The 2017 Chinese Grand Prix may have been a weekend of controlled F1 chaos in many ways – from problems caused by non-flying helicopters to a slip-slidey start to the race – but the podium told its own story.
Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen will each have a very different take on the Shanghai race but each was head-and-shoulders above the most significant competitors – their team-mates.
READ MORE: Hamilton wins enthralling Chinese Grand Prix
What did we learn from the race?
Mercedes make their mark
Pole position, a win that looked comfortable, the man who led every lap, Lewis Hamilton (pictured) brought his A-game to Shanghai and it was too good for everyone else.
He and Sebastian Vettel look to be keeping each other honest this season and the fact they are tied at the top of the table after two races points to a cracking season ahead.
But, while Hamilton was doing it all correctly, his team-mate Valtteri Bottas was having a bit of a horror.
Having missed out on second place on the grid by just one-thousandth of a second, it should have been a stick-on podium for him this weekend.
But ouch… trying to keep his rears warm under early Safety Car conditions, he spun his Merc, then spun it a second time trying to get the recalcitrant mule pointing in the right direction.
Down to 12th he plummeted just as the green flag appeared.
After a few too many scruffy laps and some disappointing defending, he finished a lacklustre sixth.
I like Bottas. He’s an extremely capable driver and affable company – I’ve sat in an AMG while he ripped it around a track and he was at least as much fun as the brutal laps he punished the car with.
But weekends like this are when other drivers start to circle a prime seat. Alonso (who grumbled and huffed his McLaren around in the points, only for it to, inevitably, let him down on lap 35, with a driveshaft problem), Verstappen, even Sainz, will covet a Merc drive and Bottas’ sixth-place finish sends out a signal that it’s already time to be talking to Toto’s friends at the Silver Arrows.
Especially when Bottas’ engineer accidentally calls him Nico over the radio…
V good Vettel
He may not have won but Vettel put in a cracking performance, with some properly aggressive overtakes and a display that kept Hamilton from relaxing too much out in front.
While Ferrari were having their usual strategic hiccups and Kimi Raikkonen, in particular, was suffering, Vettel confirmed what the Melbourne evidence had suggested – in this year’s Ferrari, he’s a real-deal title challenger.
His lap-two pit stop under the Virtual Safety Car (activated after Lance Armstrong was punted off the track by Sergio Perez) looked to have been a masterstroke by Ferrari. But, minutes later, Antonio Giovinazzi had his second big crash of the weekend, bringing out a full Safety Car and wrecking Vettel’s strategy. Second was a pretty good result from that point on.
As for Raikkonen, he can complain all he likes about tyre strategy and a lack of power at Turn 16 but the writing’s on the wall.
When Vettel lunged past him on lap 20, he had nothing to offer.
As an aside, in the post-race interviews Kimi had dark shadows under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept much … compared with the supremely relaxed demeanour of the three podium-winning drivers, he just looked a bit like the kid who forgot to do his homework until after bedtime.
And, even by his own grumpy standards, Kimi’s radio broadcasts came across as a tad tetchy. ‘So where are we going to finish? I have no front end and there’s 20 laps left to go…’
That’s another prime seat up for grabs in 2018.
Verstappen owned Ricciardo
Mechanical problems stuck Max Verstappen down in a lowly 16th for the start.
By the end of the first lap, he had passed nine cars. On the left, on the right, on the inside, on the outside, wherever there was a gap, wherever there was grip, Verstappen was there.
The reaction in most quarters was the same: this looks more like PlayStation racing than real-world racing.
By lap 11, he was all over the gearbox of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo – no slouch himself – and then he was past, into second place, and off up the track, setting the odd fastest lap along the way.
The mark of Max came later in the race though. He survived all sorts of difficulties, from locking up under pressure from Vettel to battling for grip as his Red Bull struggled in the turbulent air behind backmarker Romain Grosjean (whiny Max put in an appearance on the team radio, again and again, demanding blue flags for Grosjean).
In the closing laps, Ricciardo was all over him and he had to defend hard to earn that third place.
Make no mistake, Ricciardo will have been stung by this result – not just being beaten by his young team-mate, but beaten by a team-mate who started down in 16th.
It’s way too early to say which driver will have the upper hand at Red Bull this season but it’s safe to say it’s going to be a beauty of a battle.
Overtaking: Less is more?
Shanghai is a circuit where you expect plenty of overtaking and, as such, it’s a good test of F1’s new rules which were designed to make the sport faster and, hopefully, more exciting.
Well, it’s certainly faster but there was markedly less overtaking this year.
Even DRS overtakes were proving difficult, as those fat 2017 cars found they were creating too much drag for an easy DRS pass.
But here’s a thing: the overtakes we did see were top-notch. Verstappen, Vettel, Grosjean, Sainz… up and down the field, there were cracking overtakes, proper wheel-to-wheel encounters and no shortage of courage (and blind faith).
I can’t say I was sad to see DRS being neutralised by the new rules but it was encouraging to see so many cars in close combat, throughout the pack.
It bodes well for the season ahead – and for seasons to come, if F1’s Motorsports Director Ross Brawn can build on this foundation.
Tyres. Rubberly stuff
Finally, we have tyres that don’t degrade too quickly but which don’t last forever either.
The teams and drivers were struggling to work out exactly what they should do with tyre strategy (and, of course, Ferrari managed to botch it for Kimi) but, rather than destroying the racing as in previous seasons, Pirelli’s rubber genuinely added to the spectacle.
Credit where it’s due to Pirelli, even if the conditions were unusually cool for an F1 race.
We’ll get a more realistic picture in a week, when F1 rocks up in the desert heat of Bahrain but, for now, the new tyres get a big stamp of approval.
Good tyres, great-looking cars, a genuine battle between top-notch drivers… is it too early to suggest this could be a classic season?