Ferrari have stood by their decision to hand Sebastian Vettel preferential treatment in Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix.
As Lewis Hamilton moved into the lead of the championship for the first time this season, by virtue of winning Formula One’s 1,000th race, Charles Leclerc found himself under instruction to relinquish third place to his more experienced team-mate.
Leclerc, in just his third outing for Ferrari, had been reluctant to move aside for Vettel, and later dropped behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, too, after the Dutchman stole a march with an early stop for new tyres.
The Monegasque, who has now been issued a team order by Ferrari at each of the opening three rounds, admitted he was frustrated with the decision and wanted an explanation.
But Mattia Binotto, the rookie team principal for Ferrari, insisted they delivered the correct call in favouring Vettel, the four-time world champion and winner of 52 grands prix.
“We made the right choice,” he said.
“It was not easy to give the order, and I thank Charles for the way he behaved and showing he is a good team player.
“We tried everything we could not to lose time on the Mercedes cars ahead and that was among the only chance we got at the time. So, we tried. It didn’t work. It was right to give Seb that chance.”
Hamilton finished ahead of Valtteri Bottas as Mercedes secured a hat-trick of one-two finishes from the opening three rounds.
The Englishman, a six-time winner in Shanghai, is already 31 points clear of Vettel in the championship as he chases a sixth title.
Leclerc is a point further back.
“We definitely didn’t expect to have three one-twos, but I’m proud to have been part of the work that everyone has done and to be a part of these results,” said Hamilton as he celebrated his 75th career victory from 232 starts.
Hamilton, who is now just 16 wins shy of Michael Schumacher’s win record, jumped pole-sitter Bottas with a fine getaway.
“The start was where I made the difference,” he added. “After that it’s history.”
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Lewis Hamilton delivered a crushing performance to win in China as Ferrari used team orders to help Sebastian Vettel finish on the podium.
Valtteri Bottas followed team-mate Hamilton home for Mercedes to secure their third one-two finish in as many grands prix.
But Hamilton’s superb lights-to-flag victory was overshadowed by the intra-team politics which threatens to destabilise Ferrari’s season.
Hamilton roared off the start line in Shanghai to dash past pole-sitter Bottas to the opening bend.
From there, he ruled the race to secure his second win in succession and assume the championship lead for the first time this season. He is six points clear of Bottas.
Vettel crossed the line third, with Max Verstappen fourth for Red Bull, and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc fifth.
The young Ferrari driver will have every right to feel frustrated.
Heading into Formula One’s 1,000th race, the question was whether Vettel would remain as Ferrari’s number one following Leclerc’s strong display last time out in Bahrain.
On lap 11, Ferrari delivered their answer.
Leclerc had got ahead of Vettel at the first turn, but with Vettel less than a second behind the young Monegasque, and claiming he would be able to match leader Hamilton’s times, Ferrari instructed Leclerc to move out of his team-mate’s way.
Unlike in previous regimes at Ferrari, Leclerc made his feelings clear. “But I’m pulling away [from Vettel],” he protested, before reluctantly moving aside.
Vettel had clear air to catch the Mercedes duo, but failed to make any impression on the leaders.
Indeed, Leclerc remained on the rear wing of his four-time world champion team-mate with Verstappen closing in on both red cars.
“I am losing quite a lot of time,” said Leclerc. “I don’t know if you want to know or not.”
Vettel was given the hurry-up message. Verstappen was then the first of the leading five to stop for fresh rubber.
For the second time, Ferrari reacted by favouring Vettel. He was called in on the following lap for new tyres, and emerged just ahead of the Red Bull car.
The gung-ho Verstappen then launched a move down the inside of Vettel at the penultimate corner – the scene of their collision here last year – but Vettel got the better exit and just about kept Verstappen at bay.
All the while, Leclerc was losing valuable speed on ageing tyres. He pitted four laps later than his team-mate, but by this time he was in no-man’s land, and he rejoined the circuit an eye-watering 11 seconds behind Vettel and Verstappen in fifth.
Leclerc was promoted to second when the leaders stopped again, and Ferrari may have hoped that he would get to the end. Yet after a brave, but fruitless defence against Bottas, before Vettel sailed by, Ferrari pulled him in with 14 laps to run.
Out front, a peerless Hamilton was never challenged, and on a weekend dominated by numbers, the five-time champion became the second driver in history after Michael Schumacher to lead 4,000 laps.
It was his sixth win here and 75th in all. Vettel failed to trouble Bottas, finishing seven seconds behind the Finn.
Three races in, Hamilton and Mercedes remain the class of the field.
Elsewhere, British teenager Lando Norris retired after a dramatic first-lap collision. Norris was an unwitting bystander as Daniil Kvyat sent him airborne, and temporarily onto two wheels, after he first barged into Carlos Sainz’s McLaren.
The Russian was penalised with a drive-through penalty. Norris stopped for repairs, and limped on, but was unable to make it to the chequered flag.
Lewis Hamilton was beaten to pole position for Formula One’s 1,000th race by Valtteri Bottas.
In a nail-biting session, Bottas saw off the five-time world champion by just 0.023 seconds at the Shanghai International Circuit.
The form guide indicated that Ferrari might be the team to beat there, but after they were off the pace at the last round in Bahrain, Mercedes returned to their all-conquering best.
Sebastian Vettel was a third of a second down on Bottas’ Silver Arrows, with team-mate Charles Leclerc fourth. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finished fifth.
The Dutchman was furious after he failed to cross the line in time to post a final lap.
“It has been a good weekend so far,” said Bottas, who leads Hamilton in the championship by just one point. “I struggled to get the perfect lap in, but it was good enough.”
Hamilton, a five-time winner in China, said: “I didn’t give up and kept pushing right to the end.
“Valtteri has been stellar all weekend. I have struggled. There is time left on the table, but I will try and get it back tomorrow.”
Lando Norris fell at the second hurdle of qualifying for the first time in his short career.
The 19-year-old collected his inaugural points with a fine drive to sixth in Bahrain a fortnight ago, but faces a fight for another top-10 finish, finishing only 15th.
Norris was half-a-second slower than Carlos Sainz in the sister McLaren. The Spaniard will start just one spot higher than Norris on a disappointing afternoon for the British team.
George Russell described his lap as awful, but the English novice still managed to put his under-performing Williams ahead of his team-mate Robert Kubica on the grid.
Russell, who lines up in 17th, has now out-qualified the Pole, back in the sport eight years after his horror rally crash, at all three rounds.
The Williams cars will not be on the final row for tomorrow’s race after London-born Alexander Albon and Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi played no part in qualifying.
Albon, who races under the Thai flag, wrote off his Toro Rosso following a 130mph shunt on the exit of the final corner in practice on Saturday morning.
Albon, 23, walked away unscathed and was given the all-clear by trackside medics, but his team were unable to get his car ready in time. Giovinazzi meanwhile was restricted to the garage with a mechanical issue.
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