Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button

In a breathless and chaotic race in Shanghai, Red Bull’s early season dominance suffered a blip as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber slipped down to 6th and 8th after locking out the front grid in Saturday qualifying.

The 中国大奖赛 Zhōngguó Dàjiǎngsài, or Chinese Grand Prix was captured by Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren one-two that demonstrated how little they intend to play third fiddle to Red Bull and Ferrari this season.

Like Red Bull, Ferrari had a less-than-ideal day with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa finishing 4th and 9th. The Spaniard made five pit stops including one drive-through penalty for jumping the start which put him unfairly in front at the first corner.

The Renault team benefited beyond expectations, reliable Robert Kubica rising to 5th place and Vitaly Petrov providing a sterling drive into 7th for 6 points.

Mercedes experienced mixed fortunes, Michael Schumacher failing to stir the pond in 10th but an elated Nico Rosberg proving consistent in 3rd.

In terms of constructors, the points haul was actually quite even and underwhelming: Mercedes- 16; Ferrari- 14; Renault- 16; Red Bull- 12. The exception was McLaren, who got 43.

The big loss was by Red Bull, who now sit 3rd in the constructors’ championship, a mere 13 points above under-performing Mercedes.

Vitaly Petrov

World champion Button is now 10 points clear at the top of the drivers’ championship, with Hamilton 4th. Rosberg’s podium today puts him 2nd in the running, with Alonso one point behind him in 3rd.

With Vettel, Massa, Kubica and Webber also all within 32 points of Button’s lead, it is still very much early days. Any of these top eight could take it. But Button and McLaren will go to Barcelona full of confidence.

Events on-track

After Alonso’s dodgy start, Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi span from insufficiently-heated brakes, wiping out Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Buemi. The crash brought out the safety car on lap one.

Robert Kubica

It grew into a somewhat bitty race as drizzle started but not quite, prompting most drivers to pit under the safety car for intermediates, then pit again to switch back to slicks. Race order was chopped up and stir fried.

Each team has two cars and one pit stop place, and so on the first stop Vettel had to queue for Webber and lost time. Apparently Webber had hit the front jack and damaged his front wing. Amid all the pitting Button again showed nous in the strategic decision to stay on slicks, as did Rosberg and Kubica.

Hamilton and Vettel were locked in a pit lane scrabble after the Brit barged into the pits alongside his German rival. McLaren discharged him either into Vettel’s path or at the same time as Red Bull let their driver go, and the Top Guns found themselves two abreast shooting out of the pit lane, before Hamilton conceded the position. They were both reprimanded (fairly, I think) for the argy-bargy.

Hamilton did a sweet overtake on Sutil and Vettel as they were fighting each other, killing two birds with one stone. He came up to Schumacher whose matching Mercedes engine held the young pup at bay for a respectable time before the McLaren’s superior F-duct system pyoinged him past on the straight.

Drizzle

The drizzle was hardening and cars were slipping and sliding all over the shop. Another mass pitting for inters was soon to come. Button got past Rosberg and built up a solid lead before Jaime Alguesuari’s Toro Rosso was brushed by an Hispania, scattering bits of his front wing across the track. It presently fell off in the entrance to the pit.

Shanghai International Circuit

The ensuing safety car nullified Button’s good work. He braked hard at the final hairpin, bunching up the pack, which had the effect of squeezing Hamilton wide and causing Webber to lose several places.

On the BBC Martin Brundle suggested Button may have broken rule 40.1.1 about erratic braking or behaviour under the safety car, but nothing was said by the race stewards.

Hamilton was now a lot closer to his quarry, and in a blistering series of overtakes leapt past the Renaults and Rosberg. Rosberg re-took the place valiantly but the Brit re-re-took and held on for 2nd.

The McLarens’ intermediate tyres were disintegrating fast but it didn’t matter –the end was there and they had won. It was Button’s second victory in four races. Hamilton, whilst pleased, must wonder if he can ever best his new teammate.

Alonso’s feisty drive stuck him up in 4th while Vettel settled into a humdrum 6th. Adrian Sutil finished out of the points in 11th, an unlucky man who deserved something for his day.

Opportunities

Red Bull have another missed opportunity to rue. With the right race decisions, they could really be dominating this season by now. McLaren have a less impressive car but have capitalised on chances and read situations right. How this relative luck holds out remains to be seen.

Next F1 Grand Prix: Barcelona May 7 – 9th. But only if this Icelandic cloud of volcanic ash goes away and the F1 circus can fly back to Europe.

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