2017 Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix: Wet Weather Forces Pit Strategy Gambles

Lewis Hamilton tosses yet another trophy into the air as he stood on the top step of the podium.

Lewis Hamilton controlled from the front as he took the checkered flag at the 2017 Formula 1 Heineken Chinese Grand Prix on an afternoon of mixed conditions and mixed fortunes. Hamilton and his Mercedes team are back to winning ways after converting yesterday’s pole position into a convincing win to set up what looks to be a titanic battle between themselves and Ferrari for the 2017 titles.

Hamilton took his 54th career win to tie Alain Prost for second on the all-time list and all-time podiums with 106. Hamilton now joins Michael Schumacher as the only drivers ever to win five times at three or more circuits. Lewis’ form from the end of last season has certainly carried over to this year, as today’s victory was his fifth win in the last six races.

There was uncertainty before the race as rain had fallen in the morning, causing the track to become wet in some places and dry in others. This caused a headache for the teams. Play it safe on the Intermediate tires or risk a set of slicks? In the end, only one driver, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz, chose to start the race on slicks. This gutsy gamble did not pay off, though, as Sainz spun off the track almost instantly.

Since Free Practice 1 and Free Practice 2 were effectively cancelled on Friday, nobody really knew how these new cars would behave around the Shanghai Circuit in the damp conditions. Situations like this are where the drivers earn their paychecks. Relying on their inner gyros, feeling the grip through their hands and backsides, becoming one with the car.

Lance Stroll’s Williams was spun into the gravel by the Force India of Sergio Perez on the first lap of the race, prompting a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period. This triggered a round of pit stops as most drivers dove into the pits to gamble on the slick tires. One of these drivers was Sebastian Vettel who pitted from second place. He was the only driver of the top five to take a punt on slicks.

However, Vettel was “in the lap of the gods” as when the VSC period ended on lap four, Sauber’s Antonio Giovanazzi lost control of his car on a wet patch on the pit straight and hit the wall head-on. His car and the resulting debris strewn across the track prompted the deployment of a full Safety Car.

Antonio Giovanazzi’s wrecked Sauber blocks the track after colliding with the wall.

This unpredictable turn of events negated Sebastian Vettel’s strategy as the other drivers simply pitted under the Safety Car, switched to slick tires and retained their positions. Vettel’s pain was further induced as the drivers were instructed to follow the Safety Car through the pit lane meaning Sebastian had to follow suit.

Mercedes’ Valterri Bottas’ afternoon then turned from bad to worse. Just before the Safety Car came back into the pits, he spun his Silver Arrow while trying to get heat into his slick tires. This mistake dropped the Fin back to 12th place.

After starting a measly 16th on the grid, Max Verstappen had again showcased his prowess in changeable conditions and soon dispatched his Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo. He thus found himself in second place with only Lewis Hamilton in front of him. The young Dutchman had the advantage of the faster super-soft tires versus Hamilton’s soft, but he ultimately never made it within a second of the lead.

Next on-stage were the the two Ferrari drivers. Raikkonen and Vettel were now stuck behind Ricciardo. Raikkonen soon began to complain of a lack of grip and it didn’t take long for Vettel to dive by him into turn six.

Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel battle for third as the sparks fly.

The exciting overtaking continued as on the next lap as Vettel muscled his way past his former Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo to take third. It was into turn six again, but this time around the outside of the corner. Ricciardo didn’t give in easily as the drivers banged wheels coming out of the corner, but he had to concede the place to Vettel into turn seven.

Turn six turned out to be the favored overtaking place of many other driver. Romain Grosjean of the Haas team dispatched Jolyon Palmer’s Renault into the same corner on lap 28 and would later pass the other Renault of Nico Hulkenburg in similar fashion on lap 39.

Hulkenburg starting position of seventh was Renault’s best starting position in six years. However, the German’s talents were of no avail as he was handed two penalties for overtaking under both the VSC and full Safety Car periods. A day that started with much promise soon turned into a day to forget for the French outfit.

