OBSERVATIONS: Chinese Grand Prix
Formula 1’s 100th Grand Prix will be remembered for two things that fans have grown familiar with – Mercedes’ dominance, and a lack of passing throughout.
Entering the 2019 campaign, it was believed the new cars would allow for greater competition between the manufactures. However, Mercedes has once again showcased why they are the team to beat, scoring their third straight one-two finish, this time in dominating fashion.
Valtteri Bottas got the honors of finishing second on Sunday to Lewis Hamilton, but there was a moment in the event where a different option was viable. Following their first pit stop, he began to lap quicker than his teammate with the gap being under two seconds. Ultimately, once Bottas got some more laps under his tires, the lap times evened out and this was a matter of a pipe dream.
Though speaking of pit stops, the second round was where the team truly shined, performing a pair back-to-back with neither driver having to slow down as they came in to make it happen. On top of the technological differences, it’s team work like that in why you see Mercedes win races and do what they do best.
Behind the Silver Arrows, not much could be said for the action that happened throughout the race as the field strung out single-file around the Shanghai International Circuit. Besides the first lap carnage and a few memorable battles, there wasn’t much in the lick of entertainment. Typically strategy can overcome that as you are peeled in with intrigue, but that wasn’t even a saving grace on Sunday morning.
None of the drivers involved in the first lap incident were able to overcome the damage, with Carlos Sainz scoring the best result in 14th-place finish. It certainly marks a big disappointment for McLaren after seeing a sign of hope with Landon Norris’ sixth-place finish in Bahrain.
On the flip side, Sebastian Vettel got to end the day with a smile on his face as he scored a third-place finish behind the Mercedes duo. While many will be frustrated with him as a result of Ferrari’s team orders (more on that later), he certainly deserves accolades for entertainment value.
Following his first pit stop, he would come out on cold tires about a second ahead of Max Verstappen, who had pitted a couple laps prior. While the Red Bull was able to close the gap rather quickly, the pass never happened. Verstappen certainly made his move, but Vettel performed the textbook crossover to keep the position.
The pair have crossed paths before, and recall it was this circuit last year where they crashed due to Verstappen making contact with Vettel. The incident wasn’t far from the Ferarri driver’s memory, as he commented post-race, “Knowing Max as well as I do, I knew he would try…” in reference the dive into the corner. Reading his competition’s approach perfectly enabled Vettel to enter a little wide, allowing the crossover to happen on the exit after Verstappen locked up the tires a little.
Vettel’s teammate Charles Leclerc also earned the viewer’s attention, in how he was able to hold off Valtteri Bottas for a couple of laps, despite being on much older tires. The precise blocks off the corner in going wide to take the line away, to holding steady despite the car twitching showcased the youngster’s talent.
For motorsports fans, team orders are a concept that divides several people. There are those who believe in doing what’s right for everyone involved, while several believe that a driver should rightfully earn their position.
No matter which side of the debate you lie on, there’s plenty of opinion to be offered in what happened on Sunday.
With Ferrari engineers seeing that Vettel appeared to be faster than Leclerc, they instructed the youngster yield over for his experienced teammate. After a debate on the radio, the order was followed down the back straightaway.
Though once Vettel got ahead, he was unable to extend the gap over Leclerc to more than a couple seconds. Instead, as Vettel stated post-race, he failed to get into a rhythm, locking up the front wheels on a couple occasions. Leclerc would respond on the radio with comments in the regard to what happened, however that was to no avail.
Ferrari only made things worse when they elected to pit Vettel first, while leaving Leclerc out on-track four laps later on older tires. Although the team insisted having the newer tires would make a difference, that again proved to be a lie as Leclerc failed to close the gap on Vettel and others ahead of him.
To add insult to injury, they brought Vettel in for a second stop, once again failing to pit Leclerc. Instead, they used him as a pawn to stay out later in the event by 10 laps to hold up Bottas in hopes that’d allow Vettel to get second. Once Leclerc fell from second to fourth, they pitted him, which allowed Max Verstappen to take over fourth and bump him back another position.
Ultimately, the driver who should have finished third in today’s event got credited with a fifth due to a slew of failed calls from the team. As Nico Rosberg said during the Sky Sports broadcast, “that was brutal,” as Leclerc got screwed in every way possible through the back half of the event.
The explanation certainly doesn’t mean much, either, as Leclerc proved that he can run right there with the est, as evidence with his dominance in Bahrain until the mechanical issue. Where does the line get drawn in the sand?
Considering everything, Leclerc gave a very mature interview, restraining from making any “silly comments” until he was able to meet with the engineers.
Meanwhile, Ferrari’s team principal Mattia Binotto admitted that Leclerc “has a right to be upset,” but did not offer anything reasonable for wrhat happened. Instead, the biggest takeaway was admitting they “didn’t have the pace” to catch Mercedes, but screwed over a driver in the process.
It’ll be interesting to see what Leclerc says following a meeting with the engineers given that.
While Ferrari can’t make the right decisions, Red Bull was smart in pitting Pierre Gasly with a couple laps remaining to give him four new tires and run the car in qualifying trim to get the fastest lap. It earned them a point, while not losing a spot in the process. Something to keep in mind if the standings are close in the back half of the year.
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