14 Apr 2019
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale describes the 2019 Chinese GP in a way only he can...
Ambient 19° Track 29° Humidity 45% Wind 3.5 m/s
A pallid grey sky hung over the start of F1's 1000th race (that was counted for championship points, natch) as the grid was awash in frantic, last minute activity. Alex Albon was being gifted a new gearbox amongst other new bits but for his sins yesterday it was going to be a pit lane start.
Listening to the drivers being interviewed it was very much a story of the first 3 corners on their mind, reasonable, if one considers recent examples such as Kvyat v Vettel... In terms of strategy one stop is still the preferred choice but all the talk is of it being marginal, though cooler conditions may make it slightly more possible. Given the sets left for drivers, it was Hamilton with no new Mediums left but a new set of Softs and Hards, whereas the rest of the sharp end had at least a set of new Mediums, no new Softs and Hards. Gasly on down start on the Softs in the top 10 vs the Medium for the top 5 and just to make things fun look at Kvyat in P11 on down with Mediums (save Racing Point) with the chance to go long and take advantage of the high degradation of the Softs that the midfield ahead of him will have to start with.
Ferrari with good starts and lots of straightline speed vs Mercedes with inconsistent starts and excellent cornering speeds, along with a top 10 lined up 2x2 and, on average mere hundredths between teammates looks good as the field prepared for the the formation lap... And both Verstappen and Kubica spin their cars on the way to the grid so, yeah, good omen that.....
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton and he was past Bottas into T1 as the pole sitter picked up some wheels spin and bogged slightly. This had a knock on effect as Vettel had also gotten off well and Bottas being slow forced him to choose in order to preserve his momentum. Seb slid to the outside, perhaps one he would like to rethink as it opened the way for Leclerc, whose path had been cleared thanks to Hamilton's excellent launch, and up the inside Charles slipped as Bottas fought with Vettel to maintain his position into T1. As they wound around it was Vettel who slid behind Leclerc and immediately set to regaining his lost position. Then, coming out of T6 Kvyat picked up a bit of oversteer on throttle exiting the corner which sent him wide towards Sainz. Simultaneously, Norris, who had gone wide and was completely off the track was coming back on and the pair pinched Sainz who first collided with Norris' rear and Kvyat's rear at the same time which then tipped Norris into Kvyat's path. Lando's rears bit into Kvyat's front and that launched him, effectively destroying all their races in the blink of an eye. This also brought out the Virtual Safety Car for a lap as the marshals worked to clear the carbon fibre debris littered about the track. This did the wounded McLarens no favors as the took to the pit lane to repair the damage and put them both well behind the rest of the field.
The restart saw Grosjean by Magnussen for P10 but it was Perez who had been the big mover, up 4 spots and running in P8. Down the backstrait on Lap 3 it was Raikkonen with DRS on Kmag with ease.
At the sharp end, it was holding stations at Mercedes whilst Vettel was putting the pressure on Leclerc, hanging under a second off his teammates' gearbox. Albon, taking advantage of Macca's woes was safely up to P15 and dead astern of his teammate. Kvyat though, was staring down the barrel of a drive through penalty and it was all but inevitable that Albon would be moving on up soon enough...
Lap 8 and Giovinazzi was in and out with a set of Mediums and Kvyat chose to serve his penalty at the same time. The following lap saw Grosjean in for a set of Hards no less. Out in P17 he went chasing down Kvyat.
At the front, the story being told was that Ferrari was not keeping up with the Mercedes and it was not long before Leclerc was told to move over and let Vettel by. Once that maneuver was done it was 4.5 seconds up the road to Bottas and Verstappen well within undercut.
Lap 12 and Grosjean was setting very fast times on the Hards and Hulkenberg was in to cover the HAAS driver, but it was too little too late and as the Renault flashed out of the pits the HAAS driver was already by.
At the front, having been let by, Vettel was driving backwards relative to Bottas and Leclerc, who was already a bit unhappy with being told to move over, had already seen Vettel lose more than a second to the Mercedes. He was not shy about being vocal about it on the radio either as the popcorn was being passed along the rest of the pitwall.
Lap 16 and Rogro was busy on Kvyat and the Hards seemed to be the choice as at the front another full second had gone between Vettel and Bottas and he received a helpful call from his engineer that he might need to go a wee bit faster if possible. Kmag had finally caught up to and passed Hulkenberg who seemed to be suffering from an issue and then it was confirmed, the Renault was called in to retire.
Lap 18 and Verstappen was in and out of the pits on the Hard tyre and that was a serious undercut threat for Ferrari. Max was out just in front of Raikkonen as the Ferraris hurtled down the backstrait towards the hairpin. It was Vettel being given the advantageous strategy and he boxed as Leclerc was sent round to bear the brunt of Red Bull's strategy. Norris was in for a new front wing at the same time as his was dragging the ground.
Vettel was out ahead of Verstappen but still in striking distance of the Dutchman. Verstappen turned it up and stayed close throughout the lap and at the end of the back strait let one fly up the inside into the hairpin. Vettel astutely cut back on the inside, turning in tight as Max ran wide braking late and then Vettel pushed him to the edge of the track on exit, putting Verstappen all but completely off the track in a nice bit of racing.
