The 2019 Chinese Grand Prix proved to be another walk in the park for Mercedes F1 and Lewis Hamilton as Ferrari – Mercedes’ main title rival – flattered to deceive once again.
Formula 1’s marketing machine was in overdrive in the build up to the race, squeezing every last drop of publicity it could from the 1000th Grand Prix, or if , like me, you’re a pedant, the 1000th Grand Prix to count towards the Formula 1 World Championship.
However, the hype stopped as soon as the green flag dropped and a fairly mundane race ensued: the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas disappeared at the front, the two Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel in their wake, untroubled by the two Red Bulls in fifth and sixth.
And so it remained until the finish, other than the odd position change here and there around the pitstops, and an orchestrated, and much debated move on lap ten that allowed Vettel to slide by his team-mate Leclerc.
Nobody likes team orders, but F1 is a team sport and so, from time to time, they’re inevitable.
What seemed to provoke the ire of many fans yesterday was Ferrari’s insistence on moving their #2 driver out of the way of their #1 when there didn’t seem to be much difference in pace between the two.
Vettel, who fell behind Leclerc at the start, was able to stick to his team mate’s rear wing, but he was able to do this with the benefit of DRS.
And when the order was changed, Leclerc was able to do likewise until lap 17 when Vettel pitted.
Ferrari being Ferrari, they compounded their earlier decision to switch cars by leaving Leclerc out for a 22 lap first stint and a 20 lap seconds stint that effectively killed off any chances he had of taking the fourth place he’d have expected given that he wasn’t going to allowed to challenge his team mate for third.
Ferrari’s strategy for their second car from the outset appeared to be (as it often does) to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of their #1, and then use it as a blocker in an effort to benefit their lead car.
They did this by attempting to interfere with Bottas’ race by leaving Leclerc out longer in both his first and seconds stints, thus delaying the Finn, allowing Vettel to challenge for second.
But it didn’t quite pay off and all Ferrari conspired to do was to allow Verstappen to steal ahead of Leclerc and into fourth.
For Williams F1 it was another race at the back, some way adrift of its competition.
As a result of mechanical issues for Giovinazzi in the Alfa Romeo and a big crash in FP3 for Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon, the Williams pair of George Russell and Robert Kubica moved off the back row of the grid for the first time this season the two qualifying 17th and 18th, a season’s best for the Grove team.
Following a number of first lap incidents, Russell found himself as high as 12th at one point, with his team mate Kubica just behind in 13th, but as the race settled down, they fell back to back of the field once again.
Williams planned to pit both cars just once, but some issues with George’s tyres meant he was brought in a second time on lap 49 and a short dash to the finish.
Russell was able to maintain his 100% record over Kubica in Grand Prix in 2019 as the two ended the race in 16th and 17th places respectively.
“At the end of the day this is where we are at the moment, we must keep pushing and keep working” said George Russell, post-race.
Dave Robson, Williams’ senior race engineer added “We have made some improvements to the car this weekend and have started to close the gap. We also tested some new components which may help us close the gap further in the coming races.”
But despite positive noises about progress within the team and with the FW42, George Russell’s qualifying time was 104% of Hamilton’s pole position time in Australia, and two races later at the Chinese Grand Prix it remains at 104% so if there’s progress is not quite translating into lap times just yet.