They say letting a bull loose in a china shop is a recipe for disaster, so what happens when you double the number? What the Chinese Grand Prix proved, besides the fact that the Mercedes duo are still way out of anyone’s reach, is that a second and equally intense rivalry is brewing in the Red Bull garages.
There isn’t much to discuss when it comes to Lewis Hamilton. He was unbeatable today. So to0 was Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg who, after a poor start, proved that the W05 is as potent coming through the field as it is pounding out the laps in front. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s rivalry will be intense this season, there’s no getting around that. This is a delicious treat for those who were missing the days of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel battling it out in 2010.
Tastier still is the new Red Bull rivalry brewing between Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo who, after just four races, has proven to be Vettel’s equal, and sometimes superior, in the new-for-2014 machinery.
This superiority was proven in a difficult qualifying session on Saturday where the Australian grabbed his second front-row start of the season, but it was all undone before the first corner of the race after a poor getaway.
“I started on the dirty side of the grid and had quite a poor getaway; I was spinning up on the line a bit too long and lost the two places,” said Ricciardo of his start. He now had to contend with getting past Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel rather than just keeping them behind. This small mistake set the tone for his afternoon.
As is always the case in China, the front left tyre was the limiting factor in the race. The long-radius corners of turns 1,2 7,8 and 13 present huge challenges to the Pirelli rubber. Even with the more robust 2014 compounds, drivers were complaining of graining within the first 10 laps of the race. The driver’s ability to work around this graining, and wait it out until the tyre comes back into its working range, was what helped or hindered strategy, for the line between a two- or three-stop strategy was not as clear-cut as predicted on Friday.
It was this blurring line between strategy calls that acted as the catalyst for most of the action during the race. Red Bull could see early on the Sebastian’s tyre wear was worse than Daniel’s. The world champion was in for his first stop as early as lap 12, while Daniel came in three laps later. The fact that Sebastian was running in clean air for his entire first stint, on account of Hamilton’s huge lead, only substantiates Red Bull’s claim of heavy tyre wear.
With Ricciardo backing up his impressive long run performance in FP2 to extend his first stint, Sebastian emerged right behind Fernando Alonso after his first stop, thus damaging his “tyre”s from the outset. This was the race’s subtle turning point.
At this stage in the race, it was all about the eight second gap between Ricciardo and Vettel. The first inkling of what was to come came on lap 22 in the form of a radio message to Ricciardo informing the Australian of his pace relative to the other runners. He was, at that point, faster than both Alonso and Vettel. By a lot. The world champion was struggling massively and after just 10 laps on his medium tyres, he was already five seconds behind Alonso and under threat from the recovering Nico Rosberg. This played into Ricciardo’s hands who showed up at the scene just as Rosberg made his move on Vettel. The Australian was consistently faster than his teammate as shown by the world feed: four tenths up on lap 19 and 20, a second on lap 21 and two seconds on lap 22.
Daniel knew about his speed and of Sebastian’s troubles. It was just a matter of balancing his pace and Sebastian’s lack of it. If he could afford waiting for Sebastian to come to him rather than him coming to his teammate, then he would. An attempt around the outside on turn one proved fruitless but gave a small glimpse of the amount of wiggle room with which Daniel was working. Sebastian’s tyres were in such a state that any robust defense would send his tyres over the edge. By the end of lap 25, the radio message came through to Sebastian to let Daniel through.
Speaking after the race, Team Principal Christian Horner said: “After the second stop, it was apparent Seb’s degradation was particularly worse than Daniel[‘s], so we looked at switching him to a three-stop and therefore released Daniel who was very much focused on a two-stop at that point.”
In other words, Daniel was given priority. Sebastian’s response to his team’s request: “Tough luck”. Here’s the kicker, though. Sebastian never switched to a three-stop strategy. If I were him and relinquished a position for the sake of a better strategy, I sure would want to then execute said strategy. Nevertheless, Sebastian continued on at a much slower pace to Ricciardo’s expecting to make three more stops.
Daniel finally made it past on lap 26 with an inside move through turn one. Now, Vettel’s tyre struggles were clear, with his car slipping and sliding and wobbling as he put the power down. The world champion was now out of this fight. Over the next 30 laps, Sebastian lost 20 seconds to his teammate, eventually finishing the race a lonely fifth on the road.
If Vettel ever needed more motivation to get back on track in 2014, this was it, as was being passed by a Caterham. Sebastian never made a third stop, instead continuing on a normal two-stop strategy and suffering all the more for it. This isn’t to say the team told the German he would be switching strategies just so he would get out of Daniel’s way, but I wouldn’t blame Sebastian for thinking so. Nevertheless, he was diplomatic in his post-race comments.
“I didn’t understand as we were on the same tyre, unlike in Bahrain, so I double checked,” he said of his initial response to the orders to let Ricciardo pass. “When the team said we were on a different strategy, I moved over and then, as the race went on, I saw more and more that I didn’t have the pace. There was no point in holding Dan back.” With no mention of his lack of three-stop strategy, one wonders what the next few races have in store.
Behind this fascinating intra-team battle, some great drives were had further down the field. Nico Hulkenberg was excellent as usual, finishing sixth for the fourth time in a row. Sergio Perez made it two Force Indias in the points after the Mexican started 16th, and Daniil Kvyat finished in the points for the third time in his four race career. Impressive stuff from the Russian rookie.
“I’m not yet where I want to be with the car,” says Vettel of his early-season struggles. “But it’s an on-going process. Hopefully at the next few races we will make some more steps in the right direction.” No doubt his words ring true for many up and down the field. the job of catching the dominant Mercedes duo is becoming increasingly difficult. At least we know there are some exciting battles brewing at Red Bull to keep us satisfied.
Images courtesy of Red Bull/Getty Images and Sahara Force India F1 Team.