Six conclusions from the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

Red Bull have the race pace to match Ferrari and Mercedes…

Ricciardo and Verstappen qualified normally and survived early laps for first time this season, allowing us to get the first fair comparison between the ‘big three’ this season, and the signs are promising for a close season-long battle at the front of the field.

Verstappen’s super start pushed him up into third place while Ricciardo was sixth for the first stint, holding station at around four seconds behind Hamilton. The gap between the two was big enough for them to stop on the same lap, with both cars serviced in the space of 14 seconds. They didn’t have the pace to catch and overtake either Ferrari or Mercedes under normal conditions with equal tyre wear, but the safety car gave them the opportunity to turn the race in their favour and they grabbed it with both hands.

Bottas and Vettel had already passed the pit entrance when the safety car was called out but the Red Bulls were just far back enough to come in, again pulling in both cars at the same time. The gaps to the cars behind were big enough to allow Verstappen and Ricciardo to rejoin in fourth and sixth, but with the field bunched up and their rivals on much older tyres they were well-positioned to take the win.

The Dutchman started with track position but it was Ricciardo who came through to take the win with a series of decisive, well-judged overtakes. He impressively outbraked Hamilton into the hairpin and bravely dived down the inside of Bottas to take the lead, avoiding the Finn’s late attempt to block him. The Australian has gained a reputation for winning these chaotic races which surely cannot be a coincidence – his ability to stay cool under pressure and make decisive overtakes allowed him to come through from sixth to first in the final twenty laps, giving him his sixth Formula 1 win.

Red Bull still need to improve their one-lap pace – they are comfortably behind Ferrari and Mercedes in qualifying, due in part to their power unit which is still a fair way off the benchmark. Unless they can make up the difference with the chassis, they’ll always have to fight their way through from the third row which will make a sustained championship challenge very difficult. Nevertheless, they’ve proven that, when the points are handed out, they can mix it with the best on the grid.

…but Verstappen needs to temper his aggression

While one Red Bull driver will have left Shanghai delighted, the other will be frustrated and left wondering what might have been. Verstappen was at his brilliant best on the opening lap, superbly passing both Hamilton and Raikkonen on the first lap and comfortably holding station in third place before and after the first round of pit stops. He was in the pound seat after the safety car, in fourth place but with much fresher tyres than those in front.

The Dutchman had already made crucial errors in the first two events of the season, having spun in the race at Melbourne and crashing out of qualifying in Bahrain, before making contact with Hamilton in the race. He appeared to be back on form in China, outpacing his team-mate over the whole weekend and holding a comfortable advantage over him in the race, but his eagerness to get to the front cost him with two crucial errors. Firstly, he tried to pass Hamilton in the fast sweepers in the middle sector, a place where nobody overtakes and has the world champion moved across to take the racing line Verstappen was spooked off the track, dropping him behind his team-mate. He quickly recovered but made an even bigger error when attempting to pass Vettel. The German ran deep in the braking zone at the hairpin so Max tried to take advantage, but he misjudged the size of the gap and sent himself and Ferrari spinning. This earned him a well-deserved ten second time penalty which eventually saw him take fifth, while a wounded Vettel limped home in eighth.

Verstappen will now be under more pressure than at any other day in his F1 career to date. His mistake-riddled start to 2018 has raised further question marks over his temperament and he needs to get back to the form he showed in the second half of last season as quickly as possible. To his credit, he very quickly owned up to his error of judgement and apologised to Vettel, so maybe he can use this as a turning point in his season.

 

Bottas answers critics with excellent Shanghai performance

Hamilton had comfortably outperformed the Finn in the first two races but he was strangely off-colour this weekend, and Bottas took full advantage by out-qualifying the champion. He backed that up by making a good start to the race, sweeping around the outside of Raikkonen in turn 1 and comfortably holding second place for the first stint, around three seconds behind Vettel and well ahead of Verstappen.

Mercedes sensibly decided to try the undercut on Vettel by bringing in Bottas first, but few would have expected him to jump the Ferrari with a blistering out-lap on his fresh medium tyres. This enabled him to overturn the two second deficit and take the lead, which he held until he was passed by the charging Ricciardo late in the race. His overtake on Raikkonen showed a decisiveness that was not present on the last lap in Bahrain. He was then able to withstand the pressure from Vettel and would most likely have won the race, if it wasn’t for the safety car.

He had no chance of holding back Ricciardo in the closing stages but he did well to keep Raikkonen and Verstappen behind in the final laps, when his tyres were at least ten laps older than those of his rivals. He needs to produce this kind of performance more consistently if he wants to earn an extension to his Mercedes contract, which expires at the end of the season.

It was an unusually off-colour weekend for the world champion – he struggled for pace all the way through the weekend and was somewhat fortunate to finish fourth, four places ahead of his closest championship rival Vettel. If the front-runners remain so closely matched, he can’t afford too many more weekends like this if he hopes to take a fifth world championship this year.

Tyre management and strategy will play a key part in this year’s championship

Pirelli admitted that their tyre range and choices in 2017 were overly conservative and they’ve made a concerted effort to move towards two stop races this season. The extra tyres in their range have given them more flexibility and their hard work paid off in Bahrain and China, producing two races with plenty of excitement and a strong strategic element.

