x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Chinese Grand Prix: Strategy starting to trump need for speed in F1

Three drivers from three different teams have won the first three races of the Formula One season and as Ferrari's Fernando Alonso proved at Chinese Grand Prix, this season's early focus is on deft tactics, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Red Bull's Mark Webber is forced to retire after losing his rear wheel following a collision in Shanghai.
Red Bull's Mark Webber is forced to retire after losing his rear wheel following a collision in Shanghai.

The result indicates a winning formula, yet the racing provides evidence to the contrary.

Fernando Alonso produced a flawless drive at the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday to comfortably claim his first victory in 13 races and ensure three drivers from three teams have won the opening trio of contests this season.

Yet, courtesy of elaborate rear wings and volatile tyres, the increasingly swollen crowd in Shanghai had to wait until the final moments of a 56-lap contest to witness any genuine racing take place.

Forget the need for high speed, the demand for deft strategy is the name of the game these days.

Alonso, so often let down by his Ferrari team since joining the Italian marque in 2010, benefited from a perfect race plan and a exemplary start that saw him take the lead from Lewis Hamilton as early as the fifth lap.

Click here for Gary Meenaghan's five key talking points from the Chinese Grand Prix

These days, pit-stops ensure the lead gets passed around like a wrapped-up present at a children’s’ birthday party. But Alonso – who had started third – never looked like letting go of his grip on a 31st race win.

Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber all completed overtaking manoeuvres, but often performed them on the calendar’s longest straight. Using their adjustable rear wings, the passes appeared as manufactured and mass-produced as gadgets off a Chinese conveyor belt.

Hamilton, in contrast, contributed to the contest’s most thrilling moment. On the final lap and running in third with worn tyres, the Mercedes-GP driver saw the growing figure of a three-time world champion on fresh rubber looming in his rear-view mirror, but he tenaciously managed to hold on.

Vettel, who had started the race in ninth after not bothering to set a time during the final part of Saturday’s qualifying session (a tiring tyre strategy), had found that threaded through his unwanted but mandatory final set of Pirellis was an injection of pace.

In the space of two laps, he had reduced an 11-second gap to Hamilton to just two seconds as he hunted a podium finish.

When the two cars crossed the line, the gap was 0.2 seconds. Hamilton’s race engineer gasped for breath, remarking: “That was close.”

Hamilton intimated he was helpless to Vettel’s attack; Vettel said had there been two more corners he would have “tried something”. There is little doubt it would have succeeded.

The excitement of these closing exchanges, however, papered over the fact this year’s racing is proving increasingly strategical and regrettably not about what F1 is traditionally about: the world’s best drivers racing wheel to wheel for position.

When Jenson Button, the McLaren-Mercedes driver, found himself with Hamilton close behind him, he asked his race engineer: “Do we want to fight?”

This is a man who won the world championship in 2009; who has struggled in his first two races; who was facing off against his former teammate.

Do we want to fight?

Of course, we do.

And yet Hamilton, assisted by his Drag Reduction System, swept past him as if the tyre-conscious Button were driving a pedal-powered go-kart.

It was a similar story at Red Bull Racing.

Such was the fear of Vettel wearing down the all-important rubber and having his race affected later on, his race engineer warned him to “not waste time defending against Alonso”.

As a result, the Spaniard passed him easily with 13 laps to go and sailed home for the win, more than 10 seconds ahead of Raikkonen.

“It was not so easy to understand the race sometimes,” Alonso said. “We were overtaking the McLarens, [Nico] Hulkenberg, Sebastian, so it was a little bit of a mix.”

Alonso’s previous victory came in Germany, last summer, but that win was not as impressive in its conclusiveness as was yesterday’s triumph.

Last year, Alonso, 31, remarkably dragged his inferior Ferrari to within a few laps of a third world championship title only to lose out to Vettel at the season-ending race in Brazil.

This year, he has been provided a far more impressive machine and save for a ruined race in Malaysia, last month, he has looked ominously quick. Yesterday, he got a chance to prove it.

“The two races we finished, one was second and the [other was a] victory, so definitely it’s a positive start to this championship,” he said, before dismissing any championship projections.

“We need to wait until after the summer break to clearly see the real contenders. At the moment Lotus, Red Bull and Mercedes are in the same position as us. I don’t see anyone has a clear advantage.”

After the near whitewash by Vettel and Red Bull in 2011, a competitive championship is what the sport’s bosses crave.

The statistics do not lie: five world champions, four competitive constructors, three different winners. Yet until a balanced blend of rubber and racing is discovered, questions will remain regarding the equation for success.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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