Fernando Alonso won the Chinese Grand Prix for Ferrari, the third different race winning driver and car combination in three races this season, with Kimi Raikkonen finishing second, where he started and Lewis Hamilton holding off a hard charging Sebastian Vettel for third.
It was Alonso’s 31st career victory, equalling Nigel Mansell for fourth in the all-time winners list and his second in China. Vettel retained the drivers’ championship lead, three points ahead of Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton, but it tightened up; just 12 points separate the top four drivers, all World Champions.
Ferrari closed to within five points of Red Bull in the constructor’s championship thanks to a double points finish, while Red Bull only had Vettel in the points.
Raikkonen had to recover from a poor start, where he dropped from second to fourth and with damage to the front of his car after hitting the back of Sergio Perez’ McLaren early on. Afterwards he said that without that damage he would have been a lot faster. Given that he finished close behind Alonso it begs the question, but Alonso said that he had been able to measure his pace and control the field.
“It was fantastic race for us,” said Alonso.”The tyre degradation was better than expected. After the retirement in Malaysia we had some pressure today. You always push but it is true that we had some pace in our pocket. We had more potential but maybe we can show that in Bahrain next week.”
It was a race of strategy, with leading cars doing different strategies to deal with the performance difference between the soft and medium compound Pirelli tyres. It all came together at the end as the cars who started on the medium tyres were forced to pit just before the end for the short-life soft tyres. It led to a thrilling climax as Vettel chased down Hamilton for the final podium place.
Vettel, Button , Hulkenberg, Perez, Gutierrez, Di Resta, Bottas and Vergne all started on the medium tyre.
Mark Webber started from the pit lane on soft tyres, his strategy to pit on lap 1 and then run the whole race on medium tyres
At the start Hamilton got away well from pole, with Raikkonen dropping from second to fourth, swallowed up by the Ferraris of Alonso and Massa. Rosberg and Grosjean battled for fifth, while Vettel dropped back to ninth.
Hamilton was in trouble with the tyres quite quickly; the Ferraris passed him on lap five and Hamilton pitted a lap later, with Rosberg also coming in the same lap. Amazingly Mercedes turned them both around with Rosberg having a similar pit stop time to Hamilton in 3.3 seconds.
Alonso stopped on lap 7, retaining his lead over Hamilton, Massa lost out by pitting a lap later, coming out behind both of them and behind Webber. The Brazilian was able to pass him, in the laps that followed however.
Raikkonen managed to stay ahead of Webber after his pit stop and tucked in behind Hamilton.
On lap 13 Hulkenberg led the Grand Prix, with Vettel in second place, losing time behind the Sauber. Alonso was in control of the race at this point, the leading car of the ones which had started on soft tyres and with the medium tyred Vettel only 3 seconds ahead. In the phase after his first stop and before Vettel’s Alonso took nine seconds out of Vettel’s lead over him.
On lap 15 Hulkenberg and Vettel both pitted and Red Bull turned their man around more quickly, gaining the place.
Button now led the race for McLaren, looking like he was trying to do the race in two stops, with Alonso in second place ahead of Hamilton.
Raikkonen hit the back of Perez, “What the hell is he doing?” asked Raikkonen. Perez had been fairly robust in his racing all day. Meanwhile Webber collided with Vergne, damaging the front wing and later his right rear wheel fell off at the hairpin.
Stewards later hit him with a three place grid penalty for the next race in Bahrain for causing a collision. They also hit Esteban Gutierrez with a five place penalty for clashing with Adrian Sutil at the start.
Alonso had a 12 second lead over Vettel at this stage of the race, but Vettel cut into it slowly. Alonso pitted on lap 24 and lost a second as Button came down the pit lane. This meant that Vettel closed more on him.
Button’s stop on lap 24 meant he could make it through the race on two stops, but he was believed to have used DRS in a yellow flag zone, which stewards said they would investigate after the race.
Vettel led the race on lap 27 from Alonso, then the two stoppers Hulkenberg and Button, with Hamilton in fifth and Raikkonen sixth.
Vettel was told by his team not to lose time fighting Alonso who was on fresher tyres. He passed him on the inside on lap 29, on tyres that were much fresher. Lap times were more important to Red Bull and both teams were focussed on the end of the race. Both men had one more stop to make.
Hamilton passed Button on lap 29 for fourth place, on fresher tyres, as the various strategies played out. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen were all together in an enthralling race.
Vettel made his second stop on lap 32 and immediately passed Massa as he came out of the pits, not losing any time behind the Ferrari.
On lap 34 Alonso had a 24 second lead over Vettel, with both men needing to stop again, Alonso for medium tyres, Vettel for softs. Raikkonen pitted on lap 35 for the final time with 22 laps to do on the medium tyres, trying to undercut Hamilton. Mercedes did not react, leaving Hamilton out for two more laps.
Hulkenberg and Massa pitted together on lap 37, but Hulkenberg lost the place to the Ferrari as the Sauber didn’t come off the pit lane speed limiter. Hamilton pitted a lap later and lost the place to Raikkonen.
Alonso pitted for the final time on lap 42, a slow stop in 4 seconds, which handed the lead back to Vettel, who still had to stop again with 14 laps to the end.
Alonso repassed Vettel a lap later, using the DRS and the advantage of fresher tyres. With the race under control he set a new fastest lap of the race on lap 47 and was told not to push by his engineer, “I’m not pushing” said Alonso.
Button pitted on lap 50 for new softs, passing Massa for sixth place on the out lap. Vettel pitted on lap 51, rejoining in fourth, 12 seconds behind Hamilton. He had nothing to lose from behind and was able to push flat out to the end for four laps.
In the closing stages it got very close as Vettel closed at three seconds per lap on Hamilton, who was tucked up behind Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s tyres were suffering on the final lap. It was a final lap showdown, with Vettel and Hamilton dicing to the flag, a couple of small mistakes by Vettel as the pair navigated a back marker Caterham gave Hamilton breathing space.
Button finished in fifth with Massa in sixth and Ricciardo coming in an excellent seventh, where he started the race.
After all the complaints before the race about the Pirelli soft tyres degrading too quickly, it ended up creating a fascinating and entertaining Grand Prix, with the same three drivers who started at the front of the grid ending up on the podium, albeit in reverse, with Alonso moving from third to first and Hamilton the opposite.
CHINESE GRAND PRIX, Shanghai, 56 laps
1. Alonso Ferrari 1h36:26.945
2. Raikkonen Lotus + 10.100s
3. Hamilton Mercedes + 12.300s
4. Vettel Red Bull + 12.500s
5. Button McLaren + 35.200s
6. Massa Ferrari + 40.800s
7. Ricciardo Toro Rosso + 42.600s
8. Di Resta Force India + 51.000s
9. Grosjean Lotus + 53.400s
10. Hulkenberg Sauber + 56.500s
11. Perez McLaren + 1m03.800s
12. Vergne Toro Rosso + 1m12.600s
13. Maldonado Williams + 1m33.800s
14. Bottas Williams + 1m35.400s
15. Bianchi Marussia + 1 lap
16. Pic Caterham + 1 lap
17. Chilton Marussia + 1 lap
18. van der Garde Caterham + 1 lap