Mercedes once again struggled to get their tyres into their working range during qualifying in the low temperatures. Bottas was half a second off the pace of Vettel in Q3 but nearly almost all of that time was lost in the first sector – this may be due to the relative strengths of the cars, but it could also be explained by Mercedes taking longer to get their tyres up to temperature. One theory for Ferrari’s advantage in Bahrain was the high track temperatures but the results of qualifying in China appeared to contradict this – maybe it’s simply that the Ferrari car works in a wider range of conditions than the Mercedes.

In terms of strategy and race management, Ferrari had comfortably outperformed Mercedes in the opening races, albeit with a bit of luck on their side in Melbourne. Maybe they had grown a little complacent – they were in control of the race for the first stint but failed to cover off the possibility of a Bottas undercut. Raikkonen was left out for another ten laps, presumably with the intention of one-stopping while expecting the others to two-stop, but when he emerged from the pits the Finn was well behind in sixth. As has happened so often in the last season or so, Raikkonen was a sacrificial lamb and was left to attempt to fend off Bottas, in the hope that Vettel could take advantage and retake the lead.

The safety car was of course the key moment of the race, giving the Red Bulls the opportunity to switch strategy and ultimately take the win. While the VSC worked in Ferrari’s favour in Melbourne, it went against them this time – the timing gave them no chance to react and forced them to stick to the one-stopper. If it had been a ‘normal’ race, it would most likely have been a win for Bottas ahead of Vettel and Verstappen.

 

Much like in Bahrain, the race was marginal on tyres and both one and two-stop strategies were viable which added a level of intrigue to the race that wasn’t present in Melbourne. Hopefully Pirelli’s tyre choices for the coming races will allow for similar strategic flexibility. The ‘big three’ teams are evenly matched on race pace on the evidence of the first three races, so smart strategy and tyre management could be the key to this year’s championship.

The midfield battle is as tight and unpredictable as ever

The battle behind the ‘big three’ has been fascinating so far, with multiple teams scoring strong points finishes in the first three races. The pecking order has changed from race to race and is still hugely unpredictable, with strategy often making the difference between a strong haul of points and slipping back into the lower order.

Renault were the leading midfield constructor this weekend, leapfrogging Haas and capitalising on their pace with a double-points finish. They have been the most consistent performer outside ‘big three’ with Hulkenberg again putting in another strong race to come home sixth, again beating his highly-rated team-mate Carlos Sainz. McLaren once again had a nightmare Saturday, qualifying in 13th and 14th which once again left serious question marks over this season’s car. This at least gave them the option to start on softs and run a one-stop race, a strategy that helped Alonso jump up the order. A firm overtake on a limping Vettel late in the race gave the Spaniard seventh place, a strong result given their starting position but that doesn’t mask the inadequacies of his car – it is clearly still the slowest of the Renault powered cars. The speed trap would suggest the McLaren is way too draggy, a problem that they won’t be able to resolve quickly.

Haas put in their weakest performance of the season so far but still put in a reasonable performance, picking up a point thanks to Kevin Magnussen’s tenth place. He surprisingly missed out on Q3 for the first time this season but made use of his free tyre choice and stronger race pace to finish in the points again, albeit comfortably behind Carlos Sainz’s Renault. Romain Grosjean made it into the final part of qualifying but had a miserable race, asked to move out of the way of his team-mate in the early laps and a strange strategy saw him pit with ten laps to go, dropping him all the way down to 17th. The American team haven’t taken full advantage of their early season form and currently sit seventh in the constructors’ standings.

Force India have had an underwhelming start to the season, picking up only a single point in the first two races, and this continued in China where both Ocon and Perez finished just outside the points. Their qualifying performance gave them cause for optimism when Perez made it through into the last part of qualifying, but on Sunday they didn’t have the pace to stay ahead of the Haas and McLaren cars. Both Force Indias took the opportunity to pit under the safety car but they were unable to catch up with the one-stopping Kevin Magnussen. The team’s lack of budget looks set to condemn Ocon and Perez to a year of scrapping for the occasional point, after two years of punching well above their weight and scoring consistent top-ten finishes.

Back to reality for Toro Rosso after Bahrain stunner

The Toro Rosso-Honda partnership pulled off the shock result in Bahrain, achieving the Japanese manufacturer’s best result since returning as an engine supplier in 2015 with Gasly’s fourth-placed finish. This performance was a major surprise given their weak performance in Melbourne, where one car retired and the other finished last. Even the team were at a loss to explain the difference in pace between the two races and there will be more head-scratching following this weekend’s poor display in China.

Their pace relative to the rest of the field was very similar to that of Melbourne. The car was at least reliable on this occasion but both cars were knocked out in Q1 and neither Gasly nor Hartley were threatening the points before they collided on lap 30. The young Frenchman badly misjudged the braking zone and slammed into the side of the team-mate, leaving debris on the outside of the hairpin that eventually brought out the safety car. Gasly was given a ten-second time penalty for his troubles and come home down in 18th, while Hartley retired with a few laps remaining, possibly to save the engine as he was well down the pecking order at the time. The team need to get their head around the variation in their performance as quickly as possible if they want to score consistent points this season.

 

 

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