One of the groups the FIA plainly failed to consider when designing this year’s rulebook was the hardy perennial blogging contingent.  As you’re doubtless aware, we’re not professional writers.  Some of us work a relatively low-paid job, mind you, so we may be quite happy to consider a career change on a similar salary or even the occasional freelance gig.  Tell your friends.  Particularly if those friends represent a publisher.

Sorry, what?  Oh, yes.  Since we’re nothing more than racing fans who happen to enjoy writing too, the bulk of the blogosphere doesn’t spend Sundays sat in front of the TV taking notes and keeping a detailed lap chart.  We sit with a refreshing beverage and we enjoy the Grand Prix or, where necessary, endure it in the hope that something worthwhile might happen later, then we write a little about what we saw.  How exactly is the hobbyist expected to stick to these tried and tested methods if the participants in these motor racing events insist on actually racing each other?

The drama in this event, the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, got going 25 minutes before the start.  Lewis Hamilton had qualified 3rd in his McLaren, doing a single run in Q3 to save a set of fresh tyres while his main rivals ran twice.  This would surely stand him in good stead once the race got underway, but we wouldn’t find out unless his engine started, which it didn’t.  The mechanics ran off to thumb the manual and checked the procedure for starting a flooded Mercedes, removing the rear bodywork in order to mop up the excess fluids with paper towels.  With seconds to spare before the pit lane closed, the car fired up, allowing Hamilton to take up his grid slot.  Had it not done, Lewis would have started from the pit lane, having first had to wait for everyone else to go by.  Formula 1 is always a sport of small margins, but this one would prove particularly important as the afternoon unfolded.

So would the small margin of safety afforded to the Englishman when the race got underway.  From pole position, Sebastian Vettel made a poor start and lost out immediately to Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion settling into an early lead.  Hamilton looked to follow, Vettel looked to block aggressively and as the cars headed for turn 1, there was a gap to the inside of the track which was just barely big enough for a racing car.  Lewis took it, McLaren were 1-2 and Rosberg was close to making it a silver trio at the front, being rebuffed by a Wall Of Death number from Vettel around the outside of the first curve.

The race settled down briefly, with the three leaders forming a fast-moving train which was mirrored, 3 or 4 seconds back down the road, by Rosberg, Massa and Alonso line astern.  Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil were next in a Force India each, while Vitaly Petrov briefly held off yet another first lap forward initiative from Michael Schumacher until the Russian locked up, ran wide and ceded the place.  To find Mark Webber, recovering from a dismal qualifying session in the Red Bull, you had to look back to 17th place.  Webbo was on hard tyres while those around him used the softer option.  In a crowded midfield, one where everyone had more tyre grip and seemed entitled to use their DRS systems every lap, the Australian had little to go racing with.

Before long it was time to plan the opening round of tyre stops.  Jaime Alguersuari was first to commit, pitting after 11 laps spent holding up a queue of lower midfield runners.  The Spaniard came in for 4 new Pirellis, the Toro Rosso pit crew attached 3 of those tyres correctly and their driver was compelled to retire a couple of corners later when the 4th wheel simply fell off.  The next lap, Michael Schumacher came in and was reassured to find that Mercedes had provided a full complement of tethered tyres.

Webber, having barrelled straight off the racetrack at turn 1 in the excitement of a pass on Barrichello for 15th place, came in for new boots too.  His hard tyres were finished, but having used no soft rubber at all in qualifying, he had plenty of fresh sets with which to attack from the back.  At the front, his team mate was getting into it with the McLaren duo, snatching 2nd from Hamilton into the turn 14 hairpin on lap 15.  Lewis appeared to have nothing left in his tyres, but the team chose to pit Button first, in with Vettel at the end of that lap.

How Jenson came to mistake the Red Bull garage for the McLaren one remains somewhat unclear.  What’s certain is that he did, that the Red Bull mechanics at the front of the pit box greeted him warmly, that they then showed remarkable presence of mind to get immediately out of the way and beckon him through and that Vettel’s pit stop suffered no appreciable delay.  Button couldn’t say the same, having slowed down for the wrong pit box, sped up and then slowed down again for the right one.  Despite that, he would remain ahead of Hamilton, whose gripless in lap saw him lose another place to the Ferrari of Massa.

