Lewis Hamilton goes for a record sixth Chinese Grand Prix win this week with Mercedes aiming to bring their “A game” for a quick strike back at unbeaten Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel.
Germany’s Vettel and Ferrari stole a march on the Silver Arrows with victory in Australia to open the Formula One season and followed up with a tense triumph last weekend in Bahrain.
Both Vettel and Hamilton are chasing a fifth world championship, but the Englishman has easily been the most successful driver in the 14-year history of the race at the Shanghai International Circuit with five wins.
Another triumph will help Mercedes get back on track after early season blunders that prompted a bout of hand-wringing in the team.
“This is not the start to the 2018 season we had hoped for,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff this week.
“There is absolutely no margin for imperfections or mistakes in this year’s title fight. In order to win this year, we need to bring our A game.”
In Australia, the combination of a Virtual Safety Car intervention and a software bug deprived defending world champion Hamilton of victory.
While a five-place grid penalty due to a gearbox change and communications problems in Bahrain hampered the Englishman from charging for victory in the race.
Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton still managed to take second and third place for Mercedes.
“We’re quite happy that this is a back-to-back race as that means that we won’t have to wait long to get racing again,” said Wolff.
“Shanghai has been a good track for us in the past.” Mercedes have won five times in the last six Chinese Grands Prix, with Fernando Alonso in 2013 recording the last Ferrari victory in Shanghai.
Mercedes need to counter the early-season pace and form of Vettel, who somehow managed to last 39 laps on severely-worn tyres in Bahrain to take a 17-point lead in the standings ahead of Hamilton.
The 33-year-old four-time world champion admitted earlier this week he had little idea how or why Ferrari had been able to out-perform Mercedes. “I am thinking and wondering,” said Hamilton.
“My thoughts are already on the world championship — I’ve lost two races in a row now and I am 17 points down after just two races.
“Hopefully, when we go to China for the next race, we will have a better understanding of the tyres and put up a better fight against Ferrari.”
He will be hoping Red Bull’s young star Max Verstappen stays out of his way after a collision which put the Dutchman out of the race and prompted Hamilton to call him a “dickhead” straight after.
Vettel raised eyebrows by being first to leap to Hamilton’s defence. “It’s not fair. I don’t know what Lewis did, but we’ve all been in that situation.
“We are just racing, we are full of adrenalin and we say these things.”
Sebastian Vettel leapt to the defence of his rival Lewis Hamilton on Sunday when the Briton faced questions over his post-race criticism of Max Verstappen’s driving in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Hamilton was heard calling the Dutchman a “d*******” during a private conversation, picked up by microphones in the drivers’ room, shortly before the podium ceremonies.
The comments were made in relation to Red Bull driver Verstappen’s driving, which led to his collision with Hamilton of Mercedes early in the race, won by German Vettel for Ferrari.
When Hamilton was asked about his comments during the mandatory post-race news conference, Vettel intervened.
“Can I answer that?” he said. “It’s not fair. I don’t know what Lewis did, but we’ve all been in that situation.
“We fight someone and sometimes we go wheel-to-wheel and it’s close — and we have a lot of adrenaline going.
“Do you think, if you compare it to football, if you have a microphone on a footballer’s mouth, that everything he says is something nice and it’s a nice message when the guy tackles him and sometimes he fouls him?
“I don’t think it’s justified to give us this kind of shit question and making up a story out of nothing.”
Vettel said it was normal for a driver to react emotionally in high-pressure situations.
“We are just racing, we are full of adrenaline and we say these things,” he added. “If I hit you in your face, you are not going to tell me, ‘Sebastian, that wasn’t nice’.
“It’s a human reaction and sometimes I feel it’s all a bit blown up and artificial if we have these questions trying to make something out of nothing.”
Hamilton had earlier told television reporters that “emotion is always firing when you get out of the car” and added that he could not remember making the comment until reminded that it was in the pre-podium room.
Of the collision, he said: “I realised I had to back out, but he continued to come across and that didn’t leave me any room.
“So we ended up touching. I was just really grateful that my car wasn’t broken and I could continue. That would have really been difficult.
“My thoughts are on the world championship and I’ve lost two races now. I am 17 points down already after just two races. Hopefully, when we go to the next race, we will have a better fight with the Ferraris.”
In other comments to reporters, Hamilton had explained: “It was an unnecessary collision… There needs to be a certain respect between drivers.
