Hamilton dominated practice here yesterday, but the Mercedes cars had no answer to Ferrari in qualifying with Sebastian Vettel leading a front-row lockout ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for the second weekend in succession.
Vettel, who already holds a 17-point lead over Hamilton following victories at the opening two races, saw off the challenge from Raikkonen to edge out the Finn with a dramatic last lap.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas lines up in third.
Mercedes have dominated in China in recent years. Indeed, you have to go back seven years for the last time a silver-coloured car failed to line up on the front spot.
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 14, 2018
But here, Hamilton struggled for pace on Saturday, spinning during the morning practice session, before qualifying behind Bottas for the second time in as many races.
Hamilton was the best part of half-a-second down on Vettel, who will be the favourite to convert his pole into a third victory and extend his championship lead.
“I was happy with the whole lap,” said Vettel who finished just 0.087 seconds clear of Raikkonen. “The car was amazing and just kept getting better.
“I lost the rear of the car on my first lap so I was a bit beaten up, but I know if I get a tidy lap and have a bit of magic I could push it.”
Daniel Ricciardo faced a race against time to be ready for qualifying after his engine blew up in dramatic fashion in final practice. But following frantic work by his Red Bull crew, the Australian emerged from his garage with only minutes of Q1 remaining.
Ricciardo, whose Bahrain Grand Prix lasted less than two laps last Sunday following an electrical shutdown on his car, posted a lap just good enough to squeeze through to the next phase.
The Australian then qualified sixth which will come as a relief to both Ricciardo and his Red Bull team following their under-performing start to the new season. Max Verstappen will start one place ahead of his team-mate.
INITIAL CLASSIFICATION (Q3)
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 14, 2018
On the topic of Formula One’s under-performers, it proved to be yet another qualifying to forget for McLaren, with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne again 13th and 14th.
The British team expected to be challenging Red Bull following their switch to Renault power, but they have failed to make progress over the winter and on the basis of their early-season form are only seventh of the 10 teams in F1’s pecking order.
The race in Bahrain marked McLaren’s 100th appearance without a victory and they appear further away from winning than ever before.
The failure of Britain’s biggest F1 teams has become a depressing theme this season with the two Williams cars again falling at the first hurdle. Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll qualified 16th and 18th.
As the Formula One season rolls in Shanghai this weekend, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas undoubtedly enter the race with contrasting emotions after their battle during the final laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday.
Vettel will be in buoyant mood, having pushed his soft tyres to the max for 39 laps in an all-round composed performance to take his second win of the season in Sakhir.
But for Bottas, who effectively bottled his chance to victory and make the most of his stronger tyres over the German’s faded rubber, doubts will have resurfaced in his mind.
While Vettel may have provided a defensive masterclass in holding off Bottas’ late attack, it bodes the question as to what the result would have been if it had been Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen on Daniel Ricciardo charging down the Ferrari driver in those final frenetic laps?
The Finn is clearly a talented driver but has so far lacked the killer-instinct in those pressurised situations that can often be the tipping point between winning and losing.
It’s easy to speculate as to what the result would have been otherwise, but as we head to Shanghai, Vettel holds a 17-point cushion at the top of the drivers’ standings after just two rounds.
Bottas – with three race wins in 2017 – may have outpaced his Mercedes team-mate Hamilton in qualifying last weekend, but overall, he lacks that zip and aggression to seriously challenge for a world title.
If he had attempted to go on the inside against Vettel on that final lap, could the Finn’s name have been etched on the winner’s trophy last Sunday evening? We’ll never know – but it is in these high-pressure moments you see a driver’s true quality.
The 28-year-old clearly wants to win a world title and has the car at his disposal to get the best out of himself, but at this level, you need a special spark to turn talent into trophies.
Time, this season anyway, is on Bottas’ side. There are still 19 races to go in the season and a lot can change. While he may not have been able to pass Vettel in Bahrain, Bottas proved he has the pace and that will give him confidence ahead of this weekend’s race in China.
Vettel, of course, finds himself in a similar position to last season, in which he looked flawless for the opening rounds of the championship. But he’ll have an extra pep in his step in China knowing the Ferrari is more reliable and competitive this time around.
Quick across the pre-season, the 30-year-old will hope his form over the last three weeks is the building block to a successful season – with Hamilton in the shadows aiming to deny him a fifth world title.
Bottas may just be another challenger in the race between the duo, but he has the chance to make the most of this season in an ultra-fast car, and compete consistently against perhaps two of the greatest drivers of the past decade in Hamilton and Vettel.
The gap between Vettel and Bottas’ cars may have been close as they crossed the line in Bahrain on Sunday, but the Finn will perhaps be left wondering if he will ever be able to reach the levels of the German and his Mercedes team-mate.
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.”