Chinese Grand Prix 2010 - 21/04/10

You get the feeling that the 2010 Formula 1 season is going to put a number of lingering questions surrounding the sport and its drivers to bed. Is Jenson Button a worthy champion? How good is he? Can he repeat his success in a car that isn’t dominant alongside Lewis Hamilton? How will Michael Schumacher fare against the next generation? Does Nico Rosberg have what it takes given the right machinery? Are Renault a spent force? Is it possible to succeed in F1 with a proper startup operation given enough time?

Just as with the first race of the year in Bahrain, it’s perilously easy to answer all of the above questions at this stage, but certainly the evidence is mounting for each case. Another exceptional tyre call from Button paved the way for his and McLaren’s second win of the season, while teammate Lewis Hamilton again provided the lion’s share of entertainment and ended up a close second behind Button at the flag. Starting 5th and 6th respectively, the McLaren drivers were disappointed with qualifying and yet another Red Bull front row, but in their own signature styles made their way to the front. Button’s decision to stay on slicks during the first rain scare secured him track position behind early leader Rosberg, track position that he never surrendered even after his lead was wiped out by the second NASCAR-inspired safety car period for debris on the circuit. His soft touch on the tyres ensuring the life of his rubber throughout the various treacherous stages of the race, even Jenson managed to overshoot the hairpin before the end of the lap as the rain increased. That set up a nervous finish as Hamilton closed the gap to 1.5s, but Button held on to win his 2nd race for his new team in 4 starts, taking him to a career total of 9 victories and the championship lead.

Lewis’s race was altogether more dramatic as he made a beyond-last minute decision to pit for intermediate tyres on lap 3, cutting across the gravel and painted off-track surfaces to get into the pits, a decision that he himself later described as an error. Within 2 laps the intermediates were destroyed and seeing how well Rosberg, Button, Kubica and Petrov were doing on the slicks, most of the field including Hamilton pitted again to lose the intermediates. Having made it into the pits ahead of polesitter Vettel, who himself had been stacked behind Webber at the first pit stop due to the Aussie passing him into turn 1, Hamilton was released from his pit box as Vettel drew alongside. As the two raced out of the pit lane, Vettel was seen to feint right and push Hamilton close to pit mechanics and equipment, earning both a post-race reprimand from the stewards. Hamilton then passed Barrichello, Webber and Kovalainen before pulling a double pass on Vettel and Sutil when the former didn’t manage to cleanly pass the Force India driver at the end of the back straight. After a memorable exchange with Schumacher that finally bore fruit on lap 17, Hamilton’s post-race comments all but implied that he was unimpressed with the German’s aggressive defending. Following the second safety car period where most were caught off guard by leader Button’s slowing before the restart, Lewis squeezed Webber off track. Further victims of the number 2 McLaren included Schumacher (again), Petrov, Kubica and eventually Rosberg, who was leapfrogged in the pits. Another spirited and impressive Sunday performance, but the cold truth is that Hamilton was outqualified again by Button, as well as beaten on strategy regardless of outright pace. Second place was a great reward for his efforts, and the safety car a great gift from Jaime.

Mercedes managed to produce a second successive podium performance in Shanghai thanks to Rosberg’s fine 4th place on the grid and the decision to remain on slicks during the first period of the race. Nico succeeded in holding off both McLarens at the start and led the race when the Red Bulls pitted for intermediates early on. Showing good pace initially, Rosberg was under no threat from Button, even stretching the gap to 4 seconds before an off-track excursion on lap 20 eliminated his advantage and handed the lead to Button. Post debris car, Rosberg was running about 2sec behind Button until Hamilton got his scent and started hounding him around lap 35. Employing effective switchbacks and imaginative use of the defensive line, Nico put up a stirring defence for his position, forcing Lewis to pit on lap 37 in order to make up time on fresher tyres. Indeed Rosberg emerged from his own pit stop behind Hamilton on lap 39, having made his point to those who accused him of capitulating to Hamilton in Melbourne. Their sparring had allowed Button to stretch his lead and the remainder of Nico’s run to 3rd place was consumed with keeping the charging Ferrari of Alonso at bay, which he did through intelligent prioritising of his tyre life. This was a result to celebrate for Mercedes and Rosberg, even if they were forced to play bridesmaid to yet another 1-2 from a rival team, but one is forced to think what Nico could have achieved without his off-track moment and the intervention of the second safety car. You want to believe that given the opportunity and the machinery, Rosberg will be a race-winner and championship contender, and given the expected development of his car and the impressive performances to date he probably will still mature into just that. It should also be remembered that the eventual winner of the Chinese GP and current world champion had a similar extracurricular moment during the race.

