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.