McLaren took a page out of Renault’s book and also endured a disappointing day with both drivers retiring out of the race. The teething troubles are still very much apparent at McLaren.

Back at the front, Sebastian Vettel had rode his prancing horse right up behind the charging Red Bull of Max Verstappen and was looking to advance into second place. Verstappen has become famous for his aggressively defensive driving style, but not on this occasion as he accidentally gifted the place to Vettel after out-braking himself and locking his left-front into turn sixteen.

Vettel passes Verstappen after the Red Bull driver went too deep into the turn sixteen hairpin.

Verstappen kicked off the next round of pit stops on lap 30 as he was the first driver to pit for fresh boots. He came out in sixth place behind the recovering Valterri Bottas, who had now made his way up to fifth after his earlier spin. Verstappen was a true flying Dutchman on fresh rubber and soon passed Bottas into, you guessed it, turn six to promote himself up to fifth place.

Sebastian Vettel came into the pits soon after to cover off Verstappen in the quickly-advancing Red Bull. Hamilton pitted two laps later on lap 37 and returned to the race comfortably ahead of the still yet-to-pit Raikkonen to retain the lead of the Grand Prix.

Kimi’s pace had begun to drop severely before Ferrari eventually pulled him in for a change to fresh rubber. This dropped the 2007 World Champion down to sixth place with some work to do. The Ferrari computer said a podium was possible, but with how long it took to overtake other cars earlier in the race, the Fin had a huge challenge looming ahead of him.

Kimi Raikkonen pits for super-soft tires.

With five laps to go, the race certainly wasn’t over. Daniel Ricciardo had caught his Red Bull team mate Max Verstappen and was looking for a ticket onto the podium. But after a thrilling battle and a last lap dive into turn sixteen, he couldn’t conjure up a way past and had to settle for fourth. These new regulations in this new era of Formula One dictate that with the higher levels of downforce, such overtaking maneuvers are a dime-a-dozen.

On brand-new tires, Kimi Raikkonen had almost caught the pair but ultimately ran out of laps. He might’ve been left ruing what could’ve been a great chance at a podium if Ferrari had pitted him earlier.

Max Verstappen’s sensational drive up from 16th to 3rd is just another chapter in the ever-promising career of the 18-year old Dutchman and he unsurprisingly took the Driver of the Day award.

Sebastian Vettel nabbed the other place on the podium to come home in second. It was in fact Vettel’s third consecutive Chinese Grand Prix podium without winning any of them. As he crossed the line, he expressed to his team over the radio, “I enjoyed that one.”

But it was of course Lewis Hamilton who can say he enjoyed it the most as he took his first Grand Slam victory since the Italian Grand Prix in 2015. Pole position, fastest lap, led every lap and won the race in a convincing fashion.

Lewis Hamilton crosses the line to win in China for the fifth time.

Lewis’ fastest lap of 1:35.378 was 4.446 seconds quicker than the fastest lap set in the race last year. Still some ways off the lap record but it finally matches the lap time improvement quoted by the FIA before the season.

Hamilton and Vettel are now tied on 43 points at the top of the Drivers’ Championship. This is the first time since May 2012 that Formula One has had a tie for the lead. Mercedes has overhauled Ferrari as the new leaders of the Constructor’s Championship, but by a slender margin of just one point. The rest of the field has yet to shake itself out and the midfield battle is predictably tight.

After winning the race, Lewis Hamilton congratulated his team, commenting, “Well managed, guys. We worked hard for this.” They certainly did and they will be looking to carry the momentum forward into the next race. Already less than a week away, the Formula One circus marches into the Middle East this coming weekend for the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.

Keep an eye on GTPlanet as we’ll bring you coverage of qualifying and the race as the tantalizing battle between Mercedes and Ferrari begins its third act in the desert.

You can find the full results of the 2017 Formula 1 Heineken Chinese Grand Prix right here, including the full Drivers’ and Constructors Championship tables.

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