With a high level of confidence and domination, Lewis Hamilton took victory today in the Chinese Grand Prix. After a storming drive that left Ferrari demoralised, the McLaren driver has managed to extend his hopes of becoming world champion as the title goes down to the wire in Brazil in a fortnight. Both Ferrari pilots were on the podium while Heikki Kovalainen eventually retired from the race with brake issues. Fernando Alonso finished where he qualified in fourth.
The start of the race was full of tension after the previous grand prix at Fuji last weekend. But despite all the theories of drivers running each other off the road, the main contenders all threaded through the first sequence corners in an orderly fashion. Only two incidents of note from the first lap are really worth mentioning; Heikki Kovalainen and Fernando Alonso, and Sebastien Bourdais and Jarno Trulli.
Kovalainen managed to edge ahead of Alonso around the outside of the first corner, but the Spaniard kept himself close and reclaimed his position as the pair made their way around the opening lap. Bourdais and Trulli weren’t so polite about their tussle though and the result of a coming together saw Trulli’s Toyota spin around. Bourdais was able to continue but Trulli came into the pits for a inspection. The team sent the Italian on his way, but with a badly damaged sidepod, the one-time winner came back into the pits at the end of lap two and parked the car in the garage.
Mark Webber made the most of his start, and starting from sixteenth after an engine change penalty, the Australian was touring around in twelfth by the second lap. Of course, Webber was very light, having actually qualified in sixth, and it was his Red Bull that would enter the pits first for a routine stop on lap 13. And during this first stint of the race Lewis Hamilton just kept on edging out a gap to Kimi Raikkonen. The Ferraris couldn’t respond and Felipe Massa was even losing time to his team mate ahead.
After the first round of stops Hamilton put the hammer down and increased the margin to Raikkonen to 7s, but it wasn’t all plain-sailing for McLaren as Kovalainen suffered another part failure. On the grid it was clear the Finn’s brakes were smoking a lot, so much so that ITV commentators first thought it was an engine problem. Heikki then proceeded to fall backwards at an astonishing rate and after his second pitstop, the front-right tyre gave way, causing the McLaren pilot to gently coax the car back to the pits. The team replaced the tyres and sent Heikki back out, but with seven laps to go, Kovalainen pulled into the garage and retired his car.
After the race, Ron Dennis offered this explanation for Heikki’s poor showing in Shanghai:
Heikki’s first stint was compromised by the fitting of a set of mismatched tyres, which caused his car to understeer. After his first stop, a punctured tyre then forced an unscheduled pitstop before an air pressure problem with his engine caused us to retire him in order to avoid risking an engine failure. Ron Dennis.
The only other retirement of the race was Adrian Sutil, experiencing electronic problems with the gear box which ultimately led to the Force India driver not being able to select any gears. It is understood that Chief Technical Officer Mike Gascoyne is looking into whether or not a tram may have been nearby at the time.
Aside from gesturing at Giancarlo Fisichella for holding him up while being lapped, Kimi Raikkonen actually drove a good race from start to finish and tailed Lewis Hamilton all the way to the point where he relinquished the lead to Felipe Massa. The real issue for the Scuderia isn’t their drivers this time, but instead it is the car – it just couldn’t keep up. But as mentioned, in order to maximise the chances of Ferrari taking at least one of the titles, Kimi Raikkonen had to allow his team mate to eat up the eight second lead and pass for second place. The final pitstop proved to be the most subtle place to lose time, and eventually Raikkonen was able to mis-judge his braking into one of the corners and press the pedal a little too early, allowing Massa to glide past.
Of course, the teams are forbidden to control races in this manner, but if Kimi Raikkonen decides to relinquish a position to another driver, he has every right to do so. And although Kimi was probably far from happy for doing it, the 2007 champion has given his team mate another chance to win the title at his home race in Brazil. Which I do hope, will be a far more exciting grand prix than the Chinese event. There were very few overtaking moves and very few mistakes, which all-in-all led to a pretty dull race.
However, the championships are looking very interesting for the final shoot-out at Interlagos in a fortnight. Robert Kubica is finally mathematically unable to steal the crown, but to get this far is a testament to BMW and the young Polish driver. So the drivers’ title is now between Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is ahead by seven points so Massa will ideally be looking for a DNF from the Briton in Brazil. Of course, if Massa wins and Hamilton finishes in eighth, seventh or even sixth, the Ferrari driver will be champion. In cases of equal points, the positions are counted back, and Massa will have accrued more ten-point results this year than his nearest rival if he does win at Interlagos.
Robert Kubica is still in third on the drivers’ standings, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen by six points. While it is possible for the Finn to overhaul this deficit, Kubica is looking pretty good to keep his position. And today Fernando Alonso overhauled Heikki Kovalainen for sixth in the championship. The difference is only two points though, so there is a lot still to play for. Sebastian Vettel and Jarno Trulli are tied on thirty each and both Toyota and Scuderia Toro Rosso are about equally measured at the moment. The two teams spend a lot of time either battling each other to get into Q3 or at the start of the races, having qualified so closely together.
The constructors title is less close, with Ferrari now eleven points clear of McLaren. Unless something disastrous happens to the Scuderia in Brazil, they should be safe to win the championship again. BMW are almost confirmed with third, ten points behind McLaren and twenty ahead of Renault. Mathematically they could pass the Woking team, but it is highly unlikely. Toyota are definitely confirmed in fifth, neither able to catch Renault nor be caught by STR, and Red Bull Racing trail their junior squad by five points, Williams being a further three behind.
So in reality, it is Lewis Hamilton’s title to lose. But allow me to remind you of 2007, where the majority of us said that Raikkonen was way too far behind to win it. Massa can still win, and if Hamilton gets impetuous again, as he did in Japan, then it is possible for Ferrari to take both titles. Needless to say, the Brazilian Grand Prix is set up to be a great championship decider.