A terrific start off the line at the beginning of the 2013 Chinese Grand Prix combined with a combative and assertive display of controlled, thoughtful driving throughout the 56 laps of the race in Shanghai was enough to hand Fernando Alonso a comprehensive victory in China on Sunday.
It was a race of multiple pit and tyre strategies, all of which clouded the relative positions and strengths of teams and drivers until deep into the race, but once all the tactics shook out it was clear that no one had an answer for Alonso who had proven himself to be quite simply the best driver on the day.
A faulty throttle sensor for McLaren's Jenson Button and a pre-start fuel leak scare on Paul di Resta's Force India were both resolved in time for the cars to take their place on the starting grid in eighth and 11th place respectively, leaving Mark Webber on a brand new set of soft option tyres as the only car starting the Chinese Grand Prix from the pit lane following his penalty for running out of fuel in qualifying on Saturday.
As the lights went out, pole sitter Lewis Hamilton comfortably pulled away in the lead while Kimi Raikkonen bogged down and was immediately jumped by both of the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. There were no major incidents on the opening corners, but at the end of the first lap Paul di Resta had contact first with his team mate Adrian Sutil, and then with McLaren's Sergio Perez as they battled over 13th place. No one needed to take to pit lane, however, with the exception of Webber who made a virtue of his start from the back by immediately pitting to change to the prime tyres having got his mandatory stint on the options out of the way while circulating at the back of the field.
Hamilton continued to lead the race but once the DRS was activated on lap 3 he was under mounting pressure from the two Ferraris behind him. Finally at the start of lap 5 Alonso blasted past him down the start/finish straight, and when Hamilton attempted to defend the position he left the inside line exposed for Massa to jump him as well. Hamilton had to concede the loss and focus instead on fending off Raikkonen for third place until he could get round to the pits to ditch the despised short-lived options.
The DRS activation had sparked a number of scraps right through the field, with Daniel Ricciardo forced to pit for a new front wing and Adrian Sutil's rear wing getting demolished by Esteban Gutérriez outbraking himself into turn 14 and rear-ending the Force India. The Sauber came to a crumpled halt in the run-off while Sutil limped back to the pits, but any efforts to change the rear wing came to an end when a fire broke out in the car's rear right brake duct.
Massa took charge of the race on lap 7 after Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Rosberg all pitted, but by keeping Massa out for an extra lap Ferrari had made a critical error, since the extra time spent on the options cost the Brazilian hugely and saw him return to the track behind Webber who was up to 11th place, although he quickly passed the Red Bull again with the aid of DRS.
With that initial round of pit stops completed for those that had started on the options, it was those drivers who had elected to start on the prime tyres and who had no need to come onto pit lane yet who were now in charge: Nick Hülkenberg emerged as the race leader ahead of Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Sergio Perez and Paul di Resta, with Fernando Alonso now in sixth place ahead of Hamilton and Raikkonen. The fresher tyres coupled with DRS meant Alonso made short work of Perez and di Resta, but Hamilton was having a harder time of it trying to follow in the Ferrari's tyre marks.
Hülkenberg came in for his first pit stop on lap 15 - earlier than hoped for on the prime tyres - and was joined on pit lane by Sebastian Vettel, who beat him back out on track in seventh place after the Sauber crew struggled with the right rear wheel. That put Button temporarily in charge of the race, some three seconds ahead of the rapidly approaching Alonso.
There was drama further back down field when a clumsy late overtake by Webber on Jean-Eric Vergne in the sister Toro Rosso team ended in tears on lap 16, Vergne spun around and the front wing of Webber's car shattered. Initially, Webber thought that the car was otherwise good to go, but after making it back to pit lane he suddenly realised that the rear-right of the car was now unstable: finally the tyre detached itself on the exit of turn 14, the untethered wheel ambling right across the track in front of other cars coming past that included Webber's own team mate Sebastian Vettel. Fortunately no hard was done, save for yet another early end to proceedings for Webber himself.
There was a scare for Kimi Raikkonen at the same time, as he tried to get past Sergio Perez who was defending his position with some vigour. That ended up with Raikkonen putting a wheel on the dry grass verge and as a result he made contact with the McLaren: fortunately the only damage was to the front wing of the Lotus and it wasn't severe enough to require an immediate visit to the pit lane for replacement, so both cars were able to continue.
