It wasn’t so long ago that Sebastian Vettel triumphed from pole position to score his own maiden victory in front of the Italian fans at Monza. Back then in 2008, while driving for Red Bull’s sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso, Vettel blitzed the field at a wet Monza, proving his abilities in the treacherous conditions. Today the young German has repeated his initial feat, this time scoring Red Bull’s maiden win and once again, showing class and giving the others a driving lesson.
With the race being moved forward in the schedule to accommodate a summer break for the teams, the Chinese Grand Prix fell to the merciless hands of mother nature, which today dealt Shanghai the rain card.
The race was started behind the safety car as there was a lot of standing water on the back part of the track. Driver’s opinions were split though, with the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso wanting to race; their strategies were designed to get away from the danger of the Brawns early on. Instead, the top three were forced to cruise around the opening laps with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello hot on their heels.
Conversely, Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button both said their cars were aquaplaning behind the safety car and wanted Bernd Mylander to remain on track for a little longer. This point was emphasised when Felipe Massa ran wide at what would become the catch out final corner, the Brazilian being able to rejoin, but only after taking the scenic route back onto the start/finish straight.
Having been given a penalty for changing the gear box, Timo Glock decided that P19 wasn’t too different from starting from the pitlane and the German did just that, lining up next to Robert Kubica who also had a dreadful qualifying experience yesterday.
The safety car remained on track for the first seven laps, but they were far from incident-free laps. As mentioned, Massa skated around the outside of the final turn, and moments later team mate Kimi Raikkonen did just the same. The drivers were struggling to get any heat in the full wet weather boots, and combined with cold brakes, cars were sliding around all the over the place.
During the safety car period, Adrian Sutil, Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso pitted to take on fuel, the strategies already changing from what was decided after qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Alonso was forced to wait at the end of the pitlane while the train of cars passed, a rule brought in a couple of years ago to prevent a fast moving car coming out on a tail of slower moving cars.
As the field tripped the timing beacon to start L8, the race was on and almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel started to edge out a lead over his team mate Mark Webber, now in second due to Alonso having to pit for fuel. Further back, Sebastien Buemi started to earn his wages by attacking the apparent wet-weather master Lewis Hamilton. Although Buemi couldn’t find a way pass the McLaren initially, the maturity Sebastien showed was impressive. The Swiss rookie made a couple of advances in the braking zones, but knowing he was too far back, cleanly got out of the danger spot on Hamilton’s inside and lived to have another go further around the lap.
Meanwhile, the gaggle of cars following Jarno Trulli began to grow and this enabled Hamilton to make a pass on Kimi Raikkonen. The Finnish world champion did comeback at Hamilton, but with KERS fitted to his McLaren, the reigning champion was able to get away from the closing Ferrari, causing Kimi to radio his team to say he thought he had an engine problem.
By L9 Sebastian Buemi was all the gear box of Raikkonen, but again the Swiss pilot chose caution over stupidity and remained content with harassing the Ferrari driver. The following lap though, Buemi would find his way through, just as Hamilton would find a way around the Toyota of Jarno Trulli. Raikkonen wasn’t enjoying this stage of the race and even team mate Felipe Massa would make a move on Kimi.
The conditions on the track remained treacherous though and Hamilton left the circuit losing him valuable places. Nick Heidfeld also had a few moments, running wide and spinning on separate laps. The German BMW driver had a moment with Timo Glock, forcing Heidfeld to the outside of the corner which eventually pointed his F1.09 in the wrong direction. Similarly, Nelson Piquet and Giancarlo Fisichella shared some paint, although both were able to continue without any pirouettes.
Felipe Massa managed to squeeze by Jarno Trulli just as Mark Webber pitted for fuel and tyres, and the recovering Lewis Hamilton was soon back on the gear box of Kimi Raikkonen. These two would end up passing each other throughout the entirety of the race. On L14, Hamilton moved across the tail of Raikkonen, ensuring he wasn’t directly behind the Ferrari for visibility reasons. As the McLaren crossed line created by the F60, the Briton had a wobble, but it wouldn’t put him off the charge.
An error by Trulli allowed the McLaren and Ferrari through, and further around the lap, Hamilton would once again draw up alongside the F60 and push throw. Heikki Kovalainen followed his team mate pass Trulli the following lap, the Italian making a mistake which also allowed Sebastien Bourdais through as well. With fellow Toyota driver Timo Glock now pressuring Trulli, it was only a matter of time before the pitlane-startee would pass the team mate who started in sixth.
The next big incident of the rain-sodden race would come on L17. Coming down the straight towards the final turn, Jarno Trulli was mounted from behind by Robert Kubica, the Pole running into the back of Trulli and being forced up into the air. When they separated, Jarno Trulli was sans rear wing and his shark fin looked like it had been in a squabble with a considerably larger shark. Kubica also sustained damage to the front of his BMW but was able to continue. Trulli needed to pit however, but was forced to continue for another lap as he had missed the pitlane entry thanks to the unhelpful shove.
The safety car was thrown out due to the large amounts of debris on the track. Not only were the drivers earning their salaries today by racing in dreadful conditions, but so was Mylander, who has spent a fair amount of this season lapping circuits in the AMG Mercedes safety car.
