For the past six years, Mercedes has had their foot on the neck of the Shanghai International Circuit in China for the Chinese Grand Prix. Heading into the weekend, early signs looked good for Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas but as the free practice session unfolded, it was Ferrari setting the pace in FP3 sending a warning that it may not be as pedestrian as Mercedes has had it in the past.
Qualifying started with a furious and feverish Red Bull frantically trying to replace a blown engine in the back of Daniel Ricciardo’s car but as Renault didn’t have a pre-built engine ready, the team were scrambling to cobble together a car for Q1. Time was running out.
As the teams headed out under dark, grey and depressing clouds, All the teams set out for their banker laps and it was important for Lewis Hamilton who was struggling with the balance of his chassis during FP3. The weather was cold, track was cold and getting heat in the tires was not easy but Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen managed to set the early pace with a 1:32.474s.
Sebastian Vettel’s first attempt in his Ferrari took the top spot with a 1:32.171s and it must be said that the car looked completely planted and well balanced. Fernando Alonso split the Haas F1 duo but it was Force India taking 5th and 6th on their initial runs and that was welcome news for a team who has struggled in the first two races of the season.
Charles Leclerc had a tank-slapper on the front straight but continued setting the slowest time in Q1. In an amazing effort, Red Bull managed to get Ricciardo out with a couple minutes left in Q1 giving him a chance to have one lap to make it to Q2. Daniel made a last ditch effort and managed to get into 14th fastest and in to Q2. Pierre Gasly couldn’t reproduce his Bahrain qualifying magic and was out in Q1.
Eliminated in Q1: Leclerc, Stroll, Ericsson, Gasly, Sirotkin.
The session started and the teams weren’t loitering, Mercedes and Ferrari were out early with the red cars on soft tires and Mercedes on them as well. Red Bull and the rest of the grid choosing the Ultrasoft tires.
Lewis’s first run was a case of managing understeer and he set the initial time at 1:33.334s. His teammate, Bottas, was ahead of him while Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel took 1st and 2nd respectively. Ricciardo leapt to third fastest and ahead of Verstappen but on softer rubber.
Nico Hulkenberg jumped up to 7th which seems to be his mark having qualified in seventh in the last several races. Haas F1’s Kevin Magnussen dislodged Nico for 6th keeping the notion alive that the team are here to race for best of the rest.
With three minutes left the teams came out to set their final times in Q2 led by Lewis Hamilton on soft compounds but Ferrari both came out on Ultrasoft tires which would be the tires they elect to start the race. The dupe move was exposed as Ferrari did not set a final lap time meaning they will start on Soft tires as well.
Lewis set a purple sector in S2 and a personal best in S1. His S3 pace was enough to get him in to provisional 1st place with a 1:31.914s. Bottas followed in 2nd with Hulkenberg throwing down a great lap for 5th. Renault’s Carlos Sainz managed to just survice in 10th while Haas F1’s Magnussen missed out by 1 1/100 of a second.
Eliminated in Q2: Alonso, Magnussen, Vandoorne, Hartley, Ocon
The final session times were cleared and the cars were all shod with purple-banded Ultrasoft tires. Lewis recovered in Q2 and one assumes they used the “Party Mode” in order to get the times they did. Heading in to Q3, it was all to play for and would Ferrari have an answer to the party mode?
Raikkonen set the fastest lap ever in China with a 1:31.200s with Vettel behind him by a tenth. Bottas in 3rd and Hamilton 4th. The Red Bulls, led by Verstappen, slotted in 5th and 6th. Renault’s Hulkenberg in his familiar 7th with Grosjean 8th followed by Sainz and Perez.
With 3:49 left, the cars began to appear for their final runs. The mark was made when Kimi took provisional pole and it was down to Vettel to pip his teammate. Kimi was nursing his tires around his out lap in order to not torture them for the hot lap.
Hamilton and Bottas threw the Mercedes cars and the kitchen sink at Ferrari and managed to get Valtteri to third while Lewis Hamilton aborted his lap after running wide at the hairpin. This would give the Red Bull’s a chance to mug Lewis.
Vettel matched the first two sectors of Raikkonen and beat Kimi in sector three for pole position while the Red Bulls failed to improve from 5th and 6th. Vettel’s lap was the fastest ever for the Chinese Grand Prix.
The Ferrari’s were half a second quicker than the Mercedes and in F1, that’s a healthy advantage.