“It didn’t feel that respectful. It was a silly manoeuvre from him because he didn’t finish the race.”
Verstappen, who retired with a broken differential, insisted Hamilton was to blame.
“I was next to him — going in to the corner, I was ahead,” he claimed. “Of course, you always try to squeeze each other a bit.
“I think there was still enough space on the left, but he drove into my left rear, gave me a puncture and also destroyed the ‘diff’.”
Hamilton added: “He ran me out of road, which I felt at the time was just unnecessary. He was past. I couldn’t get by. There was no need to push by.”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said the clash had been a “racing incident”, agreeing with the race stewards’ verdict that, after an investigation, no action was required.
Verstappen has endured an incident-filled start to the season in both Australia, where he ran off track and spun in the race, and in Bahrain where he crashed in qualifying and in the race.
Red Bull misery, a Mercedes performance that was equal parts masterclass and confusing, a safety scandal and a rookie relishing the spotlight – after the mundane affair in Australia, Bahrain had it all.
Lewis Hamilton, starting in ninth, suited up on softs while the Ferraris and his team-mate Valtteri Bottas were on the supers.
Nevertheless, he reeled them in on the first stint, including a sensational swoop down the straight that saw him edge past three cars simultaneously.
At the changeover, Vettel put on the softs and then the Mercedes went to mediums after Hamilton had held up the championship leader. It was tactical perfection – and it didn’t last.
Bizarrely, Mercedes did not seem to press home their advantage in grip when Vettel was skating around in slippery softs. There was confusion over the radio as a peeved Hamilton claimed he was ‘driving to target’ times in a bid to catch Vettel, but he finished six seconds off the pace in the third.
Second-placed Bottas had one nibble at Vettel’s Ferrari on the last lap yet couldn’t finish off the German. An opportunity missed for Mercedes after a well-executed race.
Forget points and podiums – safety must be paramount in Formula One. It’s why they’ve brought in the halo, and a raft of other changes since Jules Bianchi passed away three years ago.
Why is it then that the FIA gave Ferrari a measly 5,000 euro fine for an unsafe release during free practice, as Kimi Raikkonen was forced to pull over with a loose wheel.
Sunday brought a similar type of incident in the pits – one that had dire consequences. Raikkonen was released with an untightened left rear, and in the way of that tyre was a poor mechanic’s leg.
It looked like a nasty break and someone now surely faces a fight to get walk again. What is the price of safety, be it a driver or his support team? An example needs to be made.
Lay off Max
The spin in Australia and a crash in qualifying here – turning the airwaves blue over the radio – would have caused Max Verstappen pain, but it turns out the 20-year-old hadn’t even hit the nadir.
The Dutchman stormed out of the traps from 15th place and cosied up to Hamilton in the process, only to clip the Mercedes man while making the overtake.
It destroyed Verstappen’s left rear and more as the Red Bull brass ordered him to retire the car a lap later. The TV director captured the team’s misery in a nutshell, as Verstappen limped past a marooned Daniel Ricciardo – who was also forced to retire due to mechanical failure.
His occasional petulance and rashness makes it all too easy to point the finger at Verstappen, but two races in, there’s nothing to blame but dumb, bad luck.
In Melbourne, Verstappen damaged his car merely by running wide while chasing Kevin Magnussen, and a freak surge of horsepower apparently cooked his goose in qualifying on Saturday.
On Sunday, Verstappen refused to give Hamilton room, and Hamilton refused to yield. A pure racing incident.
Formula One cars should be thrown around a bit – instead questions need to be asked why these Red Bulls are so fragile.
Perhaps it was just McLaren after all. The Honda engine clinched their first bit of good PR in a long while with their best-ever finish in the turbo hybrid era as Pierre Gasly masterfully steered his Toro Rosso to fourth in just his seventh grand prix.
The Frenchman capitalised on the Red Bull meltdown, of course, but he was in such a position after a blistering Q3 that saw him qualify in – ahead of all of his team’s second-tier rivals in Haas, Renault and Force India.
It’s one thing to qualify so well but another entirely to make it stick in a race that did not lack for the overtaking that was so sorely lacking in Australia.
He was helped out a little by Romain Grosjean, who inexplicably held his Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen up at a crucial point in the race, but Gasly was calmness personified and clever, too. He was unwilling to engage in a scrap for places with Hamilton early on and ran his own race – very, very well.