What of Michael Schumacher? Much more pronounced tyre degradation coupled with an early final pit stop meant that he was struggling to stay afloat come the end of the race. Early progress through the changeable conditions and battles with Hamilton showed he had lost none of his racecraft and despite a significant pace differential could make trouble for drivers looking to put a move on him. Sutil and Vettel made their way past after the second safety car, but Felipe Massa found it much harder, actually being forced off the tarmac by his former mentor before eventually making a move stick. Michael’s lack of success was, according to him, dictated by an inability to pace himself and manage the life of the new intermediate tyres. Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug continue to fight his corner, insisting that he hasn’t shown what he’s got yet, that circumstances have not favoured him and that improvements and a return to form are inevitable. Of course, if Schumacher is regularly amongst the frontrunners by midseason, this period will be forgotten, as will the supposed death knells on his comeback. Regardless of perceptions and the unusual circumstances surrounding the last 3 races, Schumacher will not be allowing the press or his rivals to decide when to catalogue his return as a failure and an error of judgement, but that determination and promise of improvement needs to bear fruit sooner rather than later.

Amid denials of engine concerns and farewells to outboard mirrors, Ferrari rendered almost all of their good work from qualifying useless as Alonso jumped the start, rounded the Red Bulls and led into turn 1. Salvaging 4th place from a day where he had to make 5 trips through the pit lane, including a drive through penalty for that start, is a feat to be applauded. Alonso, aided hugely by the second safety car, did well to overtake drivers such as Sutil and Schumacher on a day where he unbelievably found himself staring at Massa’s gearbox again. One of the lasting memories of the 2010 Chinese GP will be that of Alonso sliding down the inside of Massa aggressively on pit entry, forcing Massa to be stacked behind him as Alonso had a new set of inters fitted, thus losing Felipe a number of places in the process. There was never any question of who was the faster Ferrari driver this weekend (or even this season) but clearly Fernando was desperate to not sacrifice any more of 2010 behind Massa, despite most of it being nobody’s fault bar his own. This incident, apart from arguably rescuing the Chinese GP for Fernando, was pure gold for those again looking to fan the flames of an Alonso intra-team dispute. The difference is this time his teammate really doesn’t look to be as much a threat to him as a regular inconvenience. Surely this won’t be the case throughout the rest of the year, but for now Massa’s performances have been far from stellar. We await another incident free Alonso-Ferrari weekend in order to gauge their true position in the current 2010 hierarchy.

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull again suffered the curse of the 2010 polesitter and had yet another forgettable Sunday. As if being passed by teammate Webber into turn 1 wasn’t bad enough, he was a victim of switching to intermediates early on. Webber’s pass meant that Vettel had to wait behind Mark to be serviced, costing him valuable track position. Later on, Webber hitting one of the air jacks caused further delay to Sebastian’s following pit stop. Bad luck aside, the Red Bulls just didn’t have the pace in those conditions. Vettel looked at one point to be capable of staying with Hamilton on his charge back up through the field, but eventually he had to settle for 6th place with fading tyres, which is not such a bad reward considering all the drama. Webber’s day was even worse, being pushed so wide at the second restart and eventually being passed by Renault’s Vitaly Petrov, eventually coming home 8th. Considering both Red Bulls were on the same strategy as Hamilton, there will be much to think about when comparing the relative pace and finishing position of the aforementioned McLaren driver. How many more front row starts can Vettel afford to let slip through his fingers?

Renault will be thoroughly pleased with yet another demonstration of how much talent and racing nous is still present within their team despite high profile departures. Both Kubica and Petrov secured valuable track position at the start by staying out on slicks, and if not for Alguersuari’s front wing bringing out the safety car, Kubica may well have had another podium finish well clear of Hamilton and Alonso who eventually got by him. Renault’s successful start to the season, Kubica’s continuing run of remarkable performances and Petrov’s first points of the year are a staggering return for a team who had been all but written off. They are a constant beneficiary and thorn in the side of the so-called top teams who continue to find ways of wrecking their own race weekends. It is doubtful that in normal dry conditions they could score so competitively for the rest of the season, but with such strategic guile and Robert’s safe hands, anything is possible. Petrov’s spin undoubtedly cost him further points, but his late pass on Webber will no doubt endear him further to the management.

