Lewis Hamilton kept calm through changeable weather conditions in Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix to clinch his first Formula 1 win of the year for Mercedes.
After losing out to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in Australia two weeks ago, Hamilton was able to deliver the perfect response by dominating proceedings in Shanghai, finishing over seven seconds clear of the German driver to leave them tied on points at the top of the drivers’ championship.
In a race that went a long way to debunking the myths about the difficulty to overtake in F1 this year with the new cars, Max Verstappen charged from 16th on the grid to finish third for Red Bull, acting as another stand-out display for the sport’s young star.
With the pre-race rain dying down in the lead up to lights out, drivers were left unsure whether to start the race on intermediate or slick tires. Caution prevailed for most, with Carlos Sainz Jr. being the only driver to roll the dice and fit a set of super-soft tires for the start.
Pole-sitter Hamilton managed to make the best getaway from the grid, retaining his lead ahead of Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. As the drivers began to dial in on the track, most opted to make the switch to slick tires, with Vettel being one of the earliest drivers to come in, taking advantage of a Virtual Safety Car called following a crash that eliminated Lance Stroll early on.
Vettel’s early stop backfired when a full safety car was called just a few laps later after Antonio Giovinazzi smashed into the wall on the main straight, playing into the hands of the front-runners who had stayed on intermediates. Hamilton was able to take a free stop and retain his lead, with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo running second ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and teammate Max Verstappen, who put on a remarkable charge in the opening stages from 16th on the grid.
Hamilton continued to lead upon the restart on Lap 8, but a train of cars quickly emerged with the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers behind. Verstappen’s charge saw him slip past both Raikkonen and Ricciardo in quick succession, moving up to second and quickly ditch the chasing cars as he set off in pursuit of Hamilton at the front.
With an engine issue preventing Raikkonen from getting close to Ricciardo in third, Vettel opted to take matters into his own hands on Lap 20, diving down the inside at Turn 6 to relieve his teammate of fourth place. The German was able to quickly crawl over the back of Ricciardo’s car ahead, before producing a stunning overtake around the outside of the same corner he passed Raikkonen to move up to third place, before then immediately putting in the fastest lap of the race, setting his sights on Verstappen ahead.
With Verstappen struggling to keep his super-soft tires alive, the soft-shod Vettel was able to quickly close up on the back of the 19-year-old as the race hit half distance. Unlike Ricciardo, Verstappen was not able to force Vettel into a brave overtake, with a lock-up at the hairpin causing the Dutchman to drop behind. His tires now at the end of their life, Verstappen pitted one lap later, emerging in sixth place on another set of super-softs.
With fresh boots, Verstappen quickly began to create a problem for the lead drivers. Hamilton and Vettel had planned to go to the end without stopping, yet as the Red Bull youngster lapped as much as two seconds per lap faster, they had little choice but to come in. Vettel pitted on Lap 34, coming back out just three seconds ahead of Verstappen, with Hamilton then mirroring the call two laps later, staying in the lead.
After Raikkonen made his long-awaited second stop on Lap 40, Vettel and Verstappen moved up into the podium positions, with Hamilton still leading by around eight seconds. Vettel tried to put some late pressure on Hamilton, turning up the wick with 15 laps to go, forcing the Mercedes driver to react and up his own pace, stabilizing the gap.
Hamilton was able to round out the final few laps with ease before crossing the line to clinch his fifth Chinese Grand Prix victory, and get Mercedes off the mark in 2017.
Vettel finished a comfortable second as Verstappen struggled for pace in the closing stages, leaving him to battle with Red Bull teammate Ricciardo for the final podium position, only to hold on with a fine defensive move on the final lap.
Kimi Raikkonen was left frustrated in fifth place, with his late pit stop costing him a chance of finishing on the podium, while Bottas recovered from his early setback to finish sixth in the second Mercedes.
The first slick-runner, Carlos Sainz Jr., battled his way up to seventh for Toro Rosso, while Kevin Magnussen scored his first points as a Haas driver in eighth place. Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon rounded out the top 10 for Force India.
Romain Grosjean fought back well from his grid drop to finish 11th for Haas ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, who was hit with a time penalty for speeding behind the safety car. Renault teammate Jolyon Palmer was 13th ahead of Felipe Massa, who suffered an issue late in the race that caused him to fall to P14. Marcus Ericsson was the last classified finisher for Sauber in 15th.
McLaren had a race to forget as Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were both forced to retire. Alonso had spent the grand prix battling in the points, taking advantage of the changeable conditions to rise as high as seventh, only for a driveshaft failure to force him to retire. Daniil Kvyat was another retiree for Toro Rosso, joining Giovinazzi and Stroll on the sidelines.
F1 returns next weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix.