Lewis Hamilton wins the Chinese Grand Prix.
With limited running on any of the Pirelli wet compounds, the start of the race emerged as a step into the unknown. But while Sainz took the risk of slicks, Verstappen stuck to the inters and began his charge. Hamilton meanwhile edged away smoothly to begin the race that took him to his first race of the year and level things up with Vettel in the drivers’ standings.
Going into the race, the rain in Shanghai returned. Dampening the track as rain clouds drew in and brought with them a gust of uncertainty.
That uncertainty emerged thanks to the unknown. The unknown quantity of wet tyres that had never been run before, following a change in compound since the wet tyre pre-season test.
Friday practice would have been the perfect chance for the teams to gain much-needed information on the tyres. Such as the crossover point between intermediates and slicks. A point Vandoorne pondered as he brought his car out of the pits and onto the grid.
Friday practice, however, could not be utilised as running was abandoned. Taking away almost all track time as thin-laying clouds meant the medical helicopter could not land at the designated hospital. A road ambulance, on the other hand, would not have covered the 38km in time.
In order for this not to be the case come the race, the FIA arranged for a full team of neurosurgery staff to be on hand at the local hospital just 5-kilometres from the Shanghai International Circuit. Meaning should the medical helicopter not be able to land or take off, a road ambulance would be able to reach the hospital within the 20-minute timeframe.
When the green lights approached, though, the threat of the medical helicopter not being able to take off reduced as no rain remained on the horizon. What did remain, however, was a damp track and Hamilton on pole.
The pole man with a Shanghai lap record in his pocket got away from the grid smoothly. Keeping the lead into the first corner as Vettel hung Bottas out to dry.
Dry was also a keyword for Carlos Sainz at the start of the race as the young Spaniard was the only man on the grid to take on the slick tyres from the off. Taking the gamble of the track drying while everyone else played to the conditions on the grid.
Playing to the conditions, however, ensured all cars made it through the opening corners without spinning. Whereas Carlos found himself pointing in the wrong direction as he lost traction at turn two and plummeted down the order.
Verstappen, meanwhile, was storming up the leaderboard. Keeping his revs low as the lights went out to pull away perfectly and begin his charge from 16th.
Placing his Red Bull on the perfect parts of the track for the best traction, and weaving through the midfield like an LMP1 car at Le Mans lapping the GTE runners. Moving up from 16th on the grid to end the first lap in 7th.
The first lap also ended under the Virtual Safety Car as Carlos Sainz pitched rookie Lance Stroll into a spin at turn 10.
Lance had opted for a wide line into the left hander, presenting Perez with a possible overtake on the opening lap. And with the challenges to overtakes presented by the regulation changes, Perez did not pass up on the opportunity. But instead of cleanly moving ahead, Perez touched wheels with the Williams. Punting Stroll into the gravel and taking him out of the race.
While under the VSC, a hoard of drivers – including front row starter Sebastian Vettel – took the gamble to now take on the slick tyres, feeling the track was dry enough everywhere bar the main straight. With that main straight proving its challenge as Giovinazzi found the wall again.
Giovinazzi found himself emerging from the final corner, after the virtual safety car ended, with his part-time teammate rejoining from the run off after losing the rear end of the Sauber. But when Antonio drove under the main grandstand and lit up his tyres, the line of standing water pitched him into the wall. Snapping his wheel free and ending his race.
Not only ending his race, either. With his car left sat on the grid, the safety car was needed and the pit lane become the racing line. Handing all drivers yet to change onto slick tyres the perfect opportunity to.
Altogether, overtakes and crashes had now brought Verstappen up to fourth place. A phenomenal start to the race for the man eliminated in Q1. Whereas Bottas, who narrowly missed out on the front row, now found himself down in 12th place after losing time behind Hamilton as Mercedes stacked their drivers.
After driving around drivers with ease at the start of the race, the restart left Max running behind Raikkonen’s Ferrari. But the Prancing Horse, with a power deployment issue, just become another car Dutchman could pass around the outside as he simply drove by.
