Classic Chinese Grand Prix: 2011

Formula One returns to action this weekend after a three-week break as China plays host to the third race of an already enthralling season.

The Shanghai circuit has thrown up many an entertaining race since it made its debut on the F1 calendar back in 2004, and for the latest installment of Torque F1’s ‘Classic Grand Prix’ feature, here is a look back at the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix.

The McLarens of Button and Hamilton get the jump on Vettel at the start of the race

Sebastian Vettel arrived in China for this race in fine spirits. The German had dominated the first two rounds of the season in Australia and Malaysia, and looked finely poised to start off the year with a hat-trick of wins.

And the world champion’s confidence could only have grown after qualifying, after he obliterated the field to secure his third pole position on the bounce by almost three quarters of a second. The McLaren pairing of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, while an impressive lap by Nico Rosberg saw the Mercedes driver qualify fourth.

The surprise packages of qualifying were the Toro Rosso drivers, with Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi both producing stunning laps to get themselves into Q3. They started seventh and ninth respectively.

If three of the four Red Bull-backed drivers enjoyed fine Saturdays, the session could not have been more different for Mark Webber. The Australian suffered a disastrous Q1 and became the shock elimination at the first hurdle, leaving him down in 18th on the grid.

Race day dawned in Shanghai, and all expectations were again on Vettel running and hiding at the front.

But as the five lights went out the Red Bull did not get away at all well, and the McLarens did not need a second invitation to snatch the lead away from him. As the field entered the first corner, Button led from Hamilton, with Vettel down in third.

Jenson Button leaves the right pit box in Shanghai

It was a relatively quiet first stint of the race, with the most exciting action occurring on lap 10 when Alguersuari’s wheel came off following a botched pit stop from his team. The incident forced the Spaniard into retirement, a disappointing result after such a good qualifying session.

Button continued to lead, but Hamilton and Vettel were keeping him honest out front. As the top three entered lap 14, the gap between the three of them was no more than a second.

With pit stops imminent the McLarens’ tyres were beginning to go off, and Hamilton paid the price for it, as he dropped out of the DRS activation zone and Vettel completed an easy pass on the back straight to move up to second, before both he and Button peeled off into the pits at the end of the lap.

With the RB7 looking the dominant car in the field in 2011, it is perhaps a given that 22 of the 24 drivers wished they were driving it. But none of them made their desire to drive for the world champions quite as public as Button, who clearly felt he belonged at Red Bull and decided to have them service his car. The amount of time it took him to remember that it was McLaren who had a new set of tyres ready for him cost him the position to Vettel.

The McLarens fought out a thrilling duel during the race, with Hamilton eventually coming out on top

One man who everyone had forgotten about was Rosberg. The Mercedes driver had gambled on making his first stop earlier than everyone else and it paid dividends in fine style, as he got the undercut on the top three and moved himself into the lead of the race. Button and Vettel followed behind, while Hamilton had lost out as a result of the pit stops, and he ended up down in fourth.

The downside to Rosberg’s gamble was that he was now on worn rubber, and although he went on to lead the second and third stints of the race, his chances of winning the race would be minimal as he would have to complete longer runs than his rivals.

It left Vettel in the net lead ahead of Button and Hamilton, and it was Lewis who was the quicker of the two McLarens. After reeling in his teammate, he pulled off a characteristically ballsy move on lap 36 when he pounced up the inside of Jenson into the first corner and took second place, behind the still leading Rosberg.

The race had been good up to that point. Not a classic by any means, but a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a Sunday morning (BST). Now was when it began to get interesting, as it became clear that Vettel was going to try and complete the race by making only two stops, while the McLarens behind him were to visit the pits on three occasions.

It meant Vettel had made his second and final stop on lap 32, and enjoyed several tours of the Shanghai circuit with much more grip than the Englishman.

But when Hamilton made his third stop the fight for the win really began. He exited the pits fourth, behind Rosberg, Vettel and Felipe Massa.

Rosberg exited the pits for the final time ahead of Hamilton, but the McLaren driver quickly dispatched his future teammate and set about passing Massa’s Ferrari, which he duly did at the start of lap 45.

Twelve laps remained. Hamilton had six seconds to make up on Vettel, and he was on tyres that were able to last much longer than the Red Bull.

Vettel and Hamilton fight it out for the win in the closing stages

He began to quickly and consistently reel in Vettel, gaining on him at more than a second a lap, and by the end of lap 50 he was right on the leader’s gearbox.

With the benefit of DRS he tried a pass on the back straight, but Vettel was wise to his advances and held him off for another lap. Whilst Hamilton had the time and the pace to pull off an easy move to take the lead, that would have been boring. The Englishman has style in abundance, and he wanted to find a more adventurous way to take first place and all but secure his second win in China.

And he did so on perhaps the most unlikely part of the track. Hamilton was saving KERS over the first part of the 52nd lap, and as the leading pair exited the hairpin at turn six it looked like Vettel was safe in first place for the next few corners.

He wasn’t. Hamilton deployed his KERS and the effect it had on his McLaren was similar to that of a rocket-booster. He shot alongside the Red Bull and flew up the inside at turn seven. Hamilton had pulled it off, he had the lead and he was on his way to taking the chequered flag for the first time in 2011.

Now, whilst being fashionably late is a rite of passage reserved for almost all partygoers around the world, it isn’t something you’d associate with a racing driver while he is competing.

Clearly, no-one had told Mark Webber about that. The second of the Red Bulls had run a virtually anonymous race from his disappointing grid slot. He’d clawed himself up into the points, but he’d done nothing to make his presence known in the race.

Mark Webber drove a storming race from 18th to finish on the podium

One advantage, however, of being knocked out in Q1 is that you are able to save more sets of the faster soft tyre, for the race, and it was a weapon that Webber waited until the last possible moment to utilise. Schumacher and Alonso were swept aside, quickly followed by Massa and Rosberg, which left the Aussie four laps to close in on Button and incredibly, claim the final podium position.

He did so on the penultimate lap of the race, making full use of the DRS zone to drive clean past the McLaren driver. From 18th of the grid, Webber was going to finish on the podium.

It was a late charge that was equally as impressive as Hamilton’s, but it took nothing away from the quality of the McLaren driver’s performance. After nearly failing to make the start after his car suffered a fuel problem just before the race, the Englishman stretched his advantage over Vettel in the last few laps and secured his first win of the season.

Vettel followed him home, ahead of Webber, Button and Rosberg. Massa finished sixth, ahead of an unusually quiet Alonso, while Schumacher, Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi completed the points.

Victory for Hamilton in China

Classification (after 56 laps)
1) Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes
2) Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault
3) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault
4) Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes
5) Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes
6) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari
7) Fernando Alonso (Esp) Ferrari
8) Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes
9) Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Renault
10) Kamui Kobayashi (Jpn) Sauber-Ferrari
11) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes
12) Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Renault
13) Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Williams-Cosworth
14) Sebastien Buemi (Sui) Toro Rosso-Ferrari
15) Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes
16) Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Team Lotus-Renault
17) Sergio Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari
18) Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Cosworth
19) Jarno Trulli (Ita) Team Lotus-Renault
20) Jerome D’Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin-Cosworth
21) Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth
22) Vitantonio Liuzzi (Ita) HRT-Cosworth
23) Narain Karthikeyan (Ind) HRT-Cosworth

Not Classified
Jaime Alguersuari (Esp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari

Stephen D’Albiac

P.S. I’d like to say a big thank you to Sarah, who runs the @F1_Fans_Updates account on Twitter, for allowing me to use her poll to decide the ‘Classic Grand Prix’ for this weekend. Much appreciated.

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