Sure, there’s still an awful long way to go, but at first glance…this is already looking a lot more promising, isn’t it? I mean, as far as most people are concerned, this is meant to be the absolute highest level of motorsport anywhere in the world, but it’s hard to be positive about a situation where two drivers from the same team are constantly battling it out for overall supremacy, and so something had to be done to turn the tide. Sure, there’s always an element of risk whenever a championship – especially one as high-profile as this – brings in a new set of rules (chiefly because no one really knows if they’re going to work or not), and, perhaps inevitably, some are going to get to grips with them quicker than others, but, when you consider the pattern of the last few seasons, it was a surprise to see them have such an immediate effect…and it looks as though the competition is going to be stronger than ever before. The most iconic name of them all has drawn first blood in the 2017 Formula One World Championship, and, for the first time in a long while…the pace-setters look like they’ve got a fight on their hands.
After enjoying such unprecedented levels of success with the great Michael Schumacher in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the victories have dried up for the iconic red cars of Ferrari in recent years, and, even with two former world champions in their corner, there were signs towards the end of last season that the pressure was beginning to take its toll both on-track and behind the scenes as they struggled to keep pace with the all-conquering Mercedes at the sharp end of the field…but it’s amazing how quickly things can change. With the sport introducing a dramatic new set of technical rules during the off-season – including wider tyres and wings, bigger diffusers and greater freedom to control airflow around the sidepods – in an attempt to make the cars faster and more spectacular by producing more mechanical grip, the Prancing Horses looked as though they were back to somewhere near their best in pre-season testing, and so the question on most people’s lips ahead of the opening round last time out in Australia was whether or not they could reproduce the same kind of speed when it really mattered over a full race weekend…and it wasn’t long before they provided an answer.
However, despite being forced into making an unexpected change to their driver line-up following the shock retirement of defending world champion Nico Rosberg, the Silver Arrows were never just going to disappear overnight, and initially, it was business as usual when it came to qualifying, with former three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton – many people’s favourite to take the title in 2017 – kicking off his campaign to retake his crown in perfect fashion by securing a 62nd career pole position by more than a quarter of a second ahead of the leading Ferrari of German Sebastian Vettel. However, while the Brit managed to hold onto his advantage during the opening stint of the race, it all began to unravel in the pit stop phase when an earlier stop compared to Ferrari saw him rejoin behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen – the young Dutchman running an entirely different strategy – and, despite his best efforts to regain track position, dropped enough time to allow Vettel through into a lead he was never to lose, meaning Hamilton had to settle for second ahead of new team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with the Finn impressing on his debut with the team to round out the podium in third.
After the season-opener in the parklands of Melbourne, the second round of the season saw the championship head off to the Far East and, more specifically, China, with the Shanghai International Circuit – measuring in at 5.4km (3.3 miles) and containing a combination of 9 right-handers and 7 left-handers – providing a very different challenge for the new-spec cars compared to the semi-street layout seen in Australia. One of the first so-called ‘Tilkedromes’ – named after renowned circuit designer Hermann Tilke – to be added to the calendar when it made its debut back in 2004, the circuit has been a mainstay ever since despite concerns over falling attendance figures in recent years, with the race being moved to its current position as part of the opening set of ‘fly-away’ races in 2009 after initially being run towards the end of the campaign.
A typical lap begins with a reasonably long run down to the tight first sequence of corners that are synonymous with many of Tilke’s tracks, with the relatively open right-hander Turn 1 gradually tightening and turning back on itself into the much slower Turn 2 before the cars switch back the other way through the similar left-handers of Turns 3 and 4, which leads out onto a short straight through the kink at Turn 5 before hitting the first major braking point on the lap into the right-hand hairpin of Turn 6. From there, it’s a test of high-speed balance through the sweeping left-right ‘esses’ of Turns 7 and 8, with the drivers then having to dart back across the track on the exit to pick up the ideal racing line through the double-apex left-hander at Turns 9 and 10 – the two effectively able to be taken as a single corner – which emerges onto another short straight that in turn leads down to the 90-degree left hander of Turn 11. After negotiating the long, looping right of Turn 12, though, the speed really begins to pick up as the cars emerge onto the enormous 1.1km back straight before braking hard yet again for the tight hairpin at Turn 14, with the tricky short apex of the final corner – which also drops downhill on exit – then bringing them back onto the pit straight.
