The 2014 Chinese Grand Prix was not the most exciting race to grace the Formula 1 world championship, especially following the thrilling Grand Prix in Bahrain immediately before it. Lewis Hamilton repeated his unchallenged ease to victory that he enjoyed in Malaysia, something that could become common when the Mercedes drivers don't have one another to race. Nico Rosberg's drive to second was a great save considering the team ran the entire race blind with no telemetry fed to them from the car, and after he gave Valtteri Bottas a hefty whack at the first corner. Despite leading the world championship, Lewis is getting away from him a bit now having won all 3 of the races that he has completed and has recovered much of the points gap that Rosberg inherited in Australia. Both drivers will still be wary of reliability hurting their championship chances, but Hamilton has the early form and maturity to keep his head and do what he does best when chasing a points gap.
The Mercedes drivers, team, and indeed their rivals have all placed high praise on the W05 and its advantage over the field. In the first 4 races of 2014, it has secured every pole position, fastest lap, and race victory. It has also lead every single lap of the season so far, and these facts make it the most dominant car to start a season ever. It is a very real possibility that a Mercedes driver will win every single round of the 19 race 2014 championship, an achievement not even the dominant McLaren Honda MP4-4 was able to do in 1988 as Gerhard Berger won the Italian Grand Prix in his Ferrari. But who would take the victory if both Mercedes succumbed to reliability woes? I wouldn't even want to begin predicting anything after the start to this season!
In China it was the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso who stood up as the best of the rest. Following a very disappointing pair of results for Ferrari in Bahrain, and the promotion of Marco Mattiacci to the team principal role "vacated" by Stefano Domenicalli, Fernando Alonso was able to step up to his usual best and give the closest battle yet to a Mercedes 1-2. Nico Rosberg comfortably took second from him in the end, and Daniel Ricciardo was ready to pounce had there been an extra couple of laps to do so. It won't answer all of the doubts right away though as Kimi Raikkonen continued to struggle, and Mattiacci will of course need time to fully establish what his role within the team is. His appointment from the automotive sector into Formula 1 seems likely to be about his relationship with Luca di Montezemolo, and will hopefully introduce a bit more bite to a team that shouldn't be rolled over as easily as they have when usurped by another team. 1 bad season for the Scuderia will be forgiven if followed by a championship hunt the following year, but they have instead allowed themselves the same excuse since narrowly missing the championship in 2010, and Vettel's dominant 2011 season.
The midfield fight continues to intrigue this year, with the form of no team apparently set against their rivals. Red Bull did well to finish as high as they did despite the straight line deficit to the rest of the field. Whilst Lewis Hamilton topped the speed trap figures at 317.7kph, the Red Bull's were last and second last, over 7kph slower than Romain Grosjean's Lotus in third last. Knowing the Renault engine is down on ultimate power to Ferrari and Mercedes, the team opted for more downforce tha helped out in the middle part of the lap in the high speed corners. The speed trap also highlighted the sudden downturn in McLaren's form, who are now below even the midfield chase. Despite the superior Mercedes engines, they were 8th and 15th fastest in a straight line and don't have the same efficient aerodynamics which helped Red Bull negate the disadvantage. Jenson Button claimed McLaren were second best in Bahrain before the clutch issues, but it seems the reality is that they are back to 2013 form after capitalising on the shaky start of others in Australia.
Williams' form continued to fluctuate as they qualified well but fell away after collisions at the start. Massa was further hurt by a pitstop error, but Bottas followed Hulkenberg all the way to the chequered flag and finished in 7th, not a bad result given the teams and drivers ahead but not in league with the teams earlier race pace. So is China now the tipping point where Red Bull and Ferrari have overcome their Mercedes powered rivals in the midfield? The circuit characteristics along with the rate of change in 2014 certainly leave a cloud over the question, and we are still waiting to see just who is second best to the Mercedes team. To add further to the puzzle, Lotus are seemingly getting on top of the pace issues they had when reliability doesn't force them to stop early. Romain Grosjean was running in 10th before retiring on lap 30 with gearbox problems. Pastor Maldonado was able to recover to 14th on yet another weekend to forget to the Venzuelan, finishing between 2 of the Mercedes runners. The team would have been glad in Australia for the finish, but strange errors on Friday and the grid penalty for his Bahrain incident meant that the team are still waiting for their first 2014 championship points, and the frustration with Maldonado is starting to show. He beached the car in the pitlane entry in free practice 2 which lead to a rather telling radio conversation between team and driver.
The tight battle in the midfield has 2 teams once again at the tail end of the field fighting over best race finishes rather than points. Marussia and Caterham have closed the single lap gap to the midfield runners, but even with some drivers struggling in each qualifying session, the gap is still enough to keep them locked to the back 4 grid slots. Curiously, the ultimate gap between them and the rest of the field seems to open up later in the race rather than consistently throughout.
The graph shows the distances between the race leader and each competitor at the end of each lap, and the green and black / grey lines along the top are the Caterham and Marussia drivers. The graph clearly shows the 2 pitstop windows and therefore the stints on each set of tyres. Both the Marussia drivers and Caterham drivers stay with the field in the first stint with only Marcus Ericsson falling away having had 2 poor in laps on fading tyres. The gap starts to develop in the second stint for all of the drivers, with a recovering Felipe Massa showing the true rate at which Lewis Hamilton was moving away from the midfield. Marcus Ericsson again struggles with his tyres before his second pitstop, and by the time that Lewis Hamilton pits for his final tyre change the gaps are very clearly defined and growing. It seems that the battle over the last positions is down to making the tyres last the distance, with only Jules Bianchi able to 2 stop like the rest of the field. Kobayashi should have finished ahead of him though, having overtaken him on the last lap before the chequered flag error robbed him of the pass. The problem is that with less aerodynamic and mechanical grip than their rivals, they are having to using up the tyre grip faster and without any benefit to their lap times and race pace. It appears that being closer in qualifying is somewhat masking the true deficit they have to make up to the midfield.
By Perry Brown, 23rd April 2014