The qualifying for the fourth grand prix of 2014 suggested a shift in the power-bearing on the Formula 1 grid as the standing champions Red Bull were looking strong to secure their second podium of the year and make another step closer to their former winning ways. But the classification leaders Mercedes tamed the Bulls (and the Prancing Horse too) to claim yet another win and extend their lead over the competitors further.
In the wet Saturday session it was Lewis Hamilton who dominated the Shanghai International Circuit and on Sunday effortlessly translated his pole position into a win. With an 18sec+ advantage over his second placed team-mate Nico Rosberg, the Brit was cruising for most of the 56 laps, and with no safety car appearance that afternoon his position wasn’t under threat at any given point – in which respect the event did lack the intensity of Bahrain GP two weeks earlier.
But that doesn’t mean Shanghai did not deliver on action and suspense – starting as early as qualifying, in which the two Red Bulls separated Hamilton from Rosberg, who was running on a Bahrain promise of clinching the winner’s trophy back from his team-mate’s hands in this particular race. It was not meant to be, as the German had his work cut out with telemetry issues on the car, which meant he had to communicate his fuel usage directly to the pit wall throughout the afternoon.
“It’s really annoying so I will stop doing that,” he said on the radio after the final broadcast read out, two-thirds into the race. In the circumstances he did a good enough job to make his way to second, by gradually overtaking the two Red Bulls and then the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, who claimed the team’s first podium finish this season, crossing the line in 3.
The credit would probably not go to the new team boss Marco Mattiacci, who took over the reins from resigning Stefano Domenicali earlier that week, as Alonso’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen finished only 8. – which was still an improvement on his 11. grid place start.
The third podium spot was that much of an achievement for the Spaniard, as he came out unfazed by a significant looking bump with former team-mate Felipe Massa on turn 1 after the start. The Brazilian attacked the first lap fiercely but as he couldn’t fit his Williams between the side wall and defending Sebastian Vettel, he dived to the inside, which resulted in a tyre-to-tyre contact with Alonso. And since both Williams drivers seem to stick pretty close to each other this year, the incident was shortly followed by Valtteri Bottas touching Rosberg’s Mercedes, which demoted the German to 7. for a short period early in the race.
Although none of the participants seemed to have been particularly affected by the contacts, Massa suffered during his first pit stop, as the team struggled to put the rear tyres on the car. While Williams collected a few points through Bottas’ 7. finish, Massa was left dry as he crossed the line in 15.
Force India had another good afternoon, albeit not as spectacular as in Bahrain. Although Sergio Perez only managed the penultimate point-scoring finish, it was still a promising improvement on his 16. place qualifying; while Nico Hulkenberg finished in 6. proving a consistency of form that has firmly placed him in the top of the driver’s classification for 2014 – and ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
The four-time champion continues to struggle with the new car setup this season; although he overtook his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo on the first lap for second position, he gradually lost out to Alonso and then Ricciardo himself, to eventually finish the race in 5. The salt in the wound was to be told the Aussie was faster than him; but Vettel’s old habits came through strong as he responded: “Tough luck” to the team order to let the junior Red Bull driver pass, before eventually conceding.
Vettel vented out his annoyance with a lash out on the team radio over Kamui Kobayashi unlapping himself and allegedly slowing the German down:
“Are you kidding, honestly? Tell him to get out of the way! He’s got new tyres, of course he’s quicker. But in two laps he’ll be off.”
Elsewhere the Shanghai International brought more disappointment for McLaren who didn’t manage to score any points in China following a difficult weekend. Neither did Lotus regain its mojo despite promising signs recently, as Romain Grosjean had to park his car in the garage midway through the race due to gearbox issues; and there were little hopes for Pastor Maldonado, who never participated in qualifying – and would have been hit by a 5-place grid penalty for an engine change due to a leak in last practice anyway – and started the race from the back of the grid, to finish 14.
Grojean joined the only other retiree, Sauber’s Adrian Sutil, who finished the race as early as lap five due to an engine failure – making it the German’s third DNF (did not finish) in a row.
As far as numbers go, Lewis Hamilton was certainly in the spotlight in Shanghai, where he equalled Jim Clark and Niki Lauda’s record of 25 career victories with his hat-trick win. And yet, he is still four points behind his team-mate in the title run up.
And if Rosberg’s forced smile and determined look on the Shanghai podium were anything to go by, we can expect a fierce battle over the top title spot in the races to come from these two.