In terms of overtaking opportunities, the technical nature of the lap and the numerous changes of direction from corner to corner means there’s not actually too many places to make a pass, with the best generally tending to be into either of the hairpins at Turn 14 – where the combination of a slipstream and the additional element of DRS part way down the back straight gives the following car a significant advantage in speed – or into Turn 6 at the end of the first sector. Elsewhere, despite the high speed on entry, moves have been made in the past at Turn 1, where carrying the speed around the outside can translate into a successful move down the inside as the track then turns back on itself on the exit of the first sequence of bends, while the 90 degree Turn 11 is another possible place to try and make a pass stick.
The corresponding race here 12 months ago produced arguably the first signs that Rosberg perhaps had a genuine advantage over Hamilton as he dominated the weekend from the outset, first by taking pole in qualifying with a margin of more than half a second on nearest rival Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull before, despite losing out off the line, a high-speed puncture down the back straight on lap 3 for the Australian saw the Mercedes driver retake a lead he was never to lose, eventually crossing the line more than 30 seconds clear of Vettel’s Ferrari in second. Russian youngster Daniil Kvyat – who had caused controversy on the opening lap after a kamikaze dive down the inside into Turn 1 caused Vettel to make contact with Ferrari team-mate Raikkonen as he tried to take avoiding action – completed the podium in the second of the Red Bulls in third, but, for Hamilton, a failure to make it out in qualifying meant he had to start from the back of the grid, and, although the Brit did manage to grab some points in seventh, Rosberg’s victory was enough to ensure he increased his significant early advantage in the points.
So, with all that in mind, could Ferrari show that their performance in Melbourne wasn’t simply a flash in the pan and continue to give the dominant force of recent years a little more to think about; would Mercedes – having experienced that losing feeling for only the ninth time in their history – be able to respond immediately and show the Prancing Horses that they’re not going to have it all their own way in 2017, or, with the two main powerhouses so intensely focused on one another, could someone emerge from the chasing pack to throw their name into the ring as a potential contender and give both teams a little more to think about? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the second race weekend of the 2017 Formula One World Championship, the 2017 Chinese Grand Prix...
After adverse weather conditions put paid to much of the running in free practice on safety grounds – specifically, the combination of cloud, rain and smog making it impossible for an injured driver to be transported to hospital within the required time – the teams were somewhat on the back foot heading into the first part of qualifying, but, once the action eventually got going, it wasn’t long before the battle resumed in earnest at the sharp end, with Vettel producing a sensational turn of speed to outpace Hamilton by more than a quarter of a second despite going for a set of the soft compound Pirelli tyres rather than the super-soft rubber on the Mercedes, which in turn was only a few thousandths quicker than Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari. Behind, Bottas was some way off the pace of the leading trio despite finishing with the fourth fastest time, while a much improved showing from Williams rookie Lance Stroll saw the Canadian teenager finish the session in fifth ahead of the leading Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo in sixth.
At the wrong end of the field, though, it wasn’t such good news for the Australian’s team-mate, as a developing problem with the Renault power unit in the back of Verstappen’s car meant the Dutchman was unable to find the necessary speed, and, despite posting a vaguely representative time in the dying seconds, a heavy shunt for Sauber’s Antonio Giovinazzi – the Italian again standing in for the injured Pascal Wehrlein – at the final corner prevented anyone from improving any further, meaning that the Red Bull driver was the main casualty of the session as he failed to make it through. After a stand-out showing in Australia, it was back down to earth with a bump for Haas as Romain Grosjean also missed out on a Q2 berth along with fellow Frenchman Esteban Ocon in his Force India and the Renault of Jolyon Palmer, while another tough weekend for the struggling McLaren-Hondas saw Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne fail to make the cut by just 0.060s.
