- Apr 20, 2009
SPOILER ALERT: More Rain, More Surprises at Chinese Grand Prix
2009 Chinese Grand Prix - Click above for a high-res image gallery
"You can't always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you might find / You get what you need." The Rolling Stones couldn't have known it at the time, but they may as well have written the unofficial theme song for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix. After the last race in Malaysia two weeks ago was canceled less than halfway through due to heavy rains, the grid of Formula One drivers could have done with a dry spell this weekend in Shanghai. Instead, they got more torrential downpours, forcing the race officials to start the procession under a yellow flag and a safety car.
With the conditions only letting up enough to commence the race on the eighth lap, the qualifying order played an even more vital role in determining the race's outcome. Those who tuned in Saturday were surprised to see Brawn GP – the upstart team that had won both races at the start of the season – relegated down the starting order, with Rubens Barrichello in fourth place ahead of his championship-leading team-mate Jenson Button in fifth. In their place were the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel (on pole) and Mark Webber (in third), with the Renault-powered cars sandwiching two-time world champion Fernando Alonso's factory Renault in second place on the grid. But how long would that order hold as the elongated formation lap drew closer to the start of the race? Follow the jump to find out.
Even before the race started – or didn't – Sebastian Vettel's pole was a landmark achievement in and of itself, marking the first pole position for the Red Bull team which the young German driver just moved up into this season. After qualifying a very impressive third for the first two grands prix of the season, Vettel managed to up his game and prove his mettle. But those previous podium-worthy qualifications failed to yield positive results for Vettel in Australia and Malaysia, where he only managed to putt in over the finish line in 13th and 15th place, respectively. It was clear to the commentators that Red Bull, like some of the other teams, had gone for a light fuel load to start this race in a favorable position, but with the safety car holding back the field for the first seven laps, few knew how long the Red Bull cars would last.
Unfortunately for Fernando Alonso, his Renault's extremely light fuel load – which helped him immensely in qualifying – didn't last him through the opening procession laps, sending him, along with Force India's Adrian Sutil and Williams' Nico Rosberg, into the pits before the safety car, only to return way down the field.
Although the race officials deemed the conditions drivable enough to withdraw the safety car and the yellow flag for the start of the eighth lap, the wet conditions did not dissipate for the entirety of the race distance. The result was an endless stream of spin-outs, missed apexes and run-offs that saw a constant and spectacular change up in the order, particularly in the middle of the field. Nearly every driver on the track had his share of mishaps, and by the end four drivers failed to finish.
Though it was a difficult day for all the drivers, the Ferrari duo – defending their constructors' championship and each hoping to secure the drivers' crown – experienced a wet and wild roller-coaster ride, working their way up the field before crushingly sailing back down. Kimi Raikkonen appeared to be suffering from engine troubles as he was overtaken time and time again, while Felipe Massa managed to work his way up to third place – which would have been the best finish for the struggling Scuderia so far this season – only for his car to inexplicably break down, taking him out of the race before the halfway mark and continuing the streak of bad luck that has made this the worst season for Ferrari in decades.
McLaren, fresh from its recent restructuring and controversy, experienced a similar series of ups and downs, but theirs ended more favorably than their arch-rival's: Heikki Kovalainen, who had to this point failed to finish a single race lap, much less finish a grand prix or score in the points, came home an entirely respectable fifth place, leading his embattled team-mate Lewis Hamilton in sixth.
After an impressive couple of opening races, Toyota failed to keep up the pace in China. Although Timo Glock managed a respectable seventh place finish in the points, his team-mate Jarno Trulli was forced to retire on lap 19 after the BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica ran straight up the back of his car in an apparent result of the poor visibility due to the enormous amount of spray kicked up in the wet conditions. Kubica, for his part, managed to finish the race, but well outside the points in 13th place, while his team-mate Nick Heidfeld finished tenth after a series of spins and slides.
Much to the surprise of the fans, it was Sebastian Buemi, the newcomer filling Vettel's vacated seat at Scuderia Toro Rosso, who took home the final point in the standings after an impressive race that saw him advance as high as fourth place... before ironically running into the back of Vettel's Red Bull.
Adrian Sutil, the young gun at Force India, drove an impressive race, only to disappointingly crash from seventh place after aquaplaning straight into the barrier and out of what would have been Force India's first points finish. The disappointment mirrored the fourth place he was running in last year in Monaco before Kimi Raikkonen accidentally took him out of the race. His wingman Giancarlo Fisichella managed to finish in fourteenth place ahead of Rosberg (whose team-mate Nakajima retired near the end of the race) and Renault's Piquet. But while there was plenty of action taking place in the middle and even the back of the field, up front it was another story altogether.
Notwithstanding a few switch-ups in between the pit stops, the Red Bull drivers dominated the race virtually from start to finish. Sebastian Vettel, in only his third race for the lead Red Bull team, followed up on its first pole with its first ever victory. To further sweeten the deal for Red Bull Racing, wingman Mark Webber – who managed to recover from a crushing bicycle accident to drive his home grand prix at the start of the season – brought it in for second place, making it a blinding 1-2 finish for the team. Not only was it the best result for Red Bull so far, but even managed to eclipse any achievements of the team's previous incarnations: as Jaguar Racing, the team didn't win a single race, and the Stewart Grand Prix under whose banner the team was founded took a 1-3 finish with Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello at the Nurburgring a full decade ago. This weekend's victory was the second for the young Vettel, after his impressive win – also, it's worth noting, in the rain – at last year's Italian Grand Prix where he was crowned the youngest race winner in F1 history. To further sweeten the deal for the Red Bull team, it was the best result in Mark Webber's long career after two third-place podium finishes in Montreal 2005 (for Williams) and the Nurburgring in 2007 (for Red Bull).
Of course the Red Bull domination in the wet meant an end to Brawn GP's winning streak, with even Jenson Button himself admitting that it was pointless trying to keep pace with the pair of Taurine-fueled racers. But the Brawn pair weren't far behind, Button finishing third to take the final step on the podium with his team-mate Barrichello taking fourth while setting the fastest lap of the day.
The results leave Brawn GP still ahead in the constructors' championship with 36 points and catapults Red Bull one point ahead of Toyota (with 19.5 and 18.5 points respectively). Button remains in the lead for the drivers' crown with 21 points ahead of his team-mate Barrichello's 15, while Glock and Vettel remain tied for third at 10 points apiece. This season has, so far, turned the order completely on its head, with two of the customer-engine teams (Brawn-Mercedes and Red Bull-Renault) far outclassing the works teams providing their power. With no sign of things returning to "normal", the spectacle looks to continue as we head to Bahrain next weekend for Round 4.