Considering Fernando Alonso’s mercurial 2012 season and his dogged determination to stay in the title hunt until the end of the year, it seemed odd to think that the Spaniard arrived in China without a win in 12 races: the longest drought of his Ferrari career. But it was lucky 13 for Alonso as he secured a straightforward win in an intriguing and complex Chinese Grand Prix.
The rapid degradation of the Pirelli tyres resulted in an insipid qualifying session; one topped by Lewis Hamilton, whose decision to move to Mercedes is looking increasingly smart with every session. Hamilton was able to retain his advantage as the five red lights extinguished, although front row starter Kimi Raikkonen was usurped by both Ferrari drivers before the first corner. The whole field negotiated the first few sequence of corners safely, although when they bunched up at the hairpin minor contact between the Force Indias pitched Paul di Resta onto the grass and he lost a couple of positions.
Hamilton begun to build an advantage but it proved to be short lived as Alonso reeled in his former team-mate, using DRS to take the lead at the start of the fifth lap. Felipe Massa followed Alonso through, relegating Hamilton to third. Mercedes opted to pit both drivers at the end of the lap and they were joined in the pit lane by Adrian Sutil, who had sustained rear wing damage when struck by Esteban Gutierrez. The Mexican rookie was battling compatriot Sergio Perez but misjudged his braking point and careered into the back of Sutil. Gutierrez was out on the spot while Sutil retired in the pits. The Sauber driver apologised to a disappointed Sutil and was handed a five place penalty for his error.
The early stops handed the lead to Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who had picked his way through fellow prime tyre starters Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button. Hulkenberg and Vettel enjoyed a brief stint at the head of the field until they pitted, with a slow stop for Hulkenberg handing track position to the reigning world champion.
Alonso picked his way through the traffic and established a position that allowed him to control proceedings. He twice had to pass Vettel, but the German’s submission was down to an alternative strategy rather than outright pace.
Raikkonen and Hamilton enjoyed a race long battle for second place, one that was resulted in favour of the Finn. The Lotus driver hit the back of Perez on Lap 16, damaging his front wing and losing downforce. An agitated Raikkonen soon passed Perez but could not challenge Alonso.
Vettel’s alternative strategy meant he only fitted the option tyres for the final five laps of the race. He had been 12 seconds behind Hamilton but slashed the gap and challenged the Brit on the final lap. A minor mistake heading onto the back straight cost Vettel and he ultimately missed out on a podium by two tenths of a second.
Jenson Button similarly saved the option tyres for his final stint but he pitted just twice and ended up in fifth. Massa tumbled down the order following his first stop and struggled to pass di Resta, limiting him to sixth.
Daniel Ricciardo followed up his excellent qualifying performance with the best result of his career. The Toro Rosso driver damaged his front wing early on in the race but drove with maturity to secure eight points.
Di Resta recovered from his off track excursion to finish eighth, ahead of Romain Grosjean and Hulkenberg, who struggled throughout the middle stint.
Mark Webber started from the pit lane on option tyres and pitted at the end of the first lap for primes. He had been working his way through the field but misjudged a pass on Jean-Eric Vergne, tipping the Toro Rosso into a spin. Webber scurried to the pits for repairs while Vergne continued with floor damage. An error in Webber’s subsequent pit stop left him with a loosely fitted wheel, which detached as he exited the hairpin. The wheel rolled across the circuit – ironically in front of team-mate Vettel – but came to a safe halt. Red Bull was fined for the incident, while Webber's misdemeanours earned him a three place grid penalty for next weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix.
Williams endured another difficult race as they split strategies for Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado, a method which saw their drivers separated by just 1.6s after 56 laps. Sadly for Williams, they were over a minute and a half behind race winner Alonso and not too far ahead of the backmarkers, who were once again lead by Marussia’s Jules Bianchi. Charles Pic split the Marussia drivers, with Giedo van der Garde rounding out the eighteen finishers.
2012 race winner Nico Rosberg joined Webber, Sutil and Gutierrez on the sidelines following an anti-roll bar failure.
The result means that for the second consecutive season three different drivers and teams have emerged victorious across the opening three races. Alonso's 31st career victory moves him to within nine points of Vettel in the championship, with Raikkonen and Hamilton also well in the hunt for overall honours.