Mercedes were on another planet yet again as they dominated, unchallenged, Formula 1’s much-hyped 1000th race – the 2019 Chinese Grand Prix – which may also go down as one of the most boring.
Lewis Hamilton made no mistake as he powered from second on the grid into the lead by Turn 1 and was never headed again as his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who started from pole, chased all afternoon to claim second place.
A third one-two for the World Champions who have got a clear march on their rivals very early on in the season. The first time a team has locked out the first three races of an F1 season since Williams accomplished the feat in 1992.
Hamilton said afterwards, “It’s not been the most straight forward of weekends but what a fantastic result for the team. We didn’t know where we would stand with the Ferraris, they were so quick in the last week.”
“Valtteri was quick all weekend and to have a one-two together is really special in the 1,000th GP. The start was where I was able to make the difference. It’s still very close between us all. I have no idea how the next race is going to turn out.”
So dominant was Hamilton that he hardly got any screen time on a day in which he was unmatched, he did everything he needed to do and put to bed any dreams of a Bottas reloaded because, after that, the Finn held station and never unleashed an attack on his teammate, an option that might have spiced up the race but did not happen.
After the race, Bottas popped the understatement of the season thus far when he told Martin Brundle, “I lost it at the start.”
“The car was feeling OK and otherwise the pace was similar. In the dirty air I couldn’t follow. Shame about the start, I got some wheel spin when I went over the start-finish line and I lost it there. It’s early days in the season, things are looking good for the team. It’s not a nice feeling, I’m coming back.”
On the other side of the coin Ferrari once again shot themselves in the foot with a slew of team orders that compromised, and indeed sacrificed, Charles Leclerc for the benefit of chosen team leader Sebastian Vettel who finished third, while his younger teammate salvaged the shambles of a race they created for him into fifth place when a podium was possible.
And despite being hung out to dry by his team, when he was called upon to hold up Bottas for Vettel’s benefit he flew the Scuderia flag with remarkable loyalty considering circumstances, but in the end the German was unable to capitalise on the opportunity he was given by his team.
While Ferrari got caught up in their own ‘Keystone Cops’ show Max Verstappen snuck in with a solid driver and helped himself to fourth place at the expense of the sacrificial lamb that was Leclerc.
Vettel summed up his race, “I’m happy to be on the podium. We tried to stick with them but we couldn’t, they were too quick right from the start. I had a bit of a race with Max which was good fun. But the objective was to chase Mercedes down but they were just too quick. We’d have loved to be a bit faster.”
“I felt I could go faster [than Charles] but it was a bit difficult for me to find a rhythm and locked up, losing the advantage I gained. I think it’s fair if you see the whole race that we were just not able to stick with Mercedes. It’s a shame he couldn’t catch Max at the end. Plenty of homework for us. It’s a good result but not a great result.”
Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed his best Sunday afternoon as a Renault driver, finishing seventh albeit a lap behind the winner, nevertheless it was a solid result for the Australian. His teammate Nico Hulkenberg was the first retirement when he was pushed into his pit garage on lap 16.
Eight place went to Sergio Perez who delivered a gritty performance after a great put him at the sharp end of the midfield where he stayed. His Racing Point teammate Lance Stroll had a below-par race, finishing 12th to crown a disappointing weekend for the Canadian.
Veteran Kimi Raikkonen was in the wars with the Alfa Romeo, going wheel-to-wheel and getting the better of ‘hard boys’ Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean in the process.
The Driver of the Day was deservedly Alex Albon, the rookie coming back from his FP3 crash which forced him to miss qualifying and then delivered a mature performance, starting from the pit lane he battled hard to finish tenth and claim the final point. An impressive afternoon for the young Thai driver.
In the sister Toro Rosso, the ‘Torpedo’ was back in Shanghai. Daniil Kvyat speared into both McLaren’s through the long Turn 1 complex on the opening lap in which Carlos Sainz was the meat in the sandwich with Kvyat’s Toro Rosso on the inside and the other McLaren of Lando Norris on the outside.
