If the opening two rounds of the season fell into Nico Rosberg’s lap, then everything went his way once more in China, as he swept to win number three of 2016, his sixth on the bounce.
Rosberg crushed the opposition at the Shanghai International Circuit as he demonstrated the capabilities of the Mercedes W07 Hybrid, leaving the rest of the field to fight it out amongst themselves.
Sebastian Vettel recovered from an incident at Turn 1 to finish as runner-up, while Daniil Kvyat took only the second podium of his Formula 1 career.
Race starts are not Daniel Ricciardo’s forte but after Mercedes shrewdly opted to fit Softs to Nico Rosberg’s car during Q2, it meant the pole sitter would begin on that compound, as opposed to the Super Softs attached to the Red Bull. It left Ricciardo with the advantage of superior traction off the line and in the short run towards Turn 1 the Australian was able to surge ahead.
Rosberg dutifully slotted into second position while behind Kimi Räikkönen latched onto the back of the W07 Hybrid, but had to marginally back off, with the turbulent air sufficient to send him on a slightly wide arc. As he did so, Vettel hugged the middle ground throughout the corner, leaving the door open for Kvyat, the young Russian having darted away from sixth on the grid. Vettel, surprised by the presence of the Red Bull on the inside, instinctively jinked to the left, where Räikkönen’s Ferrari was trying to cut back in from his wider angle. Contact was inevitably made and as Vettel lost momentum and positions, Räikkönen slid off track with front wing damage. That incident had further repercussions, for Räikkönen’s re-entry onto the circuit at slow pace caught out Felipe Nasr at Turn 2. Nasr, who had initially moved to the outside to avoid a gaggle of cars, had to swerve back across to evade Räikkönen and his path met with Hamilton’s trajectory. The pair collided, leaving both with front wing damage and the Briton with a loss of downforce for the second successive race.
Rosberg sized up Ricciardo across the opening two laps and when the Mercedes driver gained superior traction exiting the long-radius banked right-hander at Turn 13, he was able to cruise past and retake the lead; as he did so, Ricciardo’s left-rear tyre failed, sending the shredded rubber flying into the air before it landed safely. Mercifully, no-one was in close pursuit of the Red Bull driver.
Ricciardo limped back to the pit lane and it took Race Control just a lap longer to send the Safety Car out on track due to the debris which was littering various corners.
Rosberg stayed out in the lead as several of his nearest opponents pitted, leading to a period of frenzied action in the pit lane, in which it was astonishing that no driver even so much as clipped another. Vettel was down in 15th position, having cannily passed two slow rivals on pit entry, Ricciardo 17th, Räikkönen 18th and Hamilton, after an extra pair of stops to use, and discard, the Super Soft tyre, in 21st. It was a peculiar sight but it acutely demonstrated that while creating a mixed up grid could provide entertainment, a shaken up order can happen naturally; artificially forming such a scenario would surely be a regressive step.
Fernando Alonso and Pascal Wehrlein restarted the race in third and fourth but were rapidly overhauled by Kvyat, who was the lead driver to have made a stop. Kvyat dispensed with Felipe Massa to slot into second position, by which time Rosberg had built a seven second lead.
Vettel, on the Super Soft tyres, sliced through the pack with guile and precision, despite a close moment with Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, and would soon be on the hunt of Kvyat, whose move he labelled ‘suicidal’ on the team radio.
Vettel discarded his Super Softs for Softs on lap 17 and Kvyat followed suit two laps later, leaving Mercedes to naturally react the next time around, exchanging used Softs for a fresh set.
A sequence of blistering laps across the second stint provided further evidence of Rosberg being at one with the handling of the W07 Hybrid, as he increased his lead from 11.4 seconds to 28.6 seconds in the space of just 12 laps. At the venue where he collected his maiden Formula 1 win four years previously, Rosberg ensured in devastating fashion that no-one was going to beat him. His eventual winning margin was 37.7 seconds, the largest in the V6 power unit era, and it realistically could have been more.
Once clear of traffic Vettel faced a two second deficit against ‘madman’ Kvyat, coming tantalisingly close to DRS range until he gradually slipped away. Both drivers made their second stops on lap 37 but crucially Red Bull fitted the Medium tyres to Kvyat’s car while Ferrari preferred the Softs. Vettel rapidly honed in on his Red Bull successor and breezed past on the out lap to move into second. It was the maximum possible result for the Ferrari driver, considering Rosberg’s dominance, but he achieved it in a more round about, and entertaining, manner than usual. Not that it dimmed his irritation at Kvyat when they met in the ante room and the Russian enquired about the start clash.
"You? Asking what happened at the start," exclaimed Vettel. "If I don't go to the left you crash into us and we all three go out!"
