Formula One fans and commentators have spent the three weeks since the Malaysian Grand Prix discussing two things more than any other: that pass, and tires. Sebastian Vettel spent days giving his tongue an Olympic workout on the verbal gymnastics parallel bars before finally admitting he passed his Infiniti Red Bull teammate Mark Webber on purpose partly for reasons of payback, partly out of a desire to win – he doesn't apologize for it and he would do it again.
Then came those Pirellis – every single driver and team representative interview touches on how important it is to understand the tires and manage their degradation. Two races in, though, it seems no team has any clue yet how to make the race-weekend compounds work predictably. The only thing predictable about the soft compound tires that Pirelli brought to China was that they would last for six laps, and that led to an odd qualifying session with drivers reluctant to leave the pits or even set a time.
It also led to the first pole position for an Englishman in a Mercedes-Benz since Stirling Moss did it in 1955.
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Knowing how tender the tires were and how much they'd affect strategy, drivers were reluctant to do a single lap more than necessary in order to get a good grid position. That meant the first qualifying segments went as long as five minutes before anyone did a lap. When it was all over, Lewis Hamilton took his first pole for Mercedes-AMG Petronas, followed by Kimi Räikkönen in the Lotus, Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari, Nico Rosberg in the second Mercedes, Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari, Romain Grosjean in the second Lotus, Daniel Ricciardo doing a smash-up job in the Toro Rosso to secure seventh, Jenson Button in the first McLaren in eighth, Vettel in ninth and Nico Hülkenberg in the Sauber in tenth. Button did the slowest lap he could just to set a time so that he could get in front of Vettel and Hülkenberg, who didn't even go out in Q3.
Let's take a minute for Mark Webber. No one would have supposed his weekend in China could go that much worse than the one in Malaysia, but we'd say it did. Not only did he run out of fuel in qualifying due to a fuel refiller issue, didn't have enough to submit to the stewards so he was disqualified from the session and opted to start the race from pit lane. After running just one lap of the race and then pitting to get rid of the soft compound tire, he was making his way through the pack when he tried an atrocious come-from-way-behind pass on Jean-Eric Vergne – who would have been racing for position – on Lap 18 and lost his wing when Vergne unsurprisingly turned in on him, then while limping back to the pits his right rear tire came off because it hadn't been affixed properly when he pitted. He was given a three-place penalty for the Vergne accident, to be served at the next GP. His season has been so regrettable so far that there are rumors he has already signed a five-year deal to race Porsche sports cars starting next year. All we know for sure right now is that his bad luck demons are as strong as ever.
From the lights Lewis Hamilton made his usual great start while Räikkönen made an unusually poor one. His team apologized to him after the race but we don't know what happened; the result was that he got passed by both Alonso and Massa before turn one and only just managed to keep Rosberg behind him. He wouldn't have to worry about Rosberg for long, though, last year's Chinese GP winner retired on Lap 23 after making three pit stops to investigate mechanical issues. He's becoming the Mark Webber of Mercedes.
The opening laps had Hamilton being pursued by the Ferraris and the Lotus, while further back in the pack Force India's Paul di Resta plowed into his teammate Adrian Sutil. It wasn't the last incident Sutil would have: on Lap 7 Sauber rookie Esteban Guiterrez was racing McLaren's Sergio Perez down to the hairpin at Turn 14 and forgot to pay attention to the driver in front of him, which happened to be Sutil. Gutierrez plowed into the back of the Force India, the Sauber was done immediately, Sutil limped back to the pits with a mangled rear wing, followed by an engine fire, followed by retirement. Gutierrez was hit with a five-place grid penalty for next week's Bahrain GP.
Alonso got past Hamilton on Lap 4, but the leaders started on the soft compound and were in the pits by Lap 7. That put Hülkenberg in the lead, followed by Vettel and Button, the three drivers in the top ten that started on the medium compound tire. Whereas every other driver would stop three times, Button, perhaps the smoothest driver on the grid, managed to do a two-stopper and got his McLaren home in fifth place. It isn't where anyone expects the Woking team to be finishing, but considering the issues with the MP4-28 it's a solid result. His teammate is still getting used to life at the front, Perez using some creative blocking moves to try and keep drivers behind him and getting into an incident with Räikkönen that rearranged the nose of the Lotus. Perez would finish in 11th, and was told to "toughen up" by team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
After those first pit stops there were two threads playing out: Alonso casually walking away with the race and Vettel's backwards tire strategy. Räikkönen and Hamilton didn't get into any troubles and essentially maintained second and third position throughout, having got their soft tire usage out of the way first. Vettel saved his soft stint for his last pit stop and the final five laps of the race. Coming out in sixth position on a new set of fast tires, he passed the two drivers between himself and Hamilton within a half a lap. He then had four laps to catch the Mercedes, and did it – he was taking a second out of Hamilton in every single sector, and by the last half of the last lap was pulling up on Hamilton's gearbox. If it hadn't been for traffic and a couple of Vettel mistakes – or if he had had another lap – he would have passed the Mercedes.
In front, Alonso owned it, setting the fastest lap of the race with just a few laps to go. Eleven seconds ahead of Räikkönen by this point, when his race engineer told him he didn't need to push he responded, "I'm not pushing." He took the checkered flag, followed by Räikkönen, Hamilton, Vettel, Button, Massa, Ricciardo with a sterling drive, di Resta, Grosjean and Hülkenberg.
Alonso's 31st win puts him even with Nigel Mansell on the all-time list, and the 25 points – a welcome turnaround after his quick retirement from Malaysia – gets him into third place in the Driver's Championship with 43 points behind Vettel (52) and Räikkönen (49). Speaking of Räikkönen, Mr. Consistent has finished 20 straight races in the points. The last time he didn't score: the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix.
In the Constructor's Championship it's still Infiniti Red Bull at the top with 78 points, followed by Ferrari with 73 and Lotus with 60. Those numbers will change in just one week after the teams have made their stand in next Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix. We'll see you then.