At the same place on the following lap, Trulli was slowly recovering to the pitlane when Vettel came up behind. Seeing the car moving slowly in front of him, Sebastian moved over to the right to pass, but unfortunately didn’t realise this put him in the path of Scuderia Toro Rosso pilot Sebastien Buemi. The pair touched and Buemi took damage to his front wing. Vettel though was able to continue and said after the race that the incident didn’t do anything to the handling of his car.
While the safety car was touring the circuit, a slew of drivers entered the pitlane to capitalise on the slow-running pack. One driver who wouldn’t be capitalising on the SC period was Felipe Massa, the Ferrari pilot stopping on track. From the onboard camera, it appears his engine just gave up and cut out. Felipe Massa is yet to score a point in the 2009 championship. But while we’re talking of one driver’s miserable season, another deserves some credit for finally completing a lap this year; Heikki Kovalainen was still in the running on L21, the achievement being Kovalainen’s first completed laps of the 2009 campaign.
As the safety car pulled into the pitlane on L23, Hamilton passed Raikkonen once again and Glock was forced to pit with damage to the right endplate on his front wing. Somewhat incredibly, Adrian Sutil in the Force India passed Robert Kubica for position, such was the terrible race the Pole was having. Also showing signs of being incredible, it took Nelson Piquet 28 laps before having any serious spin. Given the conditions, Piquet can be proud he lasted so long. Unfortunately though, Piquet damaged his nose by clouting the polystyrene distance markers during his spin and was forced to pit for some cosmetic work to his R29.
Jenson Button and Mark Webber were having some fun at the front, and the pair swapped positions a few times during the race. On L29, Button ran wide into T1 allowing Webber through. A couple of laps later though, Webber would run wide at the final turn and allow Button back through. A few corners later and Webber passed Button once again, this time going through the sequence of corners at T7.
On L36, Robert Kubica finally entered the pits, his wobbling front wing getting replaced. By L41, most other front runners had made their stops, and it was Button who lead Vettel. There was some concern for Red Bull though as it wasn’t entirely clear if the Brawn pilot had to pit again. The pair were running close to each other on track, and taking the matter into his own hands, Vettel decided to attempt to overtake Button anyway. This he duly completed further around L41, getting right up on to the dangerous white lines and gaining excellent exit speed out of the corner. This allowed Vettel to draw up alongside and slam through into the following corner; the confidence in the young German was imperious.
Also on L41, Williams decided to take a Ferrari-esque gamble knowing they had little to lose from being so far back in the running. As Rosberg entered the pitlane, the Oxfordshire-based team put intermediate tyres on the FW31, hoping that it would provide Rosberg with an advantage as the water was lifted from the track surface by the wet weather runners. Had it worked, Rosberg would have been on for a good haul of points. Needless to say, it didn’t and by the end of the grand prix, Rosberg was lapping a couple of seconds shy of the pace setters.
Adrian Sutil was having a great race, quietly making up places and moving forwards through the field. By L43, the German was in P8, an astonishing achievement for Force India. Sutil had many drivers bearing down on him though, but this didn’t phase him too much and by L50 he was P7 thanks to Glock running wide. Unfortunately for all at the Silverstone factory and on the Shanghai pitwall, by L51 Sutil was climbing over the barrier, his car in pieces by the side of the race track. The German pilot had lost control of the back end exiting a corner, spun around, clouted the barrier and came to rest with only three wheels remaining on the wagon.
With Sutil’s car being recovered with double-waved yellows, the conditions began to deteriorate again and the final corner became the catch me out place of the circuit. With only a few laps remaining though, the pack had backed off and Sebastian Vettel controlled himself to match the pace of the following Red Bull of Mark Webber, Jenson Button indeed having to pit again. The pair took the chequered flag, Vettel taking his second career victory, Red Bull’s maiden, and Webber took his best career finish to date.
It is the second time Vettel has scored a team’s maiden win, and the German looked just as happy with this victory as he did last year in Monza. It was a victory under tremendous pressure again with the weather being so bad on China, but today the young German stamped his authority over the experience Australian Webber. Likewise, Red Bull showed Brawn that diffusers mean little when the rain is falling, and the team trounced Button and Barrichello to ensure the former Honda squad aren’t running away with the titles.
Sebastien Buemi drove superbly to claim his second point of the year for Scuderia Toro Rosso, and once again put Bourdais firmly in his shadow. Ferrari had nothing to celebrate though, as once again they failed to score a single point. 2009 is the worse start to a season the Scuderia have endured since 1981, and if they fail to score in Bahrain next weekend, it will be extended to one of the worse championship starts ever.
As the circus moves further west for the Bahrain Grand Prix, one cannot help but wander what will happen once Red Bull get a ‘double-diffuser’ fitted to the RB5. And if Vettel is light enough to allow a KERS device to be fitted, the tables will surely be turned. We know the Red Bull challenger is quick, and while it perhaps isn’t faster than the Brawn under normal circumstances just yet, it will surely only be a matter of time.
The race result as well as my notes (that were published live) from the race can be viewed here: Shanghai 2009: Race Result.