Alonso Victorious, but Vettel Springs a Surprise

The race in China today proved that the new Pirelli tires aren’t all that bad. The cars starting of the dreaded soft tires did not stop on lap three or four like everyone was expecting. Rather, most went to about lap seven or nine before making the switch to the medium rubber. While these short stints aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, they do add an interesting variable that made the race today extremely captivating. Alternate strategies also added to the excitement, and renewed hope for some contrasted with increased frustration for others.

Just as we saw in Australia, the pole-sitting car was not able to maintain its advantage throughout the race. Hamilton’s early laps indicated that the tire wear on the Mercedes was not up to par with everyone else’s. An early stop meant the 2008 world champion was on the back-foot from the get go. The cars that started on the soft tires all faced an identical strategy: get through the first few laps on the softs and then do the last two stints on the mediums. Taking this into consideration, it is remarkable how far ahead Fernando Alonso finished ahead of his fellow podium finishers, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton. The Ferrari displayed very consistent tire wear, and Fernando’s innate ability to constantly alter his driving style to suit any conditions only served to flatter this aspect of his race. Indeed, one only needed to observe Fernando’s lap-times at the end of each stint to notice that they were almost identical to the lap-times at the beginning of the stint. His runs played out as such: start off fast and consistent, manage the wear and degradation in the middle of the stint and then come back strong with fast and consistent lap-times at the end of the stint. This was a strategy that paid off very well, as the Spaniard cruised to his 31st career victory.

One must wonder why Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen could not manage the same feat today. They finished 12 and 10 seconds off the lead, respectively, with the former almost being overtaken by the alternatively, three-stopping Vettel in the dying laps (more on him later). Raikkonen’s poor start off the grid may have had something to do with this. Had he stayed level with pole-sitter, Hamilton, he would have gotten by the Mercedes driver relatively easily within the first two laps. The Finn’s pace and the Mercedes’ tire degradation back this up. As a result of the poor start, Raikkonen was overtaken by the two Ferraris, the red cars’ ability to launch themselves off the line faster than anyone proving extremely valuable today. Had Fernando not led in the opening first laps, I believe Raikkonen would have won that race. As for Hamilton, his start was good enough for him to lead the first couple of laps, but soon, his tire degradation hit and he fell into the tenacious clutches of Fernando Alonso. Lewis’s race was compromised from then on. He fell into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen soon after, and had to fight for the podium at the opposite end of the battle. Massa could not emulate the dominant pace of his illustrious teammate today. He was running second early on after passing Hamilton, but his race fell apart after the first stop. He finished a lonely 6th, just behind the two-stopping Button (more on him later, as well).

The stories of the frontrunners today helps to illustrate the frustrations many of the drivers feel towards the Pirelli tires. By starting on the soft tires, the three podium finishers were left to contemplate, and hopefully execute, a rather cautious start to the race. The top three were undoubtedly taking it easy early on just to make sure they would be able to finish the race with the numbers of tires they had allotted for their other stints. This is a very fine line to balance, and one which has a direct effect on the racing. As I have mentioned before, Formula One drivers these days do not have the privilege of being able to push themselves over a stint. Do this, and you risk falling off the dreaded “cliff”. They performance abyss that follows such fall is potentially race-ruining, and the drivers’ fear of going over the edge takes away from the spectacle the fans have turned up and tuned in to see.

Thins brings me to the alternative strategies. There was a fine line between zero and hero today, and some came out the former, some the latter. Of the latter variety was Nico Hulkenberg. There was high expectation for the German once he found himself leading the Grand Prix early on. He made a very good start to get ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button. However, his race went downhill after his first stop. His move onto the soft tire for the second stint was very surprising and entirely the wrong decision. He managed a decent seven laps out of them, but it was the wrong time to have them on. Had he run the medium tire during his second stint, there is a chance he could have been fighting with Ricciardo and Massa for 6th and 7th place. In the end, Sauber’s decision relegated the German to 10th place at the checkered flag.

Jenson Button was the only frontrunner to opt for a two-stop strategy. He had a fantastic start off the line and was set to come out of the first sequence of corners around the top-5, but he was boxed in right before the initial turn-in for the long sweeper at the beginning of the lap. He ended up behind Vettel and Hulkenberg, but was able to stay in touch with them for most of the first stint. Jenson led the race for a while knowing that he had a long race of tire preservation ahead of him. After his first stop, Button was relegated to the lower reaches of the top-10, but slowly started to claw his way back to the front of the field as the other runners made their second stops. Button’s renowned ability to nurse these Pirelli tires was put to the test today, but he proved he was more than up to the task. His final stop on lap 49 paved the way for the 2009 champion to push until the end. He needed to, as well, because Felipe Massa threatened to overtake him in the closing laps. An interesting obervation, however, revealed that Button started setting personal best laps at the very end of his first two stints. They were actually fast enough to keep him in touch with the leaders. Perhaps the Pirelli’s aren’t so bad after all.

Sebastian Vettel took the right alternative three-stop strategy in that he ended on the soft tire. Perhaps he was aided by running behind Hulkenberg for much of the first stint, but there is no denying the brilliance of Vettel’s execution. It was clear relatively early that Fernando was in complete control of the race. This perhaps took some of the pressure off Vettel to pull off something spectacular. By staying in touch with Raikkonen and Hamilton, however, Vettel ensured that he would come out of the pits for his final stop a reasonable amount of time behind them. Now on the soft tires, Sebastian pushed as hard as he possible could for the last four or so laps. He was pushing so hard, in fact, that on his first flying lap on his soft tires, he took fastest lap of the race by over three seconds. On lap 53, Vettel set a time that would have put him 13th on the grid in qualifying. Indeed, with his renewed performance, Vettel closed down an 11 second gap to Hamilton to about a quarter of a second by the checkered flag. All of this in the matter of 4 laps.

Once again, the tires dictated the race, but they did offer up a very interesting array of strategies that helped those who took a gamble in qualifying rise up in the race. You can look at the race as if it were a sandwich. Two perfectly baked, warm and delicious slices of bread filled with spam. There were two sides to this race that made it both very exciting and rather dull at points, but overall, a very satisfying meal.

Tell me what you thought of today’s race. Who was your driver of the day and did the tires once again play too big of a role in the outcome of the race? Let me know by commenting below.

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