[F1 2018 NEWS FEATURE] MAURICE HAMILTON: CHINESE GP DEBRIEF

Formula 1 news story about [F1 2018 NEWS FEATURE] MAURICE HAMILTON: CHINESE GP DEBRIEF

The temptation is to focus on how the story of the Chinese Grand Prix changed completely from the moment a breakdown in communication at Toro Rosso had their drivers collide. 

But that makes it easy to ignore the job Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes had done prior to the appearance of the safety car. Or, you might argue, how small details in the performance of Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel cost them the lead.

The Mercedes undercut to put Bottas in front was made possible by a very slick pit stop and an equally impressive in and out-lap, aided and abetted by Vettel missing the apex at the hairpin on his in-lap, engaging the pit lane speed limiter a couple of metres early and then the pit stop itself being one second slower as caution – understandable in the light of events in Bahrain – took precedence over speed. 

Having read the rate of degradation and correspondingly high value of the undercut better than Ferrari, Mercedes could begin to think about winning – with the proviso that this race had a 60 per cent chance of a safety car. That probabilty going into future races increased in direct proportion to the amount of Toro Rosso debris sprayed across the track at the end of lap 30. Now the race entered Phase 2 and rewrote everything that had gone before.

If an element of any Grand Prix is connected with timing and luck, then Mercedes and Ferrari were badly affected just as Red Bull were dealt a couple of aces at the precise moment the safety car was deployed. 

Vettel was not alone in questioning the timing of an official decision that could have such a profound effect on the race. I don’t know the precise reason for the race director taking a couple of minutes to make the call – it could have been prompted by a late comment from Carlo Sainz regarding the debris; it might have been the gathering of detail from observers at the point of contact. 

The one certainty is that the subsequent decision was quite rightly made without reference to the leaders’ track position. If officials have to start putting the show above safety then F1’s priorities really are out of kilter. Perhaps, during a safety car period, the pit lane could be closed at the exit, thus at least allowing damaged cars to enter. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The point here is that Red Bull grabbed their chance with a call to bring both cars in. It encapsulated a remarkable sharpness and determination made evident on Saturday with an engine change completed an hour faster than before and enabling Daniel Ricciardo to cross the line to start his one and only Q1 lap with just 45 seconds to spare. 

Just as impressive as the pit crew’s dexterity was their driver’s willingness to assume every nut and bolt had been tightened in the hectic moments beforehand and immediately take that stressed-out car (7G into the hairpin) to the maximum. It was the very definition of teamwork and a driver’s faith in his crew.

Getting onto the third row may have been a suitable reward in itself but Ricciardo’s response twenty-four hours later, aided by faultless pit stops, brought a satisfaction mechanics dream about. Each time Daniel put one down the inside with such incredible skill, feel and judgement, the Honey Badger was also strengthening his contract negotiating hand as well as the already high esteem in which he is held by the boys and girls at Red Bull. 

Returning to the fact that Bottas looked like having this race sewn up until that turning point on lap 30, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that Ricciardo – in passing, as it were – probably gave Valtteri a good reason why Mercedes should also have won seven days before in Bahrain. 

The way things are shaping up in this fascinating and tight season, winning is all about seizing the moment.