Mercedes may be on top again, but Ferrari proved in China that its Malaysia pace wasn’t a one-off

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Lewis Hamilton resumed normal service for Mercedes during yesterday’s Chinese Grand Prix, claiming a dominant win to cap off a perfect weekend that saw him go without much of a challenge from his teammate, Nico Rosberg.

It was a world away from the race in Malaysia where Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari sprung a surprise on the Silver Arrows, beating them fair and square in the dry.

This time around, Vettel never looked like a serious candidate for the win, but he proved that the prancing horse is certainly a force to be reckoned with in 2015 just by keeping Hamilton and Rosberg in sight at the front.

But this weekend was always Lewis Hamilton’s to lose. The British driver has been in the form of his life over the past six months or so, winning eight of the last ten races and making clear to Rosberg that he is the number one at Mercedes. Any concerns about Hamilton’s mentality following his break-up with his girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger, have been allayed. Right now, he’s the man to beat.

Rosberg, on the other hand, is ailing. His head is clearly not in the right place, with a ninth defeat in the last ten races in China clearly taking its toll on him. Speaking to NBCSN after the race, he rued the fact that he had missed out on pole position by just 0.042 seconds – arguably, the difference between him celebrating a first win of the season and his post-race meltdown.

It’s about having the edge when it matters, as Ferrari proved in Malaysia. What Vettel and – don’t forget – Kimi Raikkonen did in China was make clear that they are not a million miles behind Mercedes, nor do they need conditions to be absolutely perfect for the SF15-T to be able to put up a fight.

Forget the idea of Hamilton backing Rosberg into Vettel; forget the idea of Bernie Ecclestone, Toto Wolff and Maurizio Arrivabene conspiring to create a race. The simple fact is that Vettel did give Rosberg plenty of grief in China. Ferrari’s pace was such that Mercedes had to change its strategy and react quickly in the stops, and although Vettel faded in the final stint on the medium compound tire, the team did an excellent job.

China was supposed to be like Australia. Mercedes was meant to dominate proceedings and charge home with a 30 second-plus advantage. The hotter conditions did draw Ferrari closer, but Vettel’s ability to keep pushing lap after lap and hassle Rosberg is testament to his place among the all-time greats – and why his four titles weren’t ‘just about the car”‘ as his critics claim.

Kimi Raikkonen is also coming good again. Both he and Vettel endured difficult 2014 seasons with cars that weren’t to their liking, but both are now coming good again. The Finn didn’t lose his skill behind the wheel of an F1 car in 12 months, with his gutsy start on Sunday proving that he still has the fight within him, even if his demeanor suggests otherwise. He won’t want to be known as the number two, so we can expect another close, albeit far less tenuous, intra-team fight.

The Ferrari racing now appears to be a million miles away from the one that limped across the line in Abu Dhabi last November. The negativity and ego of the team has evaporated over the winter. Had it remained, another year of frustration would have ensued as Fernando Alonso didn’t win the championship, which was the expectation ahead of every season the Spaniard spent at Maranello.

Is Ferrari remaining realistic by saying it won’t change the pre-season target of two wins? Yes. Perhaps too realistic, but any talk of a title fight now seems premature.

The fire has been lit beneath Mercedes though, and the margin of error has shrunk dramatically for the German marque. Be warned: the prancing horse is coming.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.