Talent and tyres are no gimmicks

Starting 18th was like a red rag to a Red Bull. (pic Infiniti)

So where do you rate the Chinese Grand Prix of 2011? For me it was the best race since Suzuka 2005, the perfect advert for F1. A truly great Grand Prix should make you marvel at just how good these guys are, something the race in Shanghai certainly made me do. Usually this sense of awe is supplied by just one or two of the drivers – Ayrton humiliating his opposition at Donington, Juan Manuel with the performance of a lifetime at the Nurburgring or Gilles creating traffic jams at Jarama all spring to mind. Yesterday we may have been lauding Lewis and marveling at Mark, but what lifted the Chinese Grand Prix was the fact that right down the field we saw so few errors and so much action – all without a drop of rain or a sniff of the safety car.

Lewis Hamilton once again stepped up to show he is a racer in the truest sense of the word as he used his skills along with his extra set of fresh tyres to charge past the leaders in the final phase of the race, pulling the decisive move for first place against Sebastian Vettel with only five laps remaining. To anybody who saw Hamilton’s performance at Istanbul in GP2 five years ago it is never a shock when he pulls off surprise moves on his opposition; Lewis is establishing himself as the greatest overtaker of this or any other generation.

Hamilton’s passes were largely done without the aid of the DRS rear wing gizmo, but he did have the crucial benefit of an extra set of unused Pirellis after saving them during qualifying. Another driver with fresh rubber available was Mark Webber, although his extra allocation was by accident rather than design after a dismal qualifying session that saw him knocked out in Q1. From 18th on the grid Mark took his Red Bull through the field using a three stop strategy that allowed him to charge far harder than his two-stopping teammate. Mark wound up right on Sebastian’s tail to finish third, surely the drive of his life, narrowly beating Lewis to be my racer of the week in what is clearly my race of the week.

In fourth was early leader Button who made a rare rookie mistake when he pulled up in the Red Bull garage, fifth was Nico Rosberg who put in a mighty stint after pitting on lap 13 to take the lead from the Mclarens and Vettel. Some small errors cost him a podium at the end, but Mercedes will be encouraged by his heroics. Felipe Massa was next up as he once again bested Alonso at the start, this time the 2008-spec Felipe came to the races as he took the lead from Hamilton at one point and stayed locked into a battle with the top guys until towards the end of the race when his tyres dropped away. Behind was Fernando’s Ferrari and Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, both world champs were on the back-foot throughout which speaks volumes about the depth of talent in F1 today.

Much of the passing was down the mammoth back straight into the turn 14 hairpin where DRS is in full effect, but there was more than enough movement all over the track to show that tyre strategy is what shaped this race rather than the mere action of pressing buttons in the cockpit. There were no big crashes, the stewards didn’t interfere too much and an incredible 23 cars saw the chequered flag – F1 is in rude health.

A new Formula One season always raises questions but rarely does it comprehensively answer them at the first race. For the delayed start to 2011 we had more talking points than just the pecking order. How would Pirelli get on? Would the movable rear wings work too well or not at all? Does KERS matter?

Pirelli has answered the critics with tyres that enable some big variations in strategy, they’ve certainly fulfilled the brief given to them by the teams. How the drivers use the rubber available to them is proving crucial in the championship thus far, not unlike the Grand Prix of the 1980s. KERS still hasn’t saved the planet and nor does it bring much to the racing, meanwhile the downforce reduction systems are affective but are not the only ways to pass, so after three races it looks like the new rules have hit the spot. The next key theme for F1 is development – witness Mclaren’s hastily built metal diffuser being replaced by a bonafide carbon-fibre piece for Shanghai. Roll on Europe.

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