On Sunday, April 17th Formula One star Lewis Hamilton scored his first win since Canada last year, in a sensational China Grand Prix in Shanghai, a race inevitably dominated by tires.
Hamilton opted for a three-stop strategy while leader Sebastian Vettel--winner of the year’s first two races--was on two stops. By being on slightly fresher tires in the closing laps, McLaren ace Hamilton was able to catch and pass Vettel.
The race was exciting and unpredictable from start to finish, on a track that has rarely provided much entertainment in dry conditions in previous years.
Hamilton had a scare before the start when his engine wouldn’t start in the garage. Repeated attempts to get it going flooded it with fuel. McLaren got him out for the lap to the grid just a few seconds before the pit lane closed 15 minutes before the start.
Red Bull Racing star Vettel has made two great starts from pole this year, but on this occasion he didn’t quite get it right. Not only did Jenson Button get past from second, but Hamilton--starting third--followed his teammate through.
At the first pit stops, Button and Vettel came in together. McLaren’s Button made a silly mistake when he initially pulled into the Red Bull Racing pit. He carried on to his own stall but lost a couple of seconds, allowing Vettel to pass him in the pits. Hamilton then came in on the next lap, but he had lost a few crucial seconds as his tires went off before he pitted, so he dropped behind Vettel and Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.
An early first stop put the Mercedes GP entry of Nico Rosberg into the lead, but after the second round of stops the German dropped back and was no longer a podium contender.
As the second stints unfolded, Vettel and the two Ferrari drivers stayed out longer than others, indicating that they were going for two stops in the race, while the two McLaren drivers pitted early and were clearly going for three stops. This was confirmed when Vettel, Massa and Alonso made their second stops and switched onto the hard tires for the run to the flag.
Thus the leading contenders were effectively running different races for a while. But things converged when the McLaren drivers made their final stops and went onto hard tires. After those stops, Vettel still led Massa, Hamilton, Rosberg and Button. But then crucially, while Vettel had to run 25 laps to the flag on his tires and Massa 22 laps, Hamilton only had to do 18 laps. The extra tire life gave him an edge. After dealing with Massa, he reeled in Vettel by taking huge chunks out of the leader’s gap, finally passing him with five laps to go.
Meanwhile, from 18th on the grid, Red Bull’s Mark Webber started on the hard tire and then ran three stints on new soft tires that he didn’t use after his qualifying disaster. Consistently the quickest man on the track, he charged up the order in the closing laps, taking Button for third on the penultimate lap.
Rosberg held on for fifth after his challenge faded over the second half of the race, while Massa’s two-stop strategy failed in the same manner as Vettel’s. He tumbled down to sixth after looking like a podium contender early on.
Massa did at least beat teammate Fernando Alonso, overtaking the Spaniard at the start. Alonso subsequently lost a lot of time--and spoiled a set of tires--trying to fight his way past Michael Schumacher. The latter finished eighth, while the final points went to Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi.
Amazingly there was only one retirement, as Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari lost a rear wheel.