Eliminated in Q1: 16th – Vandoorne, 17th – Grosjean, 18th – Palmer, 19th – Verstappen and 20th – Ocon
With Giovinazzi unable to take any further part in proceedings following his accident, just 14 cars ventured out on track for the second segment of qualifying, and, once again, there was nothing to choose at the sharp end between the top two teams as Vettel again set the initial pace by a mere 0.015s ahead of Hamilton, while Bottas was able to find a little more speed in the second of the Mercedes to snatch third away from compatriot Raikkonen by just half a tenth before the Finn improved at the death to go fastest of all by more than two-tenths, with ‘best of the rest’ Ricciardo more than a second adrift of the leading quartet in a distant fifth. Further back, an impressive performance from the sole remaining Renault of Nico Hulkenberg saw the German make it through into Q3 for the first time in 2017 in sixth, while, despite being left on the bubble as the chequered flag fell, Stroll’s earlier effort was enough to see him scrape into the top 10 along with team-mate Felipe Massa in the second of the Williams.
However, there were contrasting fortunes further down the pit lane at Toro Rosso, as, while Kvyat managed to make it into Q3 for the second race in succession with the ninth fastest time, team-mate Carlos Sainz – who had been slightly quicker than the Russian in Melbourne – agonisingly missed out on joining him in Q3 by just six-hundredths of a second, while, despite an heroic effort considering the performance deficit of the Honda power unit, fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso was unable to drag the sole remaining McLaren into the top 10. Following his dire debut for Haas in Melbourne, a much more competitive showing saw Dane Kevin Magnussen get within a whisker of making it through before having to settle for 12th, while Swede Marcus Ericsson joined team-mate Giovinazzi on the sidelines in the other of the Saubers.
Eliminated in Q2: 11th – Sainz, 12th – Magnussen, 13th – Alonso, 14th – Ericsson and 15th – Giovinazzi
The pattern of the session, though, was turned on its head when it came to the serious business of the top 10 shootout for pole in Q3, with Hamilton – despite making a small mistake at Turn 11 that saw him run deep into the corner – immediately laying down the gauntlet by posting the fastest time of the weekend up to that point on his first flying lap, leaving Vettel the best part of two-tenths adrift of the Mercedes after their opening runs, and, although the German did improve in the final few moments, it was never going to be enough, with the Brit once more in a class of his own over a single lap as he found more than 0.3s to secure a 63rd career pole position and sixth in succession from the end of last season. Behind, Bottas missed out on a front-row lockout for the Silver Arrows by the narrowest of margins – the gap between the Finn and Vettel’s Ferrari a mere one thousandth of a second – and so was forced to settle for third, while Raikkonen was unable to replicate his stunning lap time from Q2 to end up nearly half a second back in fourth.
Further back, Ricciardo underlined Red Bull’s lack of competitiveness compared to their main championship rivals despite producing a time that was good enough for fifth on the grid, although the Australian did at least manage to hold off the anticipated challenge from the improving Williams, with Massa finishing more than half a second further back in sixth and Stroll – who was only able to do one run having used an additional set of super-softs to get into the top 10 – rounding out the remaining runners after a much more assured performance in only his second-ever F1 qualifying session. Despite getting out of the car with several minutes still to go, Hulkenberg held on to seventh to give Renault by far their best grid position since their return as a fully-fledged works team, with former team-mate Sergio Perez lining up alongside in eighth in the sole remaining Force India ahead of Kvyat’s Toro Rosso in ninth.
Q3 – Top 10: 1st – Hamilton, 2nd – Vettel, 3rd – Bottas, 4th – Raikkonen, 5th – Ricciardo, 6th – Massa, 7th – Hulkenberg, 8th – Perez, 9th – Kvyat and 10th – Stroll
A rain shower just prior to the race forced almost the entire field to start on a set of intermediate tyres, but the tricky conditions made little difference when the lights went out as Hamilton made an excellent getaway to lead the field down into Turn 1 for the first time, with Vettel – who was somewhat unusually positioned around half a car’s width outside his grid box at the end of the formation lap – just about able to fend off the attentions of Bottas for second while a bold move behind saw Ricciardo sweep right around the outside of Raikkonen for fourth on the exit of Turn 4. However, as ever, there was early drama further back in the pack, with the ‘Virtual Safety Car’ having to be called for almost immediately when contact between Stroll’s Williams and the Force India of Perez at Turn 10 ended with the young Canadian being pitched into the gravel and out of the race, but, on the resumption on lap 4, worse was to follow when Giovinazzi crashed his repaired Sauber heavily into the pit wall, and, while the Italian rookie was perfectly OK, the safety car had to be deployed to clear the debris strewn across the track.