Elsewhere, Lotus’s Heikki Kovalainen briefly ran as high as sixth in the points and ended up ahead of Hulkenburg’s Williams. Surely the promised upgrades and improvements to the Lotus car will make them an even more respectable outfit worthy of their place on the grid. Hispania also managed to bring both cars home, with Senna 2 laps down on winner Button. Sauber’s season continues to depress as a promising start for De la Rosa was marred by more Ferrari engine trouble and Kobayashi was involved in the first lap carnage. Virgin Racing also have better times to look forward to as both cars retired. Jaime Alguersuari’s weekend promised better after he outqualified the more experienced Buemi yet again, but as Buemi was removed by the spinning Force India of Liuzzi on lap 1, Toro Rosso had to settle for a 13th place finish after decaying tyres and a front wing replacement cost Alguersuari track position. Had he not pitted early with suspected, but subsequently no front wing damage, and had he not made a mess of passing a lapped HRT car this may well have been another points score for the ever-improving young Spaniard.

What is making the 2010 season such a classic year is not solely down to the presence of four world champions, or a packed grid of 24 cars, or even the unpredictable weather affecting results. It is a combination of the above, but more importantly, it is the fact that so many of the top drivers in their various teams are performing at a peak level in their careers and delivering performances throughout the grid that are worthy of mention and notice, whatever obstacle they may encounter. It is as a result of this phenomenon and against this backdrop that drivers such as Schumacher and Massa appear to be disappointing currently.

Malaysian Grand Prix 2010 - 05/04/10

It has taken until the third race of the 2010 season for the inevitable Red Bull one-two finish, and such is the nature of Formula 1 that the manner in which it was delivered all weekend left the others looking as though they had been on borrowed time for the first 2 events. Of course, it is never as simple as that in F1, just as Red Bull’s 2010 season could not be so quickly written off as being plagued by reliability issues. McLaren and Ferrari will of course win races again this year, but what is clear is that they will have to execute a perfect weekend’s worth of operations to achieve those victories. That kind of weekend begins with correctly reading the weather…

Qualifying in Sepang was rain-affected. Of course it was, how could it not be? Q1 saw many teams go out at the start to register banker laps, among them Red Bull and Mercedes. Ferrari and McLaren decided to go out much later as they believed the rain would ease off and not return, and this mistake at the very start of competitive proceedings for the Malaysian GP would haunt them until the very last laps of the race on Sunday. The rain came again in the latter stages of Q1, the result being that Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were out of Q1 and would start the race 19th, 20th and 21st respectively. Jenson Button had delivered a lap good enough to see him through to Q2, however one instance of aquaplaning left him beached in the gravel and unable to take up his spot in Q2. The result was 17th on the grid. Despite all of this, the hero of qualifying was Mark Webber who decided to make his final Q3 runs on intermediate tyres, claiming a dominant pole position ahead of an excellent Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. Adrian Sutil and Nico Hulkenburg also starred in 4th and 5th places after the brief hiatus of a red flag in the final Q3 session.

With the Malaysian GP grid reminiscent of the unforgettable Suzuka 2005, the race itself did not quite measure up to the anticipated excitement, primarily due to the fact that both Ferraris and Button’s McLaren were not able to cut through the field on the early laps in the manner that Lewis Hamilton did, and of course the lack of any rain. Hamilton’s dynamite start and ruthless overtaking saw him make steady progress until his pit stop on lap 30, by which time he had been running 2nd. His meteoric rise through the order was somewhat offset by highly questionable weaving antics on the finishing straight in order to break the tow that Vitaly Petrov’s Renault had on him. He was issued a warning for his behaviour, but at those speeds with those token mirrors and a complete disregard for a gentleman’s agreement between the drivers, Lewis continues to polarise opinion. Luckily there were no Melbourne traffic cops around, and Hamilton continued without penalty.

