Just 15 minutes before the race, Lewis Hamilton didn't even know if he would be able to begin the Chinese Grand Prix; 56 laps later, and the McLaren-Mercedes star was toasting his first victory of the F1 2011 campaign after managing his tyres to absolute perfection and producing a sparkling performance in Shanghai.
The drama around Hamilton's car in the build-up to the grand prix was caused by a fuel leak after the fuel line in his MP4-26 came loose, spilling fuel into the airbox of the engine and necessitating some frantic last-minute work from the McLaren mechanics, who removed the airbox to rectify the issue, sending the Briton out of the pits with barely half-a-minute to go before the grid closed. The tactics had always been to send Lewis out late – but this was rather later than had been originally anticipated...
Hamilton went on to repay his team's stellar efforts in some style – and following some criticism about his ability to look after the tyres in the wake of his Malaysian Grand Prix misery, in China, he demonstrated that lessons had been learned and that he can not only make his tyres work, but that he can make them work better than most of his rivals.
As Sebastian Vettel bogged down slightly off the line, Jenson Button needed no second invitation to pull alongside and seamlessly snatch the lead as the starting lights went out, with the pole-sitter forced to defend against Hamilton in third, but the 2008 F1 World Champion was having none of it and aggressively kept his foot in on the inside into Turn One to make it a McLaren one-two.
Mercedes Grand Prix ace Nico Rosberg fancied a piece of the action too as he attempted to follow Hamilton past Vettel, but his compatriot closed the door to at least preserve third place, with Felipe Massa again out-starting Ferrari team-mate Fernando Alonso to run fifth and the two Force Indias of qualifying star Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil running line-astern in seventh and eighth respectively. Michael Schumacher and Jaime Alguersuari completed the early top ten.
As Button focussed on putting some clear air between himself and Hamilton, the Ferraris were applying the pressure on fourth-placed Rosberg, whilst further back, born racer Kamui Kobayashi perhaps predictably became the first man to make use of the deployment of DRS by making his way past Scuderia Toro Rosso rival Alguersuari for tenth, and swiftly going on to home in on the di Resta, Sutil and Schumacher scrap over seventh place, the Scot reporting 'a lot of problems at the rear' of his Force India.
As HRT's Vitantonio Liuzzi earned himself a drive-through penalty for a jump-start, Vitaly Petrov – who had lost ground at the start – left the two Toro Rossos of Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi in a Lotus Renault GP sandwich in twelfth and 13th, with team-mate Nick Heidfeld right behind in P14, ahead of the luckless Mark Webber, who was going nowhere from his lowly 18th grid slot and was a full 18 seconds shy of the lead after only seven laps.
As the STR duo went at it hammer-and-tongs with each other, Heidfeld cleared Buemi and Alguersuari's pit-stop immediately afterwards at the end of lap nine gave the German some well-appreciated clear air. A little further back, Sauber rookie Sergio Perez found his way past Williams veteran Rubens Barrichello, and almost immediately afterwards, extraordinarily nailed Webber all the way around the outside as the Australian continued to struggle.
Alguersuari's stop began a flurry of first-round pit visits, but the Spaniard found himself out-of-luck when – having palpably not been fitted on properly – his right rear tyre flew off shortly afterwards, whilst a slow pit-stop for Webber only added to the RBR star's woes.
Rosberg became the first of the front-runners to pit from P4, as the battle right at the front heated up, with Hamilton turning up the wick on his team-mate, as Vettel similarly piled on the pressure behind. With less than a second separating the trio, Button was afforded some welcome breathing space as Hamilton – visibly losing rear grip – found himself having defend for all he was worth against a feisty Vettel, who effortlessly breezed past along the back straight for second place.
Button and Vettel both pitted at the end of lap 15, but there was drama for the British star as he unfathomably pulled into the Red Bull 'box. He swiftly realised his mistake, but by then it was too late – and the erstwhile race leader's critical error cost him track position. There was further misery for McLaren as Hamilton lost out to Massa before making his own pit-stop, meaning both of the Woking-based outfit's drivers ceded a position during the stops – but incredibly, all
of the front-runners lost out to Rosberg, whose early stop had vaulted the young German comfortably to the head of the field, to the tune of some five seconds at the end of lap 19.
As his pursuers focussed on finding a way past the two-stopping Heidfeld – with the ever-opportunistic Hamilton neatly following Massa past the German, by now struggling on the older 'Option' tyres – Petrov in the sister Renault a little further up the track was frustrating the attentions of Vettel.
With Rosberg holding a net lead from Vettel, Button, Massa and Hamilton, Schumacher – who had leapfrogged Alonso in the pits – found himself needing to defend his position from the Spaniard, who finally succeeded in squeezing his way past but not before losing a significant chunk of time. Further back, Webber – KERS-hobbled once again – set about chasing down Sutil and Kobayashi in the scrap over ninth place.
As Vettel closed countryman Rosberg down in the lead, Button pitted for the second time at the end of lap 25, followed by Rosberg and Hamilton, promoting Vettel back into the race lead, but the reigning world champion was losing ground, and his advantage over the Mercedes was just 16 seconds – not enough to make an extra stop should he require it.
With Vettel suffering from radio problems and unable to communicate with his team, Rosberg – on fresher tyres – brilliantly forced his way past Alonso into the final corner – to reduce Vettel's margin to just eleven seconds, with Button and Hamilton similarly fighting their way past the Ferrari shortly after.
