Feature: Talking points from the Chinese Grand Prix

Testing, Testing, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. No, that’s not a microphone warm-up but the 2019 Formula 1 season so far for Mercedes. Motorsport Week takes a look at the key talking points from the Chinese Grand Prix.

Dominant without dominance

The dominant Ferrari team of the early 2000s never did it. Red Bull never managed it. Even Mercedes in their crushing phase couldn’t do it. But in 2019 Mercedes has become the first team in 27 years to start a season with three straight 1-2 victories. It has done so through a combination of extracting the maximum from its W10, on-form drivers, and a little bit of fortune. What must be worrying for Lewis Hamilton’s rivals is the points he has already amassed. Hamilton historically has started seasons a little sluggishly – two wins and a second equals his best start to a year – and he was all at sea on Friday. But he dug deep and spent qualifying experimenting with lines and balance to the point where he was almost in the right window once Q3 rolled around. A fractionally better second start phase than Valtteri Bottas effectively netted Hamilton the win and he conceded post-race that he had tweaked his driving style at Shanghai after subdued 2017/18 displays at the venue. It brought Hamilton up to 75 wins and gives him the title lead; he has only six points on Bottas but already 29 on Max Verstappen, 31 on Vettel and 32 on Leclerc. In 2017 it took 15 rounds for Hamilton to have such a gap over Vettel. In 2018 it took 14 rounds. It’s by no means over – we are just one-seventh into the season – but it’s a healthy advantage already.

Taking the Merc

It's Mercedes 3 - 0 Ferrari already in 2019

Double stops in Formula 1 are usually carried out when only utterly necessary but Mercedes opted to service its drivers on the same lap. One loose wheel nut, one dropped wheel, one front jack failure – anything – could have cost Mercedes a 1-2. But such was the confidence, the team work, and the efficiency that it was a remarkable 10 seconds or so. Want to know why they’re the best team? That. That stop.

Ferrari flailing Pt. 43

Mercedes is a formidable force so in order to overhaul them a rival surely has to be close to perfect. Ferrari, so far, has been found lacking. Titles are not won on good days but on bad days. Ferrari has emphasised that its SF90 is very strong but unless it can – as per Sebastian Vettel – “unlock” that potential, then there are going to be more events like China. The bigger talking point, perhaps due to the yawn-inducing nature of the race, was the imposition of team orders. It was an understandable switch, for Vettel was faster, but clumsy in its execution. Leclerc’s strategy, thereafter, was questionable, as Ferrari even missed out on the fastest lap point. It is not the first time in the past 12 months that Ferrari has either dithered or erred with an instruction, and it has a habit of turning a molehill into a mountain. It also raises more questions about which driver to back longer term. Even in 2018 it bizarrely hesitated with favouring Vettel but this season is an entirely new dynamic; Vettel can be as capable of brilliance as he is culpable of disasters while Leclerc is untested week-in week-out at the very highest level. But the starker reality is this: it won’t matter who winds up ahead unless Ferrari can consistently deliver the inherent pace is believes the SF90 possesses. A few more results such as China and Mercedes will be long gone.

Alexander The Great

A year ago Albon was almost untroubled as he perched in the Formula 2 paddock, still unable to confirm he was in for the full season, and making knowing glances about the viability of a sponsor. Fast forward 12 months and he has captured the attention of the Formula 1 world not just through his performance but his down-to-earth nature. His recovery from the pit lane, in the wake of his hefty FP3 shunt, was perfectly executed. He worked his way past rivals with efficiency and without taking too much out of the delicate rubber in the process. His defending through the final laps against Romain Grosjean was expertly judged and earned praise from his pursuant. Albon was handed an unexpected Formula 1 lifeline by Toro Rosso and so far he has firmly grasped it with both hands.

Haas-ta la vista

Haas has slipped down the order

Haas was one of the most eye-catching teams pre-season and delivered on that display with a best-of-the-rest performance in both qualifying and the race in Australia. But since then its race pace has evaporated. Kevin Magnussen tumbled through the order in Bahrain and in China neither driver scored points in a two-stop strategy. “The car’s amazing over one lap,” commented Romain Grosjean. “But as soon as we go two laps on tyres we’re not there anymore.” Magnussen added that he “didn’t really understand” the dearth of pace, especially in comparison to its strong one-lap form. Haas has, historically, been electric when it finds the right window but completely abject when it drops out of that narrow environ. In an exceptionally close midfield battle it cannot afford more weekends in which it misses the boat.

You no K hun?

7-DNF-DNF, DNF-DNF-7. Those are not the results that scream ‘yes, we’re on our way towards the top’ for while Renault’s pace this season has been mildly encouraging, its reliability remains concerning. It has struggled to sort its MGU-K since the start of the hybrid era and introduced an upgrade for China after a spate of problems in Australian and Bahrain. But Nico Hulkenberg’s race lasted just 16 laps as a suspected software issue led to another MGU-K glitch, prompting an early bath. Renault was vocal pre-season in the gains it has made with its engine and, so far, there has been progress, even if it remains towards the lower end of the power pecking order. But it has still yet to show that it can marry performance and reliability gains without one crucial component being compromised.

Here’s to the next thousand

Formula 1 was keen to celebrate its 1000th event (or rather, the 1000th event that counted towards the World Championship) in China but it was never going to be an enthusiastic occasion given the location and understandable difficulties in organising people and classic machinery in such a place. In reality the on-track action (or rather, lack of) means China won’t make the top 100, 500, or probably even 900, of Formula 1’s best races. Anyway, here’s to the next 1,000, whatever they may bring. Let's celebrate the start of the new Millenium with a much better show in Baku...