Button’s inexplicable slip would have left Vettel in a clear lead had it not been for Rosberg.  Demonstrating the huge advantages of timing your pit stops properly, Nico came in on lap 13, emerged with a clear track ahead and put in lap times good enough to turn a 5 second deficit into a 5 second lead after the stops had played out.  The racing fraternity was thus reconfirmed in its belief that God is German.  Vettel was safe in 2nd but making no headway on the Merc ahead, while Button, Massa and Hamilton ran in close company.  Schumacher had got himself ahead of Alonso during the first pit cycle and was defending his position with the thoroughness of a man who intended to stay there.  Alonso could get alongside in the DRS zone but couldn’t get by, with the Red Baron sending him the long way around turn 14 every time.  It would be lap 27 before Fernando, now out of the hunt for top honours, could find a way past.

On the same lap, Hamilton and Webber pitted.  Both men had good-looking tyres available from now until race’s end, which was of particular importance to Mark.  He was still mired in the lower midfield, having never been higher than 11th.  To top it all off there came the announcement that, in a wholly predictable twist, his KERS power boost was no longer working.  All of this was the prelude to an astonishing drive.

Rosberg’s race was about to work in opposition to Webber’s, with a strong opening half being spoiled by his fuel tank.  Mercedes had expected the pace to be somewhat slower, filling both cars with fuel for the race and discovering after a few frenetic laps that the quantity used wouldn’t be quite enough.  Nico and Michael were obliged to run more steadily in the second half of the show but both remained well-placed.

While McLaren, Merc and Mark charted a 3-stop course, it was becoming clear that Vettel and the Ferraris thought 2 would be enough.  This was having a detrimental effect on their pace, with those on fresher rubber running at least a second a lap quicker, but the time saved by avoiding that extra pit stop made staying out a worthwhile option.  Seb pitted for a set of hard tyres on lap 31, Alonso came in on lap 33 and Massa stayed out until lap 34 having shown good pace in the latter part of his stint.

Knowing that the race at the front was about to come alive, it was easy to ignore the scraps down the field.  In doing so, you’d have missed Schumacher reminding Heidfeld, Perez and Petrov in quick succession that the old dog has plenty of life in him yet.  You’d have missed the Renault duo having 3 separate stabs at crashing into each other through turn 14 in a single lap and somehow missing each time.  You’d have missed di Resta and Kobayashi having a see-saw scrap over the final points position which wouldn’t resolve itself until the later stages, as well as Heikki Kovalainen proving that when everything on the Lotus is working at the same time, they’re right with the established lower midfield runners on race pace.  Wherever you looked in this Chinese Grand Prix, there was a story to be told and, more often than not, an overtaking move to be seen.  It’s a real shame that there’s no way to get it all across in an hour or so, which is all the time there is for this recap to be put together and published, but it’s a joy to report that it happened at all.

With Vettel and Massa having completed their scheduled stops, the race now hinged on how much ground the rest could make up before their final pit visit and what they could do on fresher rubber afterwards.  They came on successive laps, with Button taking hard tyres on lap 37, Hamilton pitting a lap later and Nico following on lap 39.  Jenson had been disadvantaged somewhat by Lewis, who chose the lap before his team mate’s stop to come haring down the inside of turn 1 in the kind of brilliant, full bananas, absolutely committed move that obliges the man in front to either give way or join you in the fencing.

Vettel now led by 3 seconds from Massa, with Rosberg a couple of seconds back and fighting a rearguard action against the racy Hamilton.  Button was just about in touch, but as the race entered its final 15 laps and Massa began to fade, the battle for victory looked like it would come down to Vettel, Hamilton and goodness gracious me, Webber.

Webber?

After his 2nd stop, Mark had fallen to 15th but had plans to spend the rest of the afternoon on fresh soft tyres.  In a single lap, he took 2.8 seconds out of Rubens Barrichello to claim 14th place.  In clear air, a chain of fastest laps followed as Sutil, Kobayashi and Heidfeld cleared a path by making pit stops of their own.  On lap 32, the Australian passed Perez, who was trying to go for 2 stops and struggling for grip.  Before long, he was on the tail of Schumacher’s scrap with Petrov, seeing off the Russian on lap 34 and Schumi on lap 39 after more spirited defensive work from the German.  Shorn of KERS power, the Red Bull racer was having to do all of his best work in the corners rather than the straights, taking full advantage of the grip, braking ability and traction his tyres had in comparison to those of the drivers around him.  When his final stop came on lap 41, he rejoined in 7th, certain of points and homing in immediately on Alonso’s Ferrari, Fernando having a strangely sluggish afternoon.