With all the remaining runners having made a ‘free’ pit stop behind the safety car to switch to dry weather tyres, Hamilton gradually started to build a gap over the two Red Bulls of Ricciardo and stable-mate Verstappen when the action eventually restarted on lap 7 of 56 – the Dutchman charging through in the early laps from his lowly grid position to sweep around the outside of Raikkonen at Turn 7 fir third – with Vettel also putting his team-mate under pressure having slipped back to fifth during the pit-stop phase, but it was disaster for Bottas as a spin on the exit of Turn 10 while still behind the safety car saw the Finn slip out of the points altogether. Back at the front, though, Verstappen wasted little time in passing Ricciardo underbraking for second at Turn 6 on lap 11 for second before setting his sights on the leader, with the Australian left to defend against the threat of the Ferraris behind, but, despite what was a relatively close battle, it took until lap 20 before Vettel dived down the inside of stable-mate Raikkonen at Turn 6 to move into fourth, with the German then pulling off an equally audacious move at the same point around the outside of Ricciardo – the two banging wheels on the apex – for third a couple of laps later.
While Hamilton continued to extend his advantage as the race ticked towards half-distance, Verstappen started to come under pressure from the charging Vettel as he looked to hang on to second, but a horrible lock-up on the left front saw the Red Bull – which was on the less durable super-soft rubber compared to the soft-shod Ferrari – run wide at the Turn 14 hairpin on lap 28 to allow the German a clean route through on the inside, with the Dutchman forced to pit on the following lap for a fresh set of super-softs that would get him to the end of the race. Further back, another troublesome weekend for McLaren ended when Alonso – who had been running as high as seventh – joined team-mate Vandoorne on the sidelines on lap 34 after suffering a driveshaft problem (the Belgian already having retired with fuel pressure issues) but, back at the front, the race began to get interesting as, despite initially thinking there was enough life in the tyres to get to the end, the rest of the leading group were forced into a second stop, with Vettel and Ferrari first to blink on lap 35 before Hamilton came in a lap later, but, with such a massive advantage out front, the Brit was able to fit a set of soft tyres and still come back out comfortably in the lead of the race.
From then on, however, the action kind of petered out amongst the leading runners as the similar tyre life made it difficult for anyone to make much more progress, which left Hamilton to click off the remaining laps to take a comfortable first victory of the season and a third career ‘Grand Slam’ – that is, a lights-to-flag race victory with pole position and fastest lap to boot – in the process, with Vettel having to settle for second and Verstappen holding off the attentions of team-mate Ricciardo to complete a magnificent drive by taking the final step on the podium in third. Behind the two Red Bulls, a fading Raikkonen clung on ahead of the rapidly recovering Bottas as the two Finns took fifth and sixth respectively, with Sainz – who had spun on the opening lap having gambled on a set of slicks from the start – effectively ‘best of the rest’ in seventh after another solid drive for Toro Rosso, while Magnussen secured his and Haas’s first points of 2017 with an impressive eighth ahead of the two Force Indias of Perez and Ocon, with the Frenchman grabbing the final point in tenth for the second race in succession.
Kevin Magnussen (DEN) – #20 Haas-Ferrari
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Hamilton, 2nd – Vettel, 3rd – Verstappen, 4th – Ricciardo, 5th – Raikkonen, 6th – Bottas, 7th – Sainz, 8th – Magnussen, 9th – Perez and 10th – Ocon
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Vettel (Ferrari) – 43pts
2. Hamilton (Mercedes) – 43pts
3. Verstappen (Red Bull) – 25pts
4. Bottas (Mercedes) – 23pts
5. Raikkonen (Ferrari) – 22pts
6. Ricciardo (Red Bull) – 12pts
7. Sainz (Toro Rosso) – 10pts
8. Massa (Williams) – 8pts
9. Perez (Force India) – 8pts
10. Magnussen (Haas) – 4pts
1. Mercedes – 66pts
2. Ferrari – 65pts
3. Red Bull – 37pts
4. Toro Rosso – 12pts
5. Force India – 10pts
6. Williams – 8pts
7. Haas – 4pts