As Vettel continued to lose time, an inspired Massa was closing him down, having left his team-mate Alonso fairly trailing in his wake. The Red Bull pitted on lap 32, rejoining only sixth behind the two McLarens – with Hamilton now right up with Button – and Alonso.
As Schumacher fought his way through traffic, Massa pitted from the lead at the end of lap 33 – with the major question now regarding who would and who wouldn't have to stop again – whilst there were doubtless a few winces on the McLaren pit wall as Hamilton set about relieving Button of third place, with the pair going wheel-to-wheel at the end of the pit straight and the latter only just getting out of it in time to allow his team-mate safely through after being caught slightly unawares.
Button stopped again with 18 laps to go to change over to a new set of hard tyres, whilst further back, there were engaging battles brewing between old foes Petrov and Alonso and Webber and Schumacher, the Australian gutsily forcing his way past the most successful driver in F1 history before making his third and final pit-stop shortly after. Rosberg's final stop, meanwhile, dropped the German behind Vettel and Massa in third but just
ahead of the charging Hamilton, against whom he needed to defend fairly robustly.
As the laps ticked down, that left Vettel with a 3.6-second advantage over Massa, with a fuel-conscious Rosberg gaining on the Ferrari and the McLarens of Hamilton and Button following merrily along in his wake. The Mercedes star, however, lost out significantly when Pastor Maldonado in the Williams rejoined the fray following his final pit-stop right in front of him, and within just a matter of moments, the ensuing delay had enabled Hamilton to nip past up the inside and into P3.
Behind the battle over the podium spots, Alonso lay a distant sixth, with both Webber and Schumacher gaining on him, with di Resta, Kobayashi, Sutil, Heidfeld and Petrov disputing the last of the points-paying positions – but all eyes were very much on Webber, who was lapping an incredible three seconds a lap faster than anybody
else in the field, and had soon nailed Alonso for sixth.
As Sergio Perez made controversial contact with Heidfeld further down the order, Hamilton was flying and with just ten laps to go, he had caught Massa for second place, effortlessly snatching it away along the straight and setting his sights firmly on race leader Vettel, with tyres that were – crucially – six laps younger than that on the Red Bull ahead of him, and just three-and-a-half seconds in arrears.
Vettel responded to the pressure by setting his fastest lap of the race, but tellingly, even that was still four tenths of a second slower than the pace at which Hamilton was travelling, with Rosberg and Button now chasing Massa down for the final podium position. Rosberg dived down the inside of Massa into the Turn 14 hairpin, but in going in too deep on the brakes, the German ran wide on the exit and gifted Button fourth place in the process – whilst behind them, the charging Webber was flying along at a fair rate of knots, lapping some three seconds a lap faster and just ten seconds behind.
As Perez continued his combative drive by coming together with Force India rival Adrian Sutil with a banger racing-style move down the inside into Turn One – leaving the German with a damaged front wing and earning himself a drive-through penalty for his troubles – Hamilton was inexorably eating away Vettel's lead. With five laps left to run, they were absolutely together, as Button moved past Massa for third and left the Brazilian to deal with fending off Rosberg and Webber, who was driving absolutely like a man possessed.
Rosberg forced his way past Massa for fourth heading onto the pit straight – sending the Ferrari wide indeed in the process – with Webber continuing his remarkable charge to similarly overtake the scarlet machine shortly afterwards, meaning that with four laps remaining, the Aussie lay just two seconds behind Rosberg and less than five in arrears of Button.
As a KERS-less Vettel defended his lead from Hamilton for all he was worth, parking his car neatly on the apex of corners in an effort to slow the following McLaren down – but even that was not enough as the irresistible Briton swept by on the run down to Turn Seven and sped away into the distance.
The chief focus now, then, turned to Webber, and whether he could steal the final podium spot – and the answer, extraordinarily, was that he could. Lacking KERS like his team-mate, still he didn't let that hold him back as he gutsily toughed it out with Rosberg to move into fourth, and then forced his way past a combative Button at the end of the back straight on the penultimate lap to crown an absolutely outstanding performance.
As Hamilton took the chequered flag for a superb victory and Vettel hung grittily on for second place on fast-deteriorating rubber, Webber was inarguably the star of the race as he completed the podium, a scant 7.5 seconds shy of winning the grand prix and 2.4 seconds behind his team-mate – had there been just a handful more laps, who knows what Mark might have achieved...
Button wound up fourth ahead of Rosberg and Massa, the Paulista comfortably ahead of off-form team-mate Alonso, who was tracked right the way across the finish line by Schumacher in seventh and eighth places respectively. Petrov and Kobayashi completed the points-scorers, ahead of di Resta and Heidfeld, who collided on the final lap as the German tried to go around the outside of Turn 14 but squeezed the Scot, who gallantly refused to yield and lost some pieces of his car for good measure.
Rubens Barrichello, Buemi, the delayed Sutil, an impressive Heikki Kovalainen, Perez, Maldonado, Jarno Trulli, Jerome D'Ambrosio, Timo Glock, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan all similarly took the chequered flag – meaning HRT could take heart from a two-car finish at the end of a race that had served up drama and spectacle from lights-out to chequered flag.
Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and most of all Pirelli – we salute you!
To see the race result in full, click here