At the same moment, Hamilton said goodbye to Rosberg on the inside of turn 6, Nico appearing to concede the place almost willingly.  There was now less concern over his fuel supply’s ability to last longer than the Grand Prix would, but McLaren had all the pace in this final phase and Mercedes, delivering to somewhere near their potential for the first time this season, had nothing by way of response.

Neither did Massa.  Hamilton had been reminded by radio that he’d have a tyre advantage at the end of the race and should press it home then, but immediately decided that lap 45 was close enough to the end of a 56 lap race and gave it the beans.  Massa defended hard through the DRS zone, out of the hairpin and into the final left hander, but going past the pits Hamilton made the most of a better corner exit and just drove by.  Before long, Felipe would fall into the clutches of Rosberg, who locked up, ran wide and let Button through at the hairpin.  Both men would get past the Brazilian, who wound up a disappointed 6th after a fine drive.

Why were there pieces of car strewn across the outside of turn 2?

Massa wound up 6th because after clearing Alonso, Webber then drove straight past the other Ferrari too.  He also got Rosberg, passing him with 3 laps to go in a move that started with an outbraking attempt around the outside of turn 6 and ended with Nico having to finally give best on the way into 7.  Finally, at the end of the penultimate lap, he drew up alongside button at the end of the DRS area, took the inside line for the hairpin and drove away from the McLaren to claim a podium finish that had looked impossible only 25 laps before.

There were pieces of car on the outside of turn 2 because Sutil, having gone wide on the entry, had been savaged in a faintly ridiculous fashion by Perez.  The Mexican reckoned that a reckless lunge up the inside, on worn tyres, from too far back and on a section of the course where an F1 car always suffers from poor grip, would surely see him pass Adrian without incident and not receive a drive-through penalty for his efforts.  The Mexican was wrong.

Had Webber spent a little less time behind Schumacher, he might have won the whole event to go with the acclaim of his peers after an absolutely stunning display of attacking driving.  As it was, though, the identity of the winner was obvious the moment Hamilton cleared Massa.  Vettel did his formidable best but the Englishman had the pace, the grip and the patience to select his moment carefully.  Into the fast sweepers of turns 7 and 8 for the 52nd time, Lewis drew alongside, edged the Red Bull wide and seized a lead he was not to lose.

While he settled back to savour victory, Alonso and Schumacher engaged in a spirited scrap for 7th that ran right to the last corner, as did Barrichello’s dice with Buemi for the right to say “I finished 13th in the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix”.  Just ahead, di Resta and Heidfeld clattered into each other within yards of the finish, though both were able to make it home.  Everyone was racing at all times and nobody knew the final outcome until the chequered flag fell.  This was a motor race from start to finish.

If that sounds like a novelty, it’s even more peculiar to think that the race wasn’t won by a German man in an Austrian car.  One swallow doesn’t make a summer, particularly with the major teams introducing an upgrade package to their cars for the Turkish Grand Prix in 3 weeks, but here was the clearest indication so far that the 2011 world championship fight might yet be exactly that.

Race results:

2011 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai International Circuit, 56 laps of 3.387 miles

1. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), 1hr36:58.226
2. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), +5.198
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +7.555
4. Jenson Button (McLaren), +10.000
5. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +13.448
6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +15.840
7. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +30.622
8. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +31.206
9. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +57.404
10. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber),  +1:03.273
11. Paul di Resta (Force India), +1:08.757
12. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1:12.739
13. Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +1:30.189
14. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1:30.671
15. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1 lap
16. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +1 lap
17. Sergio Perez (Sauber), +1 lap
18. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +1 lap
19. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +1 lap
20. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +2 laps
21. Timo Glock (Virgin), +2 laps
22. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), +2 laps
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), +2 laps

Not classified:

24. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +44 laps, tyre fell off after pit stop

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