The monolithic Shanghai International Circuit looms in the smog like the ghost of F1 future. Usually it’s an unlovely place, but nothing changes opinions quicker than an utterly compelling grand prix. It looks like being a great year for racing in 2011, but it’s difficult to imagine anything topping this.
Sebastian Vettel arrived in China discouraging talk of this year being all too easy...
“We’ve obviously had two good races but we come here and we start again. That’s the name of the game at every event. We saw at the last race that it’s getting very tight and you can take nothing for granted. Of course, the day will come when we might finish second, fifth, tenth, but that’s F1.”
Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing
Meanwhile, on the other side of the garage, Mark Webber was one of the few naysayers naysaying on the subject of the exciting new rules.
“As a category Formula One has changed a lot in terms of the pace this year. I still think most of the time we can push ourselves to a pretty high level, but there certainly is an element of endurance mentality associated with that now. We have to get that balance right. I think we should always make sure people getting world championship points should never be doing competitive laps close to the lap time of a GP2 car. Formula One needs to always be the absolute pinnacle by a long way.”
Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing
Vettel sailed through practice top of every timesheet, but Webber struggled with unreliability, especially on Saturday morning. After doing only one lap in FP3, he went into qualifying cold and didn’t make it out of Q1.
“It’s a very frustrating day. I did one lap in FP3 and trying to get into things in Q1… yeah, we just weren’t quick enough at the end of the day. We have a few plates spinning in the background and we paid the ultimate price today for that. We thought we had enough pace to do the lap, but in the end I couldn’t get the tyre working. We weren’t quick enough”
Meanwhile, at the other end of things, Vettel’s stunning pole lap was a massive 0.7s ahead of the chasing McLarens of Jenson Button (second) and Lewis Hamilton (third).
“Tomorrow it all starts again from zero but people tend to forget that.”
“The pace of Sebastian and the Red Bull in Q3 was phenomenal. In Q2 it looked like it was possible [to take pole] and that’s why I chose to run with two tyres in Q3, to give it a go but then I saw Seb’s time and thought ‘OK, we are maybe going to have to fight for second place’. But it’s nice for me. This is my best grid slot of the year.”
Jenson Button, McLaren
“I had only one run in Q3 because the last race showed how important it is to have fresh tyres during the race. I have plenty of fresh tyres so we are in quite a strong position; I’m just trying to increase the chances for the race as that’s where it actually counts.”
Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
In what was an excellent day for Red Bull in general both Toro Rosso’s also made it into Q3
“Racing is a funny sport, given that on a weekend when our performance in free practice had not matched that in the first two races, we have ended up with both cars in Q3 in seventh and ninth places. Can we stay ahead in tomorrow’s race? That’s another story. Yes, I would like to score points and starting seventh and ninth is better than seventeenth and nineteenth but the midfield is so competitive that anything can happen over the arc of the 56 laps tomorrow.”
Giorgio Ascanelli, technical director, Toro Rosso
The race started with Vettel beaten off the line by Button, and losing out in turn one to Hamilton
My initial launch was not 100 percent. I saw that I immediately lost a position to Jenson, and then had Lewis behind. I tried to defend hard into turn one, but at some point you have to give up and let the guy go. The fight with him today was very fair; it was quite entertaining and good fun too.”
Vettel managed to pass Hamilton as the latter’s tyres wore badly, and then immediately followed Button into the pits. Literally followed him, as Button decided to stop in the Red Bull pit box instead of his own.
“I lost out to Sebastian at the first pitstop when I mistakenly pulled into his box. I was looking down at the steering wheel to adjust a switch: when I looked up, I thought I was in my pitbox, but then I saw the Red Bull pitcrew in front of me!
“I just got past Lewis on the back straight and came in to pit and thought “what’s going on”, because Jenson pulled over and into my slot. I was just hoping the front jack man would react and signal him to keep going. It’s not easy for the guys to have the rhythm interrupted like that. Imagine if they’ve changed the tyres? Then it’s a big mess and I have to go one spot further to McLaren and ask them: ‘hello’! If I would have come in at the same time with Lewis and if he was supposed to get his new set it would have been nice, but that way, no way.
“I’d have just got tyres from your team!”
Another less-that-ideal pitstop saw Jaime Alguersuari return to the track and promptly have his race finish with an unsecured wheel bouncing off into the catch-fencing.
“I felt the car was very unstable and then I lost a wheel nut and the wheel came off, so there was nothing I could do. After my best qualifying position I was hoping for better, but it was not to be.”
Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso
After a sluggish first stint on the prime tyres, Mark Webber started to move up the order after his stop. Soon he was setting fastest laps and scything past the competition, and in the last ten laps passed Alonso, Massa, Rosberg and Button to take a stunning third place.
“I had a good feeling from the middle part of the race, that things were starting to come to us. All of a sudden I just felt comfortable with the car. I could have used a few more yellow flags, a few more retirements and maybe a couple of Vodafone cars pulling over, but there was nothing – I had to pass everyone, so I think I earned it today. “
Vettel was on a two-stopper which looked like paying dividends as he led into the last quarter of the race – but the fresher tyres of the three-stopping Hamilton, Button and Rosberg began to reel him in. Vettel eventually yielded the lead and the victory to Hamilton
“Red Bull are doing a fantastic job. They are very, very fast. They have got a wonderful car and we are having to push with absolutely everything we have to close the gap. Today they were generally a little bit quicker, but I think it was just due to us just trying to be a little bit smarter on the strategy and making it work. Other times perhaps it won’t work out, but today it did.
“You’re waiting to turn the car around, waiting to get the power on when you haven’t got much rubber left on the tyres. It was quite a nice fight with Lewis, twice down the long straight I was able to just stay ahead but I saw that there were seven laps to go so not much that I could do. Congratulations to them. I think we have given it our best and I don’t see second today as a disappointment.”
The consensus in the aftermath was that a two-stopper was the wrong choice, but Vettel was philosophical about it.
“I think there is a very important lesson to be learnt today. The strategy that I picked was not the one that was meant to be the best but these things happen. You never know until you cross the line. If the race is a little bit shorter, if the tyres are holding – and we’re talking only an extra two laps each stint – then it could be different. But in the end I was struggling a lot.”
F1 goes on to Turkey, and the monstrous Turn Eight Octopus is liable to provide another stern challenge for the tyres. Red Bull leaves China with its championship leads intact, but with McLaren fired up and on a roll. Ferrari and Mercedes are promising to do better and Renault look like getting into the mix too. It’s going to be difficult to improve on China but there’s every indication F1 is going to try.
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