Further back, Carlos Sainz was setting the new fastest lap of the race as he jousted with Alonso for sixth place. Another driver who gained early on having started on slick tyres.
Now with slicks, though, Verstappen was clinging onto Ricciardo’s rear wing. Thinking about a move into the first corner, before backing out and waiting for turn six. The favourite overtaking spot of the race, as he darted down the Aussies inside for second.
As Raikkonen continued to suffer with a power deployment issue, Vettel looked to get ahead of his team-mate. But the German was forced to sit behind and wait. Wait. Wait. Wait until he had enough and dive bombed the Finn at turn 6, catching Kimi unaware.
Vettel then attempted the same on Ricciardo on the following lap. But a lock up sent Seb deep and leaving him side-by-side with the Red Bull on the run to turn 7. Banging wheels and rubbing rubber, Vettel got the place with the inside line forcing Ricciardo out wide.
With Raikkonen and Ricciardo now out of the German’s way, Verstappen was his next target but the Red Bull driver had stretched off down the road. Leaving Seb in a catch-up game to catch Max, before Verstappen let the Ferrari through with ease as he locked up at the hairpin.
Verstappen locking up and allowing Vettel through also ruined his front left tyre. Forcing him back into the pits for a second time and triggering more stops from Ferrari and Mercedes.
But with fresh tyres, Verstappen could charge as he caught back up with Bottas. Setting a new fastest lap of the race as Sainz and Alonso fought once more.
This time, Carlos Sainz had DRS on his side as he floored it down the long back straight. Weaving side-to-side as Alonso tried to break the slipstream, but not with enough speed to stop Sainz from nosing ahead before the braking zone.
But being behind in the braking zone allowed Alonso to fight back. Darting to the apex, but running deep and off the track to kill the fight.
The fight, though, would soon have been over anyway as Alonso’s brief moment of battle was followed by a driveshaft issue killing the car. Making the Chinese Grand Prix a double retirement for McLaren-Honda with Vandoorne also killed off with a fuel pressure issue early on.
Still on track, meanwhile, where the Ferrari’s and Silver Arrows. Two titans of constructors battling for victory in Shanghai.
A battle paused in part as Vettel brought his scarlet car into the pits for fresh rubber. Emerging in third and behind his teammate, but importantly ahead of Verstappen.
Hamilton instantly set about covering the undercut and put in two strong laps before pitting himself. Building a margin over Raikkonen to comfortably return in the lead.
Kimi, though, was being kept out by Ferrari. That being despite the Iceman feeling hot under the collar regarding his tyres. Barking “where am I going to finish? I have no front end” down the radio as the drivers fighting for 12th place were actually catching him on track.
Although Ferrari projections had Kimi on for a podium finish, they listened to their driver and finally handed him a new set of tyres. Taking him away from the top three and down to sixth place – behind Carlos Sainz.
Raikkonen, though, could easily muster an overtake on the Toro Rosso for fifth place. But the margin was now too much for the Finn to recover in the laps remaining as the Red Bulls fought for third.
After gaining 13 places across the race, Verstappen was the man sitting in third place. But his attention on Ricciardo was dwindling as he felt the Haas ahead was impeding his process with dirty air.
Dirty air was more prevalent for Ricciardo, though. As the Australian sat directly behind his team-mate as he hunted that podium spot. Looking to get the place on the last lap as Verstappen locked up.
Verstappen’s lock up though only edged Ricciardo closer. And as they approached the penultimate corner, the Australian remained fourth.
Knowing the hairpin would be his last chance to overtake, Daniel left his braking late but locked up and sailed onwards as Verstappen took the corner and the podium. Completing a storming drive from 16th on the grid.
Max’s drive from 16th to third comes six years on from Mark Webber’s drive from 18th to also finish on the Shanghai podium. With Hamilton winning that race in 2011 from Vettel in second. A result matched today.
Hamilton’s Chinese Grand Prix victory levels the drivers’ standings at the top with Vettel and Lewis each on 43-points. Teeing up a battle for the top next weekend in Bahrain.