SHANGHAI // Lewis Hamilton battled back from the brink of disaster to win his first race in eight months at the Shanghai International Circuit yesterday.
In doing so the McLaren-Mercedes driver also ensured Sebastian Vettel, for the first time since becoming the sport’s youngest world champion in Abu Dhabi last November, had to make do with second place. Mark Webber finished third in the second Red Bull Racing car.
Hamilton was 30 seconds away from starting the Chinese Grand Prix from the pit-lane after suffering a flooded engine just minutes before the race was due to start.
His mechanics overcame that first obstacle and the Englishman himself overcame the remainder – few more crucial than Vettel’s Red Bull on the 52nd lap – in a thrilling race that was as memorable for its daring overtaking as it was for its differing strategies.
Having sped past the chequered flag more than five seconds ahead of Vettel, an emotional Hamilton bowed gracefully towards the packed grandstand, before diving into the arms of his delirious team.
Shortly after being weighed by race control, he was seen wiping his eyes with a towel.
“It’s been a long, long time – I can’t remember the last time I won a race,” he said.
“When you haven’t won for a while, it feels like eternity. The emotion probably comes from the desire to win, the desire to be better, to compete against the toughest drivers in the world.”
Hamilton had started third on the grid behind teammate Jenson Button and pole-sitter Vettel, but when the 23-year-old endured a poor start, both McLaren drivers leapfrogged him to take control.
“The start was not the best we have had this year,” Vettel said.
“If we could have stayed ahead, the race would have been different.”
Instead, the German was forced to remain patient, waiting until the 15th lap before passing Hamilton and following Button into the pits for the first time.
Button, however, mistakenly stopped amid the Red Bull mechanics. After being waved on, he was beaten out of the pits by a buoyed Vettel.
Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, later called the error “pretty calamitous”, while Button explained that he had been “looking down and when I looked back up I could see I was in the wrong place.”
The mistake gifted Vettel the lead, which he held for the majority of the race, but having chosen to employ a two-stop strategy in contrast to McLaren’s three, he knew eventually he would be defending his position against a rival with fresher tyres.
With five laps left, Hamilton was bearing down on him and, at the second attempt, the 2008 world champion was able to pass.
Pirelli’s quick-wearing tyres, as they had in Malaysia last week, proved crucial once again and Vettel admitted that with older rubber there was “not much I could do” to prevent being passed.
Button, who found himself in a similar position when he was passed by Webber for third, described the situation as being like “a sitting duck – you try to fight back, but you don’t have the traction.”
Hamilton added: “It was one of the best races I have experienced where guys were out in front of me and I had to do quite a lot of overtaking. After the problems we had before the race, I couldn’t believe I was catching Sebastian.
“I loved it and found every second of the race incredibly enjoyable. I love being able to fight with different drivers and have the battles with them when they are at their best. It feels amazing to be able to bring home the victory for the team.”