As a result, the Spaniard ran out of space and tagged the Russian who lost control and torpedoed the Englishman. Kvyat was handed a drive-through penalty for his shenanigans, perhaps unfairly as it was one of those ‘three-into-one-does-not-go’ racing incidents.
The unfortunate McLaren duo were compromised as both had to pit for repairs. Sainz recovered to finish 14th, but Norris suffered damage to the floor of his car and as a result, was last of the classified runners.
At the end of the day, race 1000 (or whatever it is) was a big anti-climax coupled to the harsh reality that Mercedes are far ahead and Hamilton is capable of raising his game when required. It’s catch-up for everyone… and we know how that tends to pan out.
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff reflected, “It’s amazing the 1000th race, being on pole and then controlling the race this way is super. The double stack was a particularly proud moment because you have everything to lose.”
“We were thinking of losing the position if we were to pit one of the two earlier. The stacking functioned brilliant, it was good choreography. Valtteri for sure will not be happy. He was on pole and had the speed to win but the start was the deciding factor,” explained the Silver Arrows boss.
Hamilton made a good start from second place on the grid to power past Bottas, who afterwards admitted he had been disadvantaged by momentary wheelspin on the start/finish line.
Starting from the same side of the grid as Hamilton, Leclerc also got away well to steal P3 from teammate Vettel. Behind them, Verstappen held fifth off the line, with Gasly also retaining his starting position of sixth ahead of Ricciardo.
Further back, there was trouble for Sainz and Norris got tagged in a battle with Kvyat. Norris was pitched into the air briefly and sustained floor damage while Sainz damaged his front wing. Both pitted for repairs at the end of the first lap and rejoined at the back of the field. Kvyat was soon handed a drive-through penalty for causing the collision.
By lap 10 Hamilton had opened up a solid lead ahead of his team-mate, but fourth-placed Vettel was now pushing to get past Leclerc. Despite the younger driver’s protestations that he was quicker than the German, Leclerc was told to defer to the four-time champion and on lap 11 he pulled across to allow Vettel through to third place.
At the end of lap 17 Verstappen headed for the pit lane to take on hard tyres. Sensing a threat, Ferrari mirrored the move with Vettel on the next lap and the German rejoined just ahead of the Dutch driver.
With Vettel on cold tyres, Verstappen smelled blood and the Red Bull driver launched a bold attack down the inside into the hairpin. He got past but locked up slightly and Vettel was able to hold a wide line and retained his position, with Verstappen being forced out onto the grass.
It was the Dutch driver’s only realistic chance and once Vettel’s tyres were working well, he began to pull away from the Red Bull.
The race then settled until the second round of stops, again triggered by Verstappen. The Dutchman pitted at the end of lap 34 for medium tyres and Ferrari responded by bringing in Vettel for the same compound a lap later. Mercedes then brought in their drivers for medium compound Pirellis.
Bottas dropped to third in that round of stops but he soon closed in on Leclerc and despite a brave defence by the Ferrari driver, the Finn was able to get past to reclaim P2.
Vettel now also began to close on Leclerc and armed with fresher tyres there was little fuss in getting by as Leclerc gave way and swiftly made his own pit stop for mdeiums. The Monegasque’s pit stop allowed Max to power past and reclaim fourth place, with Leclerc eventually rejoining almost 15 seconds behind the Red Bull.
The order at the top remained unchanged in the final laps, with Hamilton cruising to a 75thcareer win ahead of Bottas, Vettel and Verstappen.
However, behind fifth-placed Leclerc, Pierre Gasly in the second Red Bull was plotting a late charge.
Vettel had held the race fastest lap, a 1:34.836s, since lap 37, but holding an almost 30 seconds advantage over Ricciardo, Gasly took a free pit stop on lap 53 for soft tyres.
He duly claimed fastest lap with a time of 1:34.742 to take another point to add the eight earned for sixth place ahead of Ricciardo, Pérez, Räikkönen and Albon, who delivered an excellent drive to claim a point for 10th place after starting from the pit lane.