Kvyat’s attempt at justifying his approach was cut down by an unusually irate Vettel, “No, no 'well', you came like a torpedo. It's not racing, if I keep going the same line we crash.”
Kvyat treated the incident with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement, retorting with a sequence of pithy one-liners, which rather backfired on Vettel's confrontational attitude. In the cold light of day, and with the benefit of watching replays, Vettel will no doubt realise it was merely racing.
Ricciardo was skewered once by the puncture and then by the Safety Car, with rivals having the advantage of making a pit stop with less time loss. Nonetheless, the nature with which Ricciardo raced through the field once more demonstrated his ability, particularly his precision and nous under braking. After a 2015 season in Ricciardo occasionally had to evaluate his own ability, this was a sensational drive to ensure he begins 2016 with a trio of fourth places. If Renault can deliver the anticipated engine gains in Canada, the prospect of the formidable Ricciardo as a regular frontrunner is one to relish.
Räikkönen didn’t make as much progress as his opponents due to being on the Medium tyres mid-race but once on the Softs he was able to move through the pack and collected fifth, absolving Vettel of blame for the first lap collision.
A short second stint on Soft tyres left Massa in fourth place during the final stint but while he was unable to repel Ricciardo and Räikkönen, he kept Hamilton at bay throughout the last laps. Hamilton, who had typically pulled off a sequence of effective moves, had a couple of uncharacteristically scruffy attempts at getting past the Brazilian to no avail. Aero loss and potential suspension damage hindered Hamilton and on the same tyre compound he found his limit with the Williams.
Nonetheless, for Hamilton this is surely the ideal scenario, continuing the narrative in which he has often thrived throughout his motor-sport career. He has often spoken of his desire to be involved in a fight for victories and the title and now, with Rosberg 36 points ahead, he surely has one to get stuck into. The best seasons are ones with an engaging narrative, and Hamilton must bounce back from adversity if he is to win the crown, much like he did two years ago.
Hamilton came across the line only a second ahead of Toro Rosso youngster Max Verstappen, who had lost out during the Safety Car period but fought back with typical brio, aided by running the final stint on Softs. Carlos Sainz Jr. started well but was unable to maintain such pace and finished ninth, having jumped ahead of Bottas on the final lap. Bottas was caught out by countryman Räikkönen on the first lap and drifted slightly wide but had kept pace with Massa on Soft tyres in the second stint. However, Bottas struggled for pace on the Medium compound and drifted back from his team-mate, a predicament which left him perplexed.
Sergio Pérez was in contention for the leading positions at the start but the unravelling of the natural order left him outside of the points, eight seconds shy of Bottas.
McLaren lacked pace but finished firmly mid-pack as Alonso was 12th, believing his strategy to be scuppered by the Safety Car, while Jenson Button couldn’t switch on the Mediums and was left 13th, as a final short stint on Super Softs was a gamble which didn’t work.
Esteban Gutiérrez saved two sets of Super Softs for his final stints and was a plucky 14th on a weekend in which he was affected by mechanical gremlins, including a failed DRS in the race. Nico Hülkenberg rued getting stuck in traffic, which accentuated his already high tyre degradation; a five second penalty for driving slowly at pit entry didn’t help his cause as he was left 15th.
Sauber adopted a different approach with Marcus Ericsson by running two stints on the Medium tyres but the inherent pace of the car meant 16th was the maximum possible.
Renault endured a troublesome weekend with Kevin Magnussen missing almost all of Friday’s action due to a suspension failure, meaning he headed into the race with limited data. He finished just five seconds clear of Wehrlein, who tried to hunt down the Dane at the end on Super Softs but ran out of time and tyres.
After the fairy-tale of the opening two rounds, Romain Grosjean was given a reality check as he lacked pace all weekend and endured a “horrific” race for Haas. Grosjean was unhappy with Ericsson’s driving at the start, which left the Haas with front wing damage, but the balance was all at sea and 19th was Grosjean’s present for his 30th birthday.
Nasr was left a lap down after his initial contact with Hamilton and was unable to join the pack for the restart, condemning him to an afternoon trundling at the rear in a car with limited capabilities. Rio Haryanto was 21st while Jolyon Palmer endured an awful weekend and came home in dead last, two seconds back of the Manor driver, emphasising the task ahead for Renault.
The task up front was more straightforward for Rosberg, but the German was not getting complacent with his early advantage.
“Of course Lewis is not many points behind, I don’t know, something like 30 points, that’s not much, that’s a race and a bit and he’s as focused and motivated as ever,” he said. “He will never give up and he’s the benchmark, he’s been the benchmark for the last years so the battle is going to be a big battle as always.”