In a follow-up to his previous Opinion article, Nigel Chiu looks at further talking points from China.
There is no doubt that the Chinese Grand Prix would have been pretty dull without that safety car in the middle of the race. The man who was the most unlucky from the safety car call was the leader at the time, Valtteri Bottas. Even though I’m not someone for “ifs, buts, maybe, could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” talk we have to look at the situation that is more likely to occur throughout the season.
Bottas made another good start and just like Bahrain, split the Ferrari’s, getting ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. That is one tick. Then, he stayed within the undercut window to jump Vettel in the first pitstop phase. The Mercedes pitstop for Bottas was the fastest of the race at 2.15 seconds whilst Vettel’s pitstop was just under the 3 second mark. Bottas pitting a lap earlier with purple sectors on his outlap bridged the 3 second deficit and turned it into a one second lead over Vettel. We saw none of it from the TV pictures unfortunately but it must have been an incredible outalp from Bottas. The undercut isn’t that powerful at the Shanghai track yet a fantastic pitstop from the team with an equally skilled lap from the driver nearly gave Mercedes the win.
Ferrari tried to respond by not pitting Raikkonen so that he could slow Bottas down and allow Vettel to try something to get passed Bottas. It’s very annoying that Ferrari are already using Raikkonen as a number 2 driver in the third race of the year. They ruined his race and a chance of taking a podium. Luckily for Raikkonen, the safety car saved his chances. The philosophy of Ferrari has always been to do this but to do it this early is just wrong. They don’t care about the constructors’ championship and have put all of their eggs in Vettel’s basket and put Raikkonen’s in a completely different room. For me, Raikkonen has been just as quick as Vettel. He was arguably faster in Australia, but lost out due to the VSC; he would have been flying in Bahrain had Ferrari pitstop gone correctly and those supersoft tyres went on the car (a podium was almost certain) and he has qualified 2nd in every single race this year losing out to Vettel by fractions of a second. This year he’s been much better than the last couple of years which is good to see.
So much happened at the front but we must not forget the ever-changing midfield. McLaren seem to be struggling in qualifying but their race pace is very good. They’re 4th in the constructors’ championship and 6th with Fernando Alonso in the drivers’ championship. If you asked them would that be satisfactory for the 3rd race, I think they would say yes. McLaren did say that they would be up there with Red Bull. That was an overambitious target but they’re definitely improving and getting closer to the front. They have less downforce than Red Bull and seem to be struggling with tyres (I think they have a small operating window, similar to Mercedes). A lot of talk has been going on about a draggy car for McLaren and the evidence to show this is that they’re down in the speed traps, but as are the other Renault powered engines, however the fact Alonso and Vandoorne tried to give each other a tow (slipstream) in qualifying shows that the straight line speed isn’t there. Has this been the case for the last 4 years? If so, Honda’s lack of power has been made to look worse than it is if McLaren have had ‘draggy’ cars. It does look promising.
Nico Hulkenberg continued to impress again and I’m so tempted to give him a 10/10 driver rating but I’m just saving it because I’m hoping he puts in a special drive to finally get his maiden F1 podium. He’s started 7th in every race so far and his race pace was good enough to run with the big three teams after the safety car period. We must remember that Carlos Sainz is his teammate and he’s being outshone completely by Hulkenberg. People say Sainz is just as good as Verstappen, and we all rate Verstappen highly despite his recent mistakes, so far The Hulk’s ability to beat Sainz with relative ease is very impressive.
The battle between Renault and McLaren will be very close all year-long and they could push each other on (development wise) and get seriously close to the “Big 3”.
It’s good to see that Force India look much better even though they scored no points on Sunday. Their drivers, Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez look visibly more confident in the corners. A top 5 in the constructors’ is highly unlikely but they must battle hard to try to recover from their poor start to the season.
Romain Grosjean looks like he’s really struggling with the car and he says that the understeer really doesn’t suit him and that’s why he’s losing so much time to Kevin Magnussen who’s doing an excellent job. Grosjean needs to drive around the problem like the great drivers do or else he will be put under severe pressure to keep a seat in F1. I know its early days but I feel that Grosjean will have a disappointing season. Those 20 or so points that were lost at the Australian Grand Prix last month looks like it’s going to really hurt the team. The American outfit would have been 4th ahead of McLaren and Renault if it weren’t for those heart-breaking pitstops.
It looks like Toro Rosso’s and Pierre Gasly’s 4th place in Bahrain was an anomaly. I don’t think the car will be as bad as it was in Shanghai but they certainly won’t be the 4th best team on merit. For Gasly, he went from hero to zero as he hit his teammate after thinking that Hartley would let him through at the hairpin whilst Hartley was going to let Gasly through at the exit of the turn 14 said hairpin. The confusion caused a collision which caused the race changing safety car due to the debris left on track. Franz Tost was fuming (to say the least) after the race.
On the topic of safety cars, some people said that they should close the pitlane if there’s a safety car. Sebastian Vettel wasn’t happy with the timing of the it which is ironic after he won in Australia thanks to fortunate timing of a VSC (virtual safety car). I think that luck is part of motorsport and sport in general. Sometimes you need some luck but you still have to actually execute a solid driver to take advantage of some luck, like a safety car. Whenever there’s a safety car or VSC, someone in the field will be compromised and this time it just happened to be the leaders which is why this story came up. If you look at the last time a safety car came out immediately in the middle of a race then I’m sure someone in the midfield would have had their race ruined as well. Nothing needs to be changed.
As for Charlie Whiting taking quite a long time to call the safety car. To me, that was just silly and he shouldn’t have needed drivers on the radio to ask for a safety car. He needs to just use his common sense and make the decisions by himself. Referees in football don’t (or at least they shouldn’t) get influenced by the players so neither should Whiting. He needs to use his initiative and his own human instincts as to if he should call a safety car, VSC, use double waved yellows, whatever; decisions need to be made quicker. Imagine of one of the leaders ran wide and ran over the debris and got a puncture thanks to Whiting not calling the safety car earlier. The backlash he would have got would have been a nightmare for him. No rules need to be changed, just the speed of decisions.
Sauber and Williams both had quiet yet poor pace weekends. Nothing new there. I don’t know what to say really because I don’t see either of them getting points consistently and they will just be battling at the back. Unfortunately someone had to be at the back and this season it’s them.
That’s a run down of all the teams after the 3rd round of the year. Next up is Azerbaijan which should produce some more good overtaking and close battles. We go into every race not knowing who has the pace. Is it Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari? Small factors like wind, temperature and fine tuning the car will make the difference which is what I like to see. It should be like this and I love it when mother nature plays its part. We see things like cloud cover affect lap time and grid positions in other forms of motorsport and things like this will make a difference in F1 2018. Which driver can execute the perfect lap when the pressure is at its maximum, who can execute the perfect race, will the teams make the perfect strategy calls, who wants it most?
We will go into every race were these questions will have to be answered well enough by the teams and drivers to win the race or get a podium or point. It’s going to be one of the most highly fought F1 seasons in recent history and I cannot wait to see how it pans out.
Next up “Barmy Baku”.
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