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China 2007: Rivals gain from Hamilton crisis

7 October 2007

The Formula One world championship is alive and kicking after a quiet afternoon in Shanghai turned into one of drama with Lewis Hamilton's first retirement of the season.

The Briton appeared to be on course for the title for the first half of the Chinese Grand Prix, even when he was passed by Kimi Raikkonen, but a tyre problem - compounded by McLaren's decision to leave Hamilton on track with it to optimise the Briton's strategic options - threw the door wide open for both Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso to carry their hopes to Interlagos.

As forecast, rain arrived over Shanghai International Circuit in the build-up to the 56-lap event, forcing everyone to consider their tyre choice, but was never as bad as that which drowned Fuji a week ago. As a result, intermediates were the preferred option, with further showers predicted to spice up the afternoon.

And, for much of the opening 30 laps, the grand prix needed spicing up after resembling a slightly damp procession. Hamilton and Raikkonen made solid getaways from their front row positions, the Briton having enough in hand to move across and cover his Finnish rival on the long drag to turn one. Behind them, however, Alonso got a better run on Felipe Massa, picking the outside line around the switchback opening corner to edge ahead of the Ferrari, before Massa regained the advantage with the inside line at turn six.

Ralf Schumacher, meanwhile, did his bit to inject a little drama to the opening lap, spinning in the first corner and dropping himself to the very back of the pack, while both Tonio Liuzzi and Sebastian Vettel hinted at things to come by making up early ground, the Italian slotting in to seventh and his German team-mate making up the five places that he had lost after qualifying on Saturday.

With Hamilton pulling away at the front, the debate over relative fuel loads surfaced early, with the Mclaren driver expected to pit earlier than his rivals but carrying pace that contradicted exactly when he was expected. BY lap five, he was already 2.7secs up on Raikkonen and seven clear of his team-mate and, by lap ten, had increased those margins to 6.7 and 13.2secs respectively.

Rain came and went in the opening phase, possibly contributing to Rubens Barrichello and Anthony Davidson getting together on lap two. Both managed to rejoin from the run-off at turn one, but Davidson's Super Aguri bore the wounds that would eventually lead to his demise ten laps later, Barrichello having pushed his rear bodywork over the brake ducts and leaving the Briton with reduced retardation. A pit-stop failed to cure the problem and Davidson posted the first retirement of the afternoon.

The Briton's demise preceded Hamilton's stop by three laps, by which the rain had stopped. McLaren opted to leave the wearing inters on the points leader's car, a tactic replicated throughout the top four, sending him out with just a top-up of fuel. The stop dropped Hamilton to fourth, but he cycled back to the front as Massa, Alonso and Raikkonen pitted. The Finn had pressed on as soon as Hamilton had disappeared, and managed to close the gap between them by the time he rejoined from his own stop, although a brief moment on his out-lap cost the Ferrari a couple of seconds in the chase.

As the conditions continued to dry, Alex Wurz took the gamble of fitting Bridgestone's grooved slicks just three laps after Raikkonen had completed his stop. The Austrian, widely expected to announce his retirement from racing later today, was immediately lapping faster than anyone, prompting those following him into the pits to opt for a similar strategy. For four laps, the tactic appeared the right one, but the rain re-appeared briefly on lap 27, causing some to re-evaluate and return for inters.

Schumacher showed the delicacy of the choice, spinning at the final corner and retiring the beached Toyota, while Adrian Sutil ended a difficult weekend by clattering the barriers behind his fellow German, nearly taking out a camera position as he too sailed into retirement.

The tricky conditions prompted Hamilton to become more cautious, allowing Raikkonen to close right on to the tail of the Mclaren by lap 26. The Finn made a couple of attempts to take the lead, only for Hamilton to defend. The resistance was needless in the bigger championship picture, but demonstrated Hamilton's mindset, the Briton apparently determined to take the title in style. What he didn't know, however, was that his tyres were in a worse state than his rivals - a lot worse.

His early pace had already taken its toll on his front rubber by the time of his pit-stop, the left front almost a slick, but it was the opposite corner that ultimately brought about his downfall. Having eventually ceded to Raikkonen on lap 29, the Briton quickly fell into the clutches of Jarno Trulli, who had been in to change to the dry weather tyres. Even though the Italian ran off the road having passed the Mclaren, still Hamilton continued, his right rear now clearly showing a white furrow as the rubber delaminated.

With Raikkonen eight seconds to the good, and Hamilton running off at turn one, Mclaren appeared to give in to the inevitable, with the Briton ducking into pit lane at the end of lap 31. With less traffic having run over it, however, the pit-lane entry surface was wetter than the rest of the track and, carrying too much speed, Hamilton skated wide at the tight left turn. Almost in slow motion, the McLaren skated into the waiting gravel trap - itself an unusual feature - and Hamilton was unable to coax it out, despite repeated attempts and a gathering crowd of marshals. Reluctantly, the Briton climbed out, his first DNF of the season coming at precisely the moment he least needed it.

The dramatic turnaround not only left Raikkonen comfortably out front, but also promoted Alonso to second, the Spaniard having found a way past Massa with a cutback move at the hairpin on lap 26. The pair pitted simultaneously a lap after Hamilton's demise, both able to take the turn with their ailing rubber in better condition, and dropping only behind Robert Kubica as a result.

The Pole's moment of glory out front may not have been expected to last long, but was cut short when his BMW Sauber failed under him, allowing the remaining title contenders back into the top positions, with Kimi enjoying an eight-second advantage over his foe.

Although the drying conditions still contained the odd tricky area, as Raikkonen found on lap 39, the leading trio - with Massa in third - were seldom troubled, leaving the focus of attention to fall on the battle for the remaining points positions.

Poor tyre decisions had dropped David Coulthard away from the fifth place he had held in the early stages, and, although Kubica and Nick Heidfeld - amongst others -both moved up to be 'best of the rest', the closing stages saw the less likely pairing of Jenson Button and Vettel scrapping over the position. The German found a way through with 16 laps remaining and pulled away from those around him, having been involved in a multi-car squabble with STR team-mate Liuzzi, the two Renaults, Trulli and the two Williams-Toyotas in the early stages.

Liuzzi and Heidfeld engaged in the closest top eight scrap as they diced over sixth, while Coulthard reclaimed the final points position but remained under threat from Heikki Kovalainen to the flag. The Finn's hopes of maintaining his coring run had been largely scuppered in the first part of the race, his Renault suffering major understeer that dropped him down the order. Team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, after qualifying poorly, was moving in the opposite direction, flying in the latter stages, but unable to improve on eleventh after his second stop dropped him out of the points.

Raikkonen and Alonso were a long way in front of the interest by the end, the Finn taking the chequered flag for Ferrari's 200th F1 win almost a minute before the ecstatic Vettel greeted his crew with a display that trumped that of the winner.

The top two, however, had the most to celebrate, having closed to within seven and four points of Hamilton with one race to go. Interlagos will still see Hamilton start as favourite for the crown, but the pressure on him and McLaren will be greater still than it was in China.


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