It's a funny thing, rain at a parade. Most of the time, it's considered a bad thing, but in a handful of cases it can be exactly what you've been praying for. Like if you sell umbrellas out of your shop along the parade's route. Or if a local fascist gang is preparing to march through your neighborhood. Or, in this case, if you're a racing fan hoping for a little more action than the usual procession of state-of-the-art machinery piloted by millionaire prima donnas.
The latter – showers on the circuit, not the main street umbrellas or the skinheads – is exactly what spectators got this weekend in Shanghai. Or rather, it was the threat of rain, the inclement, unpredictable nature of mother nature that threw everything into chaos. The result was a complete shake-up in the order of things, plenty of spins and more passing than a joint at a Phish concert. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
Aside from the surprising suspension failure suffered by Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi, the results from Saturday's qualifying session were predictable enough. For the fourth time out of four races so far this season, Red Bull once again took pole position, Sebastian Vettel returning to the front of the starting grid for the third time after his teammate Mark Webber took pole at the last round in Malaysia. Webber lined up alongside him, with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in the third position beside Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg. Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton placed their McLarens in the third row in positions 5 and 6, followed by Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Renault's Robert Kubica (7 and 8) and Mercedes GP's Michael Schumacher and Force India's Adrian Sutil in slots 9 and 10, respectively.
The first big surprise came at the start of the race, when Alonso passed the pair of Red Bulls in front of him right off the line and sped towards the first turn in the lead. Given the pace RBR's been showing this season, it was almost too good to be true, and turned out to be exactly that: the replay showed the two-time world champion had jumped the start – a rare occurrence in Formula One – and was hit with a drive-through penalty, forcing the Ferrari into the pit lane without stopping at the garage as a result.
The pit lane this season has been decidedly quieter than in years past since the elimination of mid-race refueling, but even discounting Alonso's penalty, the pits saw plenty of action at this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix. By the end of the race, some drivers had pitted as many as six times, others as few as twice and the rest somewhere in between. Considering that much of the changes in position at a modern grand prix take place during pit stops, the frequent pit stops had a devastating effect on the parade.
The first round of pits – for some drivers, at least – took place in the opening laps under the safety car. While Alonso was skipping grid positions, farther back several drivers got into a first-lap collision when Force India's Tonio Liuzzi lost control and hit both Buemi's Toro Rosso and Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber. The new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG safety car was pulled in again by lap 4 (out of a total 56 laps), but by lap 6 some drivers – their teams not knowing what kind of tires to use with the drizzle coming and going – were already pitting for the second time in a time-eating bid to stay on optimum rubber.
By this early point in the race, the order bore little resemblance to the starting grid. Nico Rosberg, having yet to pit, advanced from fourth on the grid to the lead, with Button, Kubica, Sauber's Pedro de la Rosa and Renault's Vitaly Petrov hot in pursuit. The Red Bulls of Webber and Vettel, having pitted each twice, were down to 9th and 15th places respectively, with Massa in 10th, Schumacher 11th, Alonso 12th and Hamilton way down in 16th place. Meanwhile five drivers were already watching from the sidelines as the chaos continued.
By the time the laps had reached double digits, a heated battle was taking place among the frontrunners stuck in the midfield, with Hamilton having jumped up to 6th ahead of Vettel (7th) and Webber (8th). By lap 16, Hamilton was pressing Schumacher hard for fifth place, and finally passed him two laps later, forcing Schumi to contend with a rapidly closing Webber.
Meanwhile up front, Hamilton's wingman Jenson Button passed Rosberg for the lead on lap 20, while a whole slew of cars headed in for rain tires, shaking up the rest of the order yet again.
The safety car and yellow flag were deployed again the following lap when Jaime Alguersuari lost the front wing on his Toro Rosso along the entrance to the pit lane. Earlier in the race, this speed-restricted stretch of tarmac saw its own share of action as Hamilton and Vettel and then Alonso and Massa jockeyed for position to enter the pits, coming into brief contact on the one part of the track that's usually the quietest.
The safety car was finally recalled five rounds later on lap 26, with Button still in the lead and Rosberg close behind. Renault's pair of Slavic drivers – Kubica and Petrov – surprised in positions three and four, followed by Hamilton (5), Schumacher (6), Vettel (7), Force India's Sutil (8), Alonso (9), Williams' Barrichello (10), Webber (11), Massa (12), Lotus' Kovalainen (13), Alguersuari (14), Williams' Hulkenberg (15), HRT's Senna (16) and HRT's Chandhok (17). Trulli, Di Grassi, de la Rosa, Buemi, Kobayashi, Liuzzi and Glock were already retired at this point.
With the race action resumed once again, Schumacher moved on Hamilton once more for P5, only for Hamilton to take it back. Lewis then went on to pass Petrov for P4, while Vettel moved on his mentor Schumacher for P6. Past the halfway mark, Hamilton continued to climb up the order, passing Kubica for P3 on lap 30, while Massa and Webber got past Barrichello on lap 31. Two laps later, Alonso and Vettel got past Petrov for positions 5 and 6, respectively.
On lap 37, several drivers went back into the pits to change tires with the conditions once again, while those who stayed on dry-weather slicks from the beginning looked in the best shape. Two laps later, Button and Rosberg pitted from the lead, re-emerging again at the front but with Hamilton sandwiched between them in the top three. Alonso followed in hot pursuit in P4, chased by Kubica (5), Vettel (6), Webber (7), Schumacher (8), Alguersuari (9), Petrov (10), Massa (11) and Barrichello (12). Sutil, Kovalainen, Hulkenberg, Senna and Chandhok picked up the rear.
Over the course of the remaining laps, Petrov. Massa and Sutil would pass Alguersuari. Petrov would further advance to pass Schumacher and then Webber. Meanwhile, some of the most exciting action took place between the Mercedes and Ferrari cars, though at entirely different positions: Alonso pressed hard on Rosberg for the remainder of the race distance in positions 3 and 4, while further back Massa kept the pressure on Schumacher in positions 9 and 10. The Brazilian would eventually get by his former teammate, but Alonso wouldn't manage to get 'round Rosberg for that podium finish.
Jenson Button finally took his McLaren over the finish line first, the defending champion silencing all critics with a brilliant wet-conditions drive to take his second checkered flag this season and claim 25 points in the championship to catapult him into the lead in the drivers' standings. Hamilton came in just a second and a half behind him, completing a devastating 1-2 finish for McLaren for another 18 points. Rosberg took his second consecutive third-place finish, filling out an entirely Mercedes-powered podium and taking home 15 points in the process. The remaining points went to Alonso (4th with 12), Kubica (5th/10), Vettel (6th/8), Petrov (7th/6), Webber (8th/4), Massa (9th/2) and Schumacher (10th/1).
After four rounds in the championship, Button now leads with a commanding 60 points, ahead of a tightly packed grid of challengers led by Rosberg (50 points), Alonso (49), Hamilton (49), Vettel (45), Massa (41) and Rubica (40). Notable stragglers include Webber in 8th place with 28 points and Schumacher in 10th with 10. The rookie scion Bruno Senna lingers among the third of the grid that has yet to score a championship point so far this season. And finally, in the constructors' standings, McLaren now leads with 109 points to Ferrari's 90, Red Bull's 73 and Mercedes' 60.
Tune in again in three weeks' time for the first European round of the championship as the circus heads to Catalunya for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 9.