Another major factor that stopped Sepang 2010 becoming a classic was that up front, barring another failure, there was never any doubt about the eventual victor. Vettel made a great start from 3rd, hugging polesitter Webber’s gearbox and using the associated slip from the sister Red Bull to pass Rosberg’s Merc. Sebastian made great use of Webber’s last minute move to the outside and claimed him down the inside into turn 1. He was unchallenged thereafter, Webber’s attempts to get back at Vettel were hampered by a problematic airgun at his pit stop. Despite briefly being split by Hamilton who ran a very long stint to open the race, the Red Bulls were in control the whole day and finally cashed in on their advantage. With Vettel having firmly thrown his hat back into the championship battle, and the fact that matters outside of his control have stopped him sweeping all 3 of the first grands prix of 2010, the on-form driver of the moment is unquestionably feeling that this must be his year. A victory from a position other than pole, and the mistakes of 2009 seemingly behind him, he could well be right.

The most significant of the early retirements was that of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, who after a good start had to park the car on lap 8 with a loose rear wheel. Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi also missed out on another points haul by retiring on lap 12. The other Force India of Adrian Sutil managed to stay out of trouble and score excellent points for 5th place having spent the latter stages of the race fending off a charging Lewis Hamilton, confirming the significant step forward this team have taken. While Hamilton made big inroads into Sutil, he was not able to find a way past in the normal 2010 fashion and crossed the line 6th.

In the other McLaren, Jenson Button had a comparably difficult start to the race being passed by both Massa and Alonso on the first lap. Button pitted very early for fresh tyres, no doubt hoping to score a repeat of last week’s inspirational decision, but despite being alongside Hamilton when the latter emerged from his stop, was not able to stay with him and fell back into the clutches of both Ferraris towards the end of the race. Massa managed to pass Button after many laps of following, demoting him to 8th place. Alonso, however, who had spent the first part of the race stuck behind Massa, then Toro Rossos and now Button, could not make a pass on Button. He had run very long into the race before putting on soft tyres, he then proceeded to set some extremely fast laps while hunting down Button and Massa at roughly 2 seconds per lap. During on-board coverage it became clear that Alonso had lost the use of his Ferrari’s clutch and was having to monster the throttle to get the car to change gear, making those faster laps even more impressive. These problems coloured his whole afternoon and undoubtedly affected his ability to make a move on the STRs, his teammate or Button. Two laps from the end, Alonso finally took a dive at Button into the first corner but went in too deep, allowing Button back past. The result was an overstressed engine and his first Ferrari retirement. While Alonso will feel aggrieved at having lost the possibility of a few points after what he claimed was the best drive of his career, as well as Massa taking the championship lead by coming home 7th and once again fending him off, neither Felipe nor Fernando should have been in that position in the first place.

Other notable drives included a very solid run to 3rd from Nico Rosberg, a trouble-free day for someone who had very little chance of troubling the Red Bulls. Nico’s first podium for Mercedes and another assertive performance over Schumacher will undoubtedly fulfil all his early season hopes. All that is missing now is a victory. Renault’s Robert Kubica once again took full advantage of a great qualifying and the issues of others to score a 4th place finish, not to mention getting past Sutil and Hulkenburg on the first lap. He later told Polish TV that he had to employ extreme measures to stop his engine from cooking for the last quarter of the race. Along with his 2nd place for BMW in Brazil last year, this is a very impressive patch in Kubica’s career. One of the most standout drives of the day though has to go to arguably F1’s most improved driver so far in 2010, Jaime Alguersuari. His qualifying form and race pace have started to match the much more experienced STR driver Buemi, and his supreme overtaking of Nico Hulkenburg around the outside helped elevate him into 9th place and his first career F1 points. This, coupled with last week’s battle with Michael Schumacher, promises much for the future of the sport’s youngest ever driver. Hulkenburg himself finished 10th for his first F1 points and a much better weekend than in either Bahrain or Australia, undoubtedly more to come from him also.

Under the new points system, Massa now leads with 39 points having not yet won a race, with Alonso and Vettel on 37. Button and Rosberg sit on 35, Hamilton on 31 and Kubica on 30. As far as the championship is concerned, we could not have asked for a better start. Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull have all had a day in the sun, and days to forget. With Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari hoping to close the qualifying gap to Red Bull, hopefully things will only get closer as the season wears on. As a side note, under last year’s points system, the championship would currently show Massa 16, Alonso 15, Vettel 15, Rosberg 14, Button 13, Kubica 13 and Hamilton 12. Not a great difference, but then at this stage of the season it’s more about being in touch, and with seven drivers very much in touch one hopes that boredom would be a fading worry for this year’s championship.