Button held the lead through to lap 21, when Alonso finally caught and passed the Briton. Despite this setback, things were still looking reasonable good for Button who was still to pit and was running on his first set of medium tyres, compared with Hamilton and Raikkonen who were in for a second time having switched to the mediums just 14 laps previously. Button finally came in for his first change on lap 24, and was joined on pit lane by Alonso.
The two of them rejoined behind interim leader Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hülkenberg, with Hamilton and Raikkonen moving into fifth and sixth positions respectively once Perez came in for his own first stop - and a change to the dreaded options - on lap 25, with di Resta doing a solid job in managing to fend off Massa for seventh place. Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg had joined the list of retirees when he pulled into the Mercedes garage after a rapid sequence of fruitless pit stops failed to cure worsening understeer that pointed to a suspension issue with the anti-rollbar.
Alonso quickly raced his way back to the lead on lap 30, with Vettel even told by the Red Bull pit wall not to waste time defending against the Ferrari's advances but to concentrate instead on the long game by maintaining his own lap times. Vettel came in for his own second stop on lap 32 but unlike Perez he opted to stay on the medium compound for now, immediately showing its efficacy by overtaking Massa for sixth place on the very next lap. Vettel also made short work of Hülkenberg who had made his second stop and risked a mid-race stint on soft tyres. That put Vettel right behind Button, who was in fourth place on his attempted two-stop strategy until promoted back up to third by Raikkonen's next visit to pit lane for tyres on lap 35; Vettel was given the hurry-up by his team and duly passed Button on lap 37.
On the same lap, Hülkenberg returned to pit lane to shed the options and get back on the prime tyres; his stop ended up coming at the same time as Felipa Massa's visit to the Ferrari box, and the two came out side-by-side - until Hülkenberg struggled to disengage the Sauber's pit lane speeding limiter which released Massa to take the track position in eighth place. Next lap around it was Hamilton's turn to pit, but the slow stop left him in fifth place behind Raikkonen.
Alonso surrendered the lead again on lap 41 for his final scheduled stop, and he emerged pit lane so close to the rear of temporary race leader Sebastian Vettel that it only took two laps for him to complete another DRS move on the Red Bull into turn 1 to snatch the top spot back again. Button ceded third place to Kimi Raikkonen on lap 44 and then lost another position to Hamilton next time by, with the McLaren starting to struggle on its end-of-life primes and Button still with his final pit stop to come - along with that dreaded short stint on the options, which the team put off as long as possible before finally succumbing to the inevitable the end of lap 49.
By that stage Alonso's lead over Vettel was over seven seconds, followed by Raikkonen, Hamilton, di Resta and Massa, with Button rejoining in seventh ahead of Ricciardo who had just managed to steal a position from Hülkenberg. Button quickly put his option tyres to work while they had any pace left in them, and immediately claimed sixth position from a squirming Massa through turn 14 before his options started to drop off the proverbial cliff; however, he did end up gaining fifth place when di Resta's final pit stop on lap 53 which bumped the Scot back down to eighth behind Massa and Ricciardo.
Vettel came in at the end of lap 51 for his own final stop for the mandatory stint on the options, hoping for a similar boost in the remaining five laps of Shanghai as he resumed in fourth place 13 seconds behind Hamilton. Vettel made short work of that gap and he went into the final lap with the rear of the Mercedes looming large instead. The German hoped that lapped traffic would further hold up Hamilton in the final corners, but instead the Caterham caused more headaches for Vettel and caused him to run wide, giving Hamilton just enough of an edge to make it to the line ahead of Vettel despite a ragged exit from the final corner.
But there was no question as to the identity of the winner, with Fernando Alonso way in front as he crossed the finish line and was greeted by the chequered flag. A relieved Raikkonen came home ten seconds adrift in second place despite that dreadful start, with Hamilton and Vettel crossing the line side-by-side at the climax of their battle for the final podium position.
Arguably the decision to go for grid position at the cost of having the first stint on option tyres had been ratified; but Vettel's fourth place on an alternate three-stop run and Button's run to fifth on just two stops in an arguably below-par car was arguably the strategy of the way in the circumstances.
However, a number of drivers may now have an anxious wait well into the evening, as the race stewards reserved the right to investigate half a dozen different instances of cars overtaking using DRS while yellow flags were being shown on the track. Possibly affected are Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Romain Grosjean, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo as well as Marussia's Max Chilton.Full race results