Alonso bounces back to break Ferrari drought with victory in China

Chinese GP winner Fernando Alonso on the Shanghai podium
Chinese GP winner Fernando Alonso on the Shanghai podium

The last time that Fernando Alonso stood aloft the top step of a podium was thirteen races ago in Germany, putting behind him the second lap retirement in Malaysia the Spaniard gave a masterclass as he powered to victory in the Chinese Grand Prix and re-ignite his title challenge.

From the start Alonso was racy, tucking into second place and thereafter paced himself, taking the lead briefly before the first rounds of pitstops with half a dozen laps on the chart, by mid-distance the Ferrari driver had done enough to control the race to the very end with plenty to spare.

His delight was evident as he stood on the F138 in parc ferme and acknowledged the cheers from the crowd, including his team. It was the Spaniard’s 31st grand prix win, his tenth as a Ferrari driver  – an important win for the Maranello squad.

Fernando celebrates in parc ferme
Fernando Alonso celebrates in parc ferme

Alonso said on the podium, “It was a fantastic race for us from the start. There were no big problems and the tyre degradation better than expected. It feels great. In the two races we have finished we’ve got second place and victory, so our start of the 2013 season is very good. We’re very optimistic for the rest of the season. You always push in a Formula 1 race, we had some pace in the pocket, but it’s difficult to know when to use it.”

But it was clear that Alonso was keeping his race face on until next weekend in Bahrain, even admitting that he would not be celebrating much,  “I expect a tough race again in Bahrain. We will see different conditions. Who knows how competitive anyone can be. The races we have finished, the car seems capable of getting on the podium. The celebrations tonight will be nothing special as I have an early flight for Bahrain. I’ll have some dinner and the guys will probably party more than me.”

Kimi Raikkonen was second after another impressive showing by the Lotus driver despite a very bad start from the front row of the grid. Raikkonen was in the wars early on, resulting in a gash on the nose of his E21 after a coming together with Sergio Perez’s McLaren. But his team opted to keep the Finn out and he proceeded to do enough to keep Lewis Hamilton at bay for the final half of the race.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W04 leads at the start of the
Lewis Hamilton leads at the start of the Chinese GP

Poker faced and hardly cracking a smile, Raikkonen said during the podium interview,  “I think in the end it was an OK result. Obviously we want to win. After a bad start, the car was handling well. Overtaking Perez, I was next to him and he just pushed me on the kerb. I tried to avoid him and when on the grass and I hit him. It damaged the nose but luckily it didn’t damage too much the handling, just a bit of understeer. Anyhow, good points and we try to do better next time.”

Hamilton in turn started from pole and led for a spell, but it was evident that the Mercedes was not as kind to the Pirelli tyres as were the leaders. He settled into third and had to work hard hard to keep Sebastian Vettel at bay throughout a nail-biting last lap.

With tyres clearly ‘off the cliff’ Hamilton managed to stay ahead of the Red Bull driver who was charging on fresh softs. In the end they crossed the line almost side by side – Hamilton followed by Vettel – top four all world champions.

Hamilton reflected,  “I’m really happy with today’s result and very happy for the team. We didn’t quite have the pace of these two [Alonso and Raikkonen] but we’re very pleased to get on the podium.” “I’m really happy with today’s result and very happy for the team. We didn’t quite have the pace of these two [Alonso and Raikkonen] but we’re very pleased to get on the podium.”

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton chased over the finish line by Sebastian Vettel

The day ended with Vettel top of the championship points standings with 52 points, three more than Raikkonen in second and Alonso third with 43.

Vettel and Jenson Button were the only two in the top nine who opted to run the harder (white band) Pirelli compound while the others were on the softer (yellow band) option. Although the strategy in the end did not give them a chance of winning it did see them make up places and in the end Vettel was fourth and Button fifth, which was a fair return considering where they started.

Vettel summed up his afternoon,  “The team told me that there was quite a big gap behind Lewis [Hamilton], but also that there was a big gap to the car behind, so they told me to go for it. We had fresh speed on the tyres and with a couple of corners more we could have tried something. But it didn’t quite happen – that’s the way it goes sometimes. Nevertheless our strategy worked well and overall we can be happy.”

Button said, “For me, it is quite strange because we led a lot of the race. We did well, we had to try something different because we knew we didn’t have the pace to finish in the top five on a three or four stop strategy. We had to go long which was tricky with everyone jumping all over each other. We couldn’t block or fight people which was frustrating and is not the most exciting racing. But it’s what we had to do and we came away with the 10 points. Fifth place is pretty good and we beat a Ferrari and a Lotus.”

Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso leads teammate Felipe Mass early on in the race

Notably all five world champions on the grid hogged the top five spots on the results sheet, and five different constructors.

For Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber luck in China was not kind to him. First he ran out of fuel during Q2 on Saturday and started the race from the pitlane, and 24 hours later the Red Bull was again parked on the side of the race track this time without a rear wheel which went astray after Webber pitted to fix damage to the RB9 after a skirmish with Jean Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso.

“The start of the race was going OK and we decided to get rid of the other tyres quickly and then regroup. But then I got to Jean-Eric [Vergne]. I was coming from a reasonable distance behind but he knew I was there. He looked like I was going to get past him and then he went for the apex. It’s disappointing,” reported Webber, who was 11th when he retired with 15 laps on his chart.

