2016 Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix recap: another wild show on and off track
Proper qualifying is back. Thank goodness. It only took a month of embarrassment to fix it.
And so is passing! For the third race in a row, big performance improvements at the ten teams behind Mercedes-AMG Petronas and a wider tire selection at this race graced us with opening stints filled with dicing cars. Seeing the McLarens on screen doesn't make us cringe. Manor doesn't only make the global feed when it's being lapped. We've been complaining about parade races for so long that we forgot excitement was possible without rain or wholesale regulation changes. Yes, Mercedes is still the king of the jungle, but there are some other proper midfield beasts on the hunt, too.
Malfunctions up and down the grid did help the show in Shanghai, like Lewis Hamilton suffering perpetual troubles, Nico Hülkenberg's runaway front wheel which red-flagged Q2, and Sebastian Vettel's and Kimi Räikkönen's flubbed hot laps in Q3 that let Daniel Ricciardo slip by into second on the grid. Come race day things went all Grand Theft Auto at Turn 1 on the opening lap, sending some of the best cars to the pits. Then came Ricciardo's puncture while leading, then came the Safety Car – all by Lap 5. Nico Rosberg got 38 seconds of airtime on the way to victory – at the start and the finish, and that happened to be his margin of victory, too – otherwise he was a ghost. Everyone else was struggling and juggling.
Rosberg's win at the Bahrain Grand Prix put the German at five consecutive victories going back to last year's Mexican Grand Prix. The history books show that any driver who's won five straight contests has gone on to win the championship. With his triumph in China, the German has won the season's first three races, the history books again show that the other nine drivers who've pulled that off have gone on to win the championship. Rosberg, 36 points ahead of his teammate in the standings, is having none of it. He said of the other victors, "But they didn't have Lewis Hamilton as their team-mate."
Perhaps Mercedes was right not to make an engine deal with Red Bull last season. Renault has done nothing special so far with its own engine, while Red Bull and its "Tag Heuer" units are creeping up to the front of the field. If Ricciardo hadn't got a flat who knows what would have happened. When chasing Hamilton later in the race he couldn't pass the Mercedes on the straights, but easily made his move through the infield. Ricciardo has scored three fourth places this year and is third in the driver's championship, three points ahead of Vettel. Daniil Kyvat is fifth, one point behind Raikkonen. Mercedes says it's got one eye on Ferrari, Ferrari needs to have an eye-and-a-half on Red Bull.
Speaking of Ferrari, we still don't know their true pace because every weekend brings a comedy of errors. Raikkonen took a DNF in Australia, Vettel took one in Bahrain, the teammates collided in China. Vettel screamed at Kvyat over the incident, then backed off later on. He probably saw the replay and realized he left a gap as big as Nepal on the inside. Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene said he didn't blame Kvyat, and company boss Sergio Marchionne also refused to call out Red Bull, saying, "Two Ferrari drivers colliding is not very Ferrari, but I'm more embarrassed for them than for me, if I'm honest." The scarlet squad definitely has some special sauce, being second in the Manufacturer's Championship with room to spare back to third place. But we'd like to see them put a clear weekend together.
One more question around Ferrari is: will it be joined by another B-team (after Haas)? Sauber is in the worst financial trouble we've known it to be in – including when it couldn't pay an overdue electric bill in 2013 – late with employee salaries two months in a row and needing bailouts by Bernie Ecclestone and Marcus Ericsson's Swedish backers. The rumor is that it needs a big money sponsor or a buyer. Enter Sergio Marchionne and Alfa Romeo. The Fiat CEO has been clanging pots about getting Alfa back into F1, saying, "The Alfa myth was born with racing, and somehow we have to get back there." Observers see an opportunity for Alfa to take over Sauber's state-of-the-art facilities if it doesn't mind being based in Switzerland as opposed to Italy. Others think Fiat might set Alfa up as a satellite Ferrari team, like the American outfit.
The Chinese Grand Prix was the end of Cloud Nine and scoring points for the American Haas team. Romain Grosjean complained about his car from the beginning of Free Practice 1 to after the end of the race, even asking the team with two laps to go if he could retire the car. The team endured a flare-up of the same brake-by-wire issue it suffered in pre-season testing, and it still has other undiagnosed problems. Esteban Gutíerrez at least made it to the finish for the first time this season, back in 14th place. We'll get an idea in two weeks about whether this was a hiccup or a new, ugly reality.
F1 itself might have a few hiccups coming this month, too. Pirelli said today is the deadline for the sport to agree on new testing rules next year. If there's no agreement, the Italian tire maker says it will withdraw from the sport. The teams also need to agree to new engine rules for next year before a vote at the end of this month, but an agreement looks unlikely. And the big-deal working group that overhauled regulations to promote faster cars and more overtaking next year is now being slammed by engineers, team principals, and drivers as useless and counterproductive. Ah, F1. We'll have more from Russia in two weeks.
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