F1 Chinese Grand Prix: five things we learned from Shanghai | Giles Richards

Giles Richards
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has flaws that come with youth but they are matched by an audacity that is a joy to behold.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images</span>
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has flaws that come with youth but they are matched by an audacity that is a joy to behold. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images

1) Max makes his mark

Max Verstappen has been rightly criticised, moving across Kimi Raikkonen on the Kemmel straight at the Belgian Grand Prix last year being a low point, but in China the 19-year-old was simply breathtaking. The flaws that come with youth are matched by an audacity that is a joy to behold. The Dutch driver passed nine cars on the opening lap and was in fourth place by lap six. After the safety car restart he skinned Raikkonen around the outside and shortly afterwards his Red Bull team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, up the inside of turn six, while Valtteri Bottas was a further victim. His place on the podium was down to more than just attacking; Verstappen defended with a maturity and skill that belies his years when being chased down by a determined Ricciardo. The pair went at it hard and it was Verstappen who came out on top to take third place. The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, called it a “remarkable drive” acknowledging Verstappen has proved he has the talent in the wet that marks out the great drivers. If Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are two of the best drivers of the current generation, Verstappen looks to be at the head of the new breed. If Red Bull can bring his car up to speed with Ferrari and Mercedes, Hamilton and Vettel are going to have to look beyond their mutual appreciation society and face a very real threat.

2) Overtaking looking good

Fears the aerodynamic focus would make passing all but impossible look to have been exaggerated. It is too early to say for sure but on this evidence not only can it be done but it is better than ever. Shanghai was replete with fantastic overtaking, not only from Verstappen. Vettel, among others, hurtled up the inside and outside, late-braking and brushing wheels. The drivers have already said how much they enjoy driving the new cars and are now saying how much fun they are to race – enthusiasm that has long been missing from F1. What was really crucial was that they were passes that meant something. Last year China had the most overtaking moves of the season with 128. This year there were 32 but it was quality over quantity writ large. Where previously they were DRS-based passes, this year they were largely drivers forcing the move through a corner, with skill and bravery. Ironically the largely disliked drag reduction system looks like it might finally be working under the new rules. As Horner noted: “It’s as it should be. The DRS is doing the job it was initially intended for: to give you the run but the driver still has to get the job done. All the overtakes we saw, and there may have been less, but they were all earned. Vettel on Ricciardo, Verstappen on Ricciardo, Verstappen on Bottas, they were all aggressive, take your opportunity overtakes. That’s the way it should be.” Let’s hope for more of the same in Bahrain.

<span class="element-image__caption">Niki Lauda and Lewis Hamilton at Suzuka last year. Lauda was certain Ferrari would take pole at the Chinese Grand Prix.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images</span>
Niki Lauda and Lewis Hamilton at Suzuka last year. Lauda was certain Ferrari would take pole at the Chinese Grand Prix. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

3) Niki bets against Mercedes

How serious is the threat Ferrari pose to Mercedes? Enough for Niki Lauda, the German team’s non-executive chairman, to put money on being beaten to pole by the Scuderia in China. Toto Wolff brandished a €10 note after qualifying, saying gleefully: “I am going to spend it all tonight.” It was the winnings from a bet placed by Lauda with Wolff before qualification on Saturday. “I think he was happy at losing the bet but generally Niki Lauda is not happy about losing money.” Mercedes did have the edge in Shanghai but there is no doubt Ferrari are right up there with them. “They have done an extraordinary job over the winter and need to be taken very seriously,” Wolff said, having tucked the note away.

4) Alonso makes his point again

Another wrestling his recalcitrant McLaren around a track for the second race in succession, Fernando Alonso did a mighty job. In Australia he described his drive as “probably the best race of my life”. And after going from 13th to as high as eighth in Shanghai,before retiring with a drive‑shaft problem on lap 33, he described his run as “incredible”. He said: “I thought Australia would be unrepeatable. Here it was the same or even better. The conditions helped, so we took advantage of that.” Part of the point Alonso is making is just what a fine job he is doing in getting so much out of the limited tools he has been given. The two-times world champion’s contract expires at the end of this year and reminding everyone what he is capable of is as good an advertisement of his talent as he can put out there. The more urgent debate has been whether he will see out the season at McLaren. The team are still confident there will be no flouncing. “Of course we want him to stay,” the new McLaren executive director, Zak Brown, said. “We have a contract and he wants to stay and he has been very consistent in saying that, including at dinner on Friday night. While he is as frustrated as the rest of the team he has said: ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ So he is not going anywhere.”

5) Bold move rewarded

Carlos Sainz is one of the more talented youngsters on the grid and he showed he had a racer’s instinct to take a chance. He has a lot to prove at Toro Rosso and to stake a claim for a seat with another team. When he turned up on the wet grid in 11th place on the slick, supersoft rubber, the 22-year-old caused a few raised eyebrows, not least from his own team. “On the grid I said I wanted to start the race on slick tyres and everyone thought I was completely mad,” said Sainz, who admitted he had his doubts: “When you’re on the grid, about to start a race, and you take a tough decision like that,there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders, knowing you might have blown away a good result. But I said, come on, trust yourself.” He stuck with the plan which looked to have gone spectacularly wrong when he spun behind the safety car but his instinct paid off. The track dried quickly and soon everyone else was diving in for dry rubber. For a brief period he had the whip hand and was catching Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. He followed it up with a fine drive to make the best of the advantage he had gained. It would have been easy to drop back and be swallowed into the anonymity of midfield. Sainz managed a superb seventh place – a feat recognised by his team principal, Franz Tost. “He drove a fantastic race,” Tost said. “Without the safety cars, I think he would’ve achieved an even better result. He certainly would have deserved it. It was great to see how he was fighting with the frontrunners.” There was much to enjoy in Shanghai and F1 looks at this stage to be in rude health. Having drivers willing to make bold moves can only enrich the experience.

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