But just as HAAS and Grosjean showed the way, the Hard tyre was looking to be the quickest and it was Bottas in first for Mercedes, as the Medium had dropped to being nearly 2 seconds a lap slower. Leclerc, meanwhile, was being sacrificed on the altar of Ferrari strategy and was being kept out as lap 23 saw Hamilton in and out. End of the lap saw Leclerc in and out P5 and 11 full seconds behind Verstappen and a 5 lap offset on tyres.
Lewis inquired as to why he was pitted after Valterri, and was told that it was due to tyre life issues, this question likely due to the fact that his lead over Bottas was essentially wiped out by the undercut. Of course, that undercut also put Vettel 7 seconds off the back of Bottas meaning Mercedes net position had improved, at the expense of Lewis' gap.
Bottas seemed to be enjoying his new tyres, and put in 2 fast laps in a row but with no real reduction in the gap to Hamilton. In the midfield it was Magnussen by Raikkonen, who had just tracked in with some new tyres. Not for long though, as Kimi used his fresh tyres for maximum advantage and retook the spot with relatively little trouble. Albon squeezed by Giovinazzi for P12 and it was a relatively ignored Ricciardo who was quietly having a nice little race in P7.
Lap 29 and Raikkonen was by Grosjean. At the sharp end, Leclerc was being told to push as it looked like the performance of the Hard was dropping off around 11 or 12 laps. And then over the radio, Leclerc was told it might be plan B, ie a 2 stopper.
2 laps later and it was Albon by Magnussen and it was now who would blink first on the pitwall as both Red Bull and Ferrari eyed up a potential 2 stop to make waves. Stroll complained of rough downshifts in his Racing Point and the team promised to have a close look at it...
Lap 35 and Kmag was in for a set of Mediums and then it was Red Bull, into the pitlane as Verstappen rocked in and then out with a set of Mediums. This brought Vettel in for a new set of tyres and put Leclerc into P3 with Vettel 10 seconds back.
And then the dominos kept falling as Mercedes called both cars in on the following lap for Mediums and out they went with Lelerc being kept out as a guinea pig by Ferrari. And yes, that would be Bottas with a new tyre and Hamilton with a used one. As they were warming up their tyres it was Vettel in full song, dropping to the 1:34s.
IT was the work of just a few laps for Bottas to catch Leclerc, and on lap 39 and all along the lap Leclerc worked hard to keep him at bay, but it was never a fair fight and down the back strait it was an easy pass for the Finn.
Lap 40 and Gasly was in for a new set of Mediums, meaning Leclerc had no worries about coming in and being trapped behind him. This set up a Verstappen/Leclerc battle at the end of the race assuming Ferrari would bring him in once Vettel rocked by.
And indeed that's exactly what happened on lap 43, Leclerc in and out with a set of Mediums. Given the Mediums were rocking 2 seconds a lap faster than the Hards, it was a bit inevitable that he needed to pit.
2 laps later and Raikkonen was inside DRS on Perez and with a 5 lap offset to help him. At the front, Leclerc was chunking more than a second a lap out of Verstappen, which was the minimum necessary to give him a shot at getting by.
But it was not sustainable and one wouldn't be entirely wrong to think that Ferrari had some 'splainin to do to their rookie driver once the checquers had fallen. Up front, there was no sign of anything that resembled overtaking or even, for that matter, a chase with a modest chance of success. In the midfield, Raikkonen had backed off and barring him taking that back up the race looked to be pretty much over. Hamilton had a casual discussion about fast lap.
And then, voila, Grosjean had actually caught up to Albon and with 4 laps to go and perhaps there would be some action. The following lap saw Norris retire, which would net a new gearbox for him in the next race if nothing else. Lap 54 and Gasly was in for a new set of Softs and a crack at fast lap.
Albon locked up into the hairpin and Grosjean closed it down, but the Toro Rosso driver kept it in front and they rocked into the final turn with 2 laps to go. Around they went but it was Albon able to maintain his advantage over the HAAS driver. Gasly was able to nick fast lap and as the checquers fell it was Hamilton in a remarkably boring effort (not that that's a bad thing if you're a team principal) in his 75th win. For Ferrari, however, it was a hot mess of a day and no doubt a question or two to be asked on the pitwall as they managed to throw away a 4th place finish as well as the goodwill of a number of Leclerc fans in one fell swoop. Good result for Ricciardo, but once again Renault had a mystery retirement (2 if you count Norris, but that's as like as not a strategic retirement) which continues to raise questions about their reliability. Which, to be fair, was already fairly questionable.
Excellent result for Albon, from the pitlane and on a one stopper as well, with a twinge of regret as to where he might have finished had he not so thoroughly wrecked his car in FP3. Less so for Kvyat, who wound up parked before the end of the race after collecting a penalty for his first lap adventures. Perez as well surprised and having gotten off to a rocking start was able to stick around and collect some decent points.
A forgettable day for HAAS, who after running what looked to be a clever 2 stop strategy, still didn't quite have the car to get into the points as they continue to be baffled as to how to unlock the potential they showed in Barcelona. McLaren too, will be happy to see the backside of Shanghai after a pair of decent showings as what could possibly go wrong in Baku....
And remember to play nice in the comments!!