It has been a year of firsts thus far for Lewis Hamilton, with his first victories on the circuits in Malaysia and Bahrain. That trend continued here in China on Sunday, when for the first time in his Formula One career he scored a hat-trick and brought his tally of wins equal not just to the great Jim Clark’s at 25, but also to that of his Mercedes boss Niki Lauda.
Last time out Hamilton had demonstrated how to race and win cleanly yet decisively under the most intense pressure. This time he was totally untroubled throughout, and instead the lesson was all about tyre and fuel management judged to the nth degree.
His sole problem came as he went into his last lap – and was accidentally shown the chequered flag prematurely, on the 55th instead of the 56th lap. “That was very strange!” he said, the pleasure of his achievement writ in every line of his face. “I thought, ‘Am I seeing things?’ I looked up, saw the flag and lifted for just a moment, but I couldn’t see anybody on the pit wall so I just lost a second or so, but then I just kept going. It was good to do another lap!”
Ridiculously, because of that fundamental error the race had to be called after the 54th rather than the 56th lap, under FIA rules.
After the footling problem that caused Hamilton’s retirement from the opening race in Australia, this is turning into a golden year for the man who came into Formula One on a tsunami of competitiveness in 2007, and for whom multiple championships were predicted, only to be thwarted by the rise of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Now the boot is on the other foot and it is Mercedes who have the advantage. Even having to start the race with calculated settings on his car, which could not be tested when Saturday was wet, did not present the slightest problem, and he did not hesitate to outpsych his opposition further.
“Honestly, I can’t believe how amazing the car is and how hard everyone’s worked,” he smiled, relishing the fact that while everyone else had been complaining about front-tyre graining he had been able to run longer before making his first pit stop. That nearly backfired as he lost quite a lot of time when his tyres were changed, but the moment he resumed in the lead he quickly began to pull away again.
“The left front tyre is the one that grains and wears and I’d gone a lot longer than planned, so when I locked it up I ran wide briefly in one corner, but there’s a lot of run-off here so it was all OK,” he said. “After the second free practice session we had to make a lot of changes to the car to improve the balance, but we didn’t guess them; we made them in anticipation of what we would want on a dry track, and they worked perfectly so I was able to look after the tyres, and really I was just racing myself.
“It feels incredible. I’m so happy because I had such a great race and really enjoyed it, especially the last laps when I was pushing to keep the temperatures in the tyres. The car was really good; we are continuously pushing forward and I couldn’t really ask for more. This team is on a roll, that’s for sure. Let’s hope it continues.”
If it was an easy race for Hamilton, it was not for his team-mate, Nico Rosberg. The German scored his 13th consecutive finish in the points and maintained his World Championship lead over Hamilton after fighting back to second place, but the margin is down from 11 to four points. As Hamilton disappeared after the start, the German struggled away and then hit Valtteri Bottas’s Williams in the first corner. Thereafter it was a matter of playing catch-up in between pit stops, and the lack of telemetry on his Mercedes made it a tough afternoon for him. At one stage he snapped back at his race engineer when asked once too often to provide feedback on fuel consumption from his dashboard readout.
“It’s definitely a consolation to lead the World Championship,” Rosberg said, “but I’m not using the word ‘still’ because I plan to keep it that way. Second is good, considering that the whole weekend went completely wrong for me. As for that telemetry thing, it wasn’t a problem having to give a reading every now and then – the problem was that I didn’t like where they were asking me to do it, which was turn one!”
In the end, the Silver Arrows were separated by 18.062sec in another peerless demonstration, while third place was a major fillip for Ferrari as Fernando Alonso’s pre-race assertion that they were catching Red Bull was vindicated.
“It was a good weekend and we did improve the car a little bit,” the Spaniard said. “But being on the podium is some sort of surprise, a nice one.” His main problem was a collision at the start with Felipe Massa’s fast-starting Williams. “It was a big contact,” Alonso admitted.
It was a terrible day for Vettel, whose troubled season continues. Outqualified by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, for the second race in a row he was told to let the Australian by, even though Ricciardo was on the same compound tyres and two-stop strategy. This time Vettel resisted the order initially, telling the team “tough luck”, but eventually he ceded fourth place on the 25th lap.
It was another horrible afternoon for Jenson Button, whose McLaren lacked downforce and could only finish 11th, 10sec from the final point. “It was a real struggle today,” he said glumly. “There wasn’t a lot we could do.”