaysia.

Late on in the race, it looked like, even after all the position changes and a fluffed start, it would be three wins out of three for the seemingly unbeatable Sebastien Vettel. Can no-one dethrone the reigning World Champion? Then the situation became clear: Lewis Hamilton was on tyres with 7 laps' less wear on them than the race leader, and he was catching him fast. The situation may have been less clear for Vettel however, as his radio communications to the team had malfunctioned and only worked one way. This meant that he couldn't ask for or comment on anything, but could be updated on the situation by his race engineer both aurally and by good old fashioned pit board. He knew the Brit was coming, and it became clear he could do nothing about it. On lap 52 out of 56, Hamilton was close enough to out-grip him in turn 6 and drive straight past, taking the lead for good and pulling away to win the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix by 5.1 seconds. This was an especially emotional win for Lewis, perhaps because, just minutes before his car had to leave the pits to line up on the grid, his car flooded the air box with fuel and cut out. His McLaren MP4-26 had to be dismantled at the rear, removed of its excess race fuel and put back together again... all in about six minutes. He was sent out with a missing piece of bodywork and the car was fully dressed up on the grid before the parade lap started. Imagine if he hadn't made it...

So it had finally happened. After the first two races worryingly pointed the way to Schumacher-style dominance, the Red Bulls had both been beaten. Vettel was joined on the podium by his Aussie teammate Mark Webber, who finished in thir-- hang on, how on Earth did that happen?!

Mark Webber's race today gets its own paragraph for being so awesome
On Saturday, Mark Webber's Qualifying session was an absolute disaster. His KERS wasn't working, his car was understeering, the team had sent him out on the wrong tyres in the closing stages of Q1 and he was subsequently knocked out of Qualifying, meaning he started the race in a dismal and distant 18th place in his Red Bull RB7, the twin sister of Sebastian Vettel's pace-setter (which he has nicknamed "Kinky Kylie" because of its "tightly packaged rear end"). Webber has had a lot of bad luck in his F1 career, but that must have hurt. His team could only tell him to enjoy himself out there and make the best of it... and he duly did so. Well, not at the start of the race. Being the only one not starting on Option tyres has its ramifications (Options are the softer of the two dry tyre compounds and are significantly grippier than Prime tyres, but they only last a short distance), and he even dropped down to 20th place as he struggled to get comfortable in his car. After deciding the Primes were a lost cause and pitting in early (lap 10, along with Schumacher and rookie Pastor Maldonado), he changed onto a fresh set of Options. The one advantage of going out in the first of three Quali sessions is that you have lots of unused tyres left over, giving you a grip advantage in the race over the top 10, who have usually taken some life out of all their allocated sets of Option tyres by setting blistering lap times on them. Mark used this advantage to the best of his ability, finally getting comfortable in the car and scything through the field over the course of the race, making some gutsy overtaking moves and brilliantly selling Michael Schumacher a dummy into turn 14, getting past someone who's notorious for his ability to defend a position (as well as a few other, less positive things). Towards the end of the race, his three-stop strategy - clearly the ideal strategy here when you look at the other drivers - meant that when most were on withering hard tyres, he was on softer ones and he just breezed past the likes of Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, even taking 3rd place from Jenson Button in the last couple of laps. His approach towards the British World Champion caused David Coulthard, in his new commentating role at the BBC, to give us the quote of the day after hearing Button's race engineer tell him that "Webber is approaching and is on Option tyres - watch out for him". Coulthard's response? "The only way that message could be any scarier is if it was delivered in the dark". Very well put, sir! This track does not lend itself well to overtaking, as I mentioned at the start, yet the Australian hauled his Red Bull car fifteen places up the grid to go from 18th to third place by the end of the race. He is without doubt the Driver Of The Day, even though race winner Lewis Hamilton played it smart tactically by qualifying on Prime tyres and keeping a set of Options in hand, which on any other day would earn him the unofficial accolade, but 18th to 3rd is hard to beat for effort points. He may not have won the race, but he can walk away with the Fastest Lap (a 1:40.571) and one hell of a comeback to tell his grandchildren about one day.

And now we wait for three weeks as the teams head off to Istanbul in Turkey, a Tilke circuit that I actually quite like. Here is a table or three to sum up the outcome of today's race. Enjoy!



*All copyrighted images are taken from F1 Fanatic and I do not claim ownership of them.
**The points table is pixellated because I made it in Microsoft Paint.

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