The Chinese Grand Prix, which took place on 15 April, was the third of the opening four ‘flyaway’ races this year before the F1 circus, arguably the richest and most dangerous sporting show on earth, returns to Europe.
For the teams, mechanics and drivers, however, the contest at the Shanghai International Circuit, a vast modern monument to China’s rapid economic growth built in swampland an hour’s drive from downtown Shanghai, was far more than a signpost towards the end of the early Asian leg of F1’s annual global tour.
The F1 fraternity know that China is a key venue in their burgeoning business as they seek to complete a record 20 races across every continent in 2012. In both a sporting and an economic sense, it is one of the pillars of the championship.
Double champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was leading the way in the embryonic points table with 35 points before the race. Alonso, as surprised as most critics to see himself on top of the title race, knew he would face immense pressure from his rivals at Shanghai, notably from Briton Lewis Hamilton of McLaren.
Alonso, of course, was not the only champion in the field. This year, almost incredibly, there are six, boasting a total of 14 titles between them – seven (1994, 1995, 2000-2004) won by the German Michael Schumacher, now 43 and racing for Mercedes, and the other seven shared between Alonso (2005 and 2006), Hamilton (2008) and his McLaren team-mate fellow-Briton Jenson Button (2009), Finn Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus (2007) and the current defending double champion German Sebastian Vettel (2010 – 2011) of Red Bull.
Race for the title
Few, taking a cursory glance at the weekend, would have looked beyond Vettel to win in China, because of his rampant form of the last 18 months, and Red Bull’s equal domination in the teams’ constructors’ championship. But, in fact, it was German Nico Rosberg for Mercedes that took the podium, securing his maiden Formula One victory.
Prior to Shanghai, the McLaren men had swept the front row of the grid in first and second at Melbourne’s Albert Park in Australia’s season-opener in March and the second event at Sepang, near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and gone on to claim a win and two third places.
Hamilton, after taking two poles without a win so far this season, would have been determined to overhaul Melbourne winner and team-mate Jenson Button this time in Shanghai, where he is the only driver to have won twice before. But it was not to be – Hamilton finished behind Button to take third place. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull were fourth and fifth respectively.
However, the result was enough to push Hamilton into the world championship lead, two points ahead of Button. Alonso is now third, ahead of Webber, Vettel and Rosberg.
Shanghai's race was further evidence that Red Bull are not the front-running powerhouse team that they were for most of 2011.
Champion Vettel, at 24, the youngest double title-holder in F1 history and a serial record-breaker will be disappointed in his performance at the weekend, and indeed this season. He qualified in only sixth and then fifth positions in Australia and Malaysia, and finished second and 11th. Last season, he virtually owned pole and collected victories at will. His team-mate Australian Mark Webber, 36, was fifth and fourth on the grids, finishing fourth both times – statistics that say Red Bull are struggling to stop McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari out-performing them.
If it proved nothing else, the Chinese podium of Rosberg, Button and Hamilton suggested that this year’s scrap for glory is more closely contested than in recent seasons. Perhaps by the time the teams touch down in Abu Dhabi towards the end of the season the margins will have widened, but for now, making forecasts is futile.