With his teammate winning and starting from fifth on the grid, Felipe Massa would have been excused for expecting more than sixth place at the end of the race. Apart from an early flurry the Brazilian did not seem comfortable and mysteriously did not offer much resistance when under attack. The pecking order at Maranello is re-established despite some doubts before the Shanghai weekend.

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F138 leads Sebastian Vettel
Felipe Massa leads Sebastian Vettel

Massa explained, “I couldn’t use the medium tyres, I had a huge amount of graining. It was increasing every lap. At the end of the run, the graining cleaned up and I was doing quick lap times. It was a big problem which I had for the whole race. If we didn’t have the issues, I think we had the big possibility to fight for victory so it’s a shame to have this problem. From Friday, I was never quick on the medium. I was always struggling with the fronts and was the same because of the graining.”

Our ‘man of the match’ award this time out would go to Daniel Ricciardo who qualified the Toro Rosso in seventh, and drove a solid race to claim his first points of the season with a seventh place finish – his best result to date in F1.

Ricciardo, sporting his ever present smile told reporters, “I am really pleased to score my first points of the season and to confirm the qualifying performance. The last time I qualified this well was sixth in Bahrain last year and then I failed to score, so today, I really wanted to show people what I could do. From the start of the season, we have had many changes in terms of personnel and it takes a while for that to gel and this weekend, it felt like everything clicked into place, after the first two race weekends were a bit up and down, but now I expect us to continue getting stronger from here on.”

Esteban Gutierrez (MEX) Sauber C32 crashes out of the race
Esteban Gutierrez crashes out of the race

Force India have been the surprise package of the season, both Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil top ten material. What should have been a strong weekend for the Silverstone based team turned into disappointment for Sutil who was punted from behind by Esteban Gutierrez in the Sauber. The Mexican rookie retired immediately. Sutil limped back to the pits with a seriously damaged wing but in the Force India pit box the rear of the VJM06 caught alight and that was that for the Sutil.

The FIA stewards slapped Gutierrez with a five place grid penalty for a clear case of brain fade at speed, effective in Bahrain.

Di Resta who survived a few torrid momments when he went wheel to wheel with Sutil, salvaged some pride for the team with eighth place.

“The pace of the third stage of the race was unbelievable and on our tyres we were able to improve and improve. It was a top job by the boys because they had a few issues before we went out. I think it was the right strategy but I was a bit unfortunate with Adrian [Sutil] being a bit aggressive at the start of the race. I lost four places and then had to battle back. Whether he intended that I don’t know. I will have to ask him later. We will discuss it in-house, but that was what cost us the most during the race,” recounted Di Resta.

Alonso fans
Alonso fans

Ninth place went to Romain Grosjean in the Lotus, failing to match the pace of his teammate who finished on the podium

The final point went to Nico Hulkenberg who led at one point in the Sauber, but twice his crew tripped up during his pitstops which did little to help his cause.

“The pit-lane wasn’t my friend today – twice I had some issues in there. Other than that it was a good effort, I was leading the race for few laps, but then got overtaken by quite a few people.” mused the German.

Williams hardly featured at all with Valterri Bottas and Pastor maldonado finishing 13th and 14th respectively.

Behind them Jules Bianchi again was the best driver of the backmarker teams, finishing 15th for Marussia.

Last word to Ferrari team principal Stefano Domencali who saw his driver back on the top step podium for the first time in eight months,  “I’m not surprised by the advantage we got today. Fernando was extraordinary. Our pace was really strong, the team performed well and we tried to manage the gaps with our main competitors. But today was just one win – now we need to focus on the next race.”

Round 3, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai – Sundey, 14 April 2013

13Fernando AlonsoFerrari56Winner325
27Kimi RäikkönenLotus-Renault56+10.1 secs218
310Lewis HamiltonMercedes56+12.3 secs115
41Sebastian VettelRed Bull Racing-Renault56+12.5 secs912
55Jenson ButtonMcLaren-Mercedes56+35.2 secs810
64Felipe MassaFerrari56+40.8 secs58
719Daniel RicciardoSTR-Ferrari56+42.6 secs76
814Paul di RestaForce India-Mercedes56+51.0 secs114
98Romain GrosjeanLotus-Renault56+53.4 secs62
1011Nico HulkenbergSauber-Ferrari56+56.5 secs101
116Sergio PerezMcLaren-Mercedes56+63.8 secs12
1218Jean-Eric VergneSTR-Ferrari56+72.6 secs15
1317Valtteri BottasWilliams-Renault56+93.8 secs16
1416Pastor MaldonadoWilliams-Renault56+95.4 secs14
1522Jules BianchiMarussia-Cosworth55+1 Lap18
1620Charles PicCaterham-Renault55+1 Lap20
1723Max ChiltonMarussia-Cosworth55+1 Lap19
1821Giedo van der GardeCaterham-Renault55+1 Lap21
Ret9Nico RosbergMercedes21+35 Laps4
Ret2Mark WebberRed Bull Racing-Renault15+41 Laps22
Ret15Adrian SutilForce India-Mercedes5+51 Laps13
Ret12Esteban GutierrezSauber-Ferrari4+52 Laps17

Note – Webber originally qualified 14th but moved to the back of the grid for failing to provide a one-litre fuel sample after qualifying