Fernando Alonso won his second Chinese Grand Prix today in Shanghai to put the disappointment of scoring zero points at the last race in Malaysia firmly behind him.
In a race where tyre strategy was so important, Alonso demonstrated the best execution of a three-stop strategy while carefully managing his tyres to win the race by over ten seconds.
The Spaniard now sits third in the drivers’ championship, just nine points behind leader Sebastian Vettel,
Kimi Räikkönen and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton took the remaining podium places, but did not have an answer for the pace of Alonso today.
Vettel, who did not set a qualifying lap during Q3 yesterday, was just metres away from taking third place from Hamilton, but had to settle for fourth. Jenson Button, who also chose not to set a competitive time during the final part of qualifying, brought his car home in fifth via a two-stop strategy. Felipe Massa, who was one of the nine different race leaders today, eventually finished sixth.
Daniel Ricciardo had an excellent race to score his best-ever finishing position of seventh, while Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg collected the rest of the points.
Mark Webber, who started the race from the pit lane, was forced to retire after the right-rear wheel fell of his car, and Nico Rosberg also failed to make it to the end after a technical problem.
Sergio Perez failed to collect any points after scoring his second eleventh-place finish of 2013 and Williams once again failed to points after Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado finished thirteenth and fourteenth. Jules Bianchi continued his record of out-racing his team-mate and the two Caterham drivers by finishing fifteenth.
Tyres were the big topic of discussion going into this race, with a quiet qualifying session yesterday emphasising the fragility of the Pirelli soft tyre here in Shanghai.
These soft tyres were quick, but only for about one lap. The drivers qualifying in the top seven places on the grid had already done one hot lap on their tyres, and would be desperate to pit for the more durable medium tyres very early in the race.
Behind these drivers was the likes of Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel. They had not set a lap during Q3, and therefore had a free choice over their starting tyre. They could happily start on the medium compound, and pounce when the leaders started to struggle and emerged from early pit stops in traffic.
At the start of the race though, the main concern of pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was getting into the first corner ahead of the notoriously fast-starting Fernando Alonso and holding-off Kimi Räikkönen, who was starting alongside him on the front row.
Hamilton got off the line well, and was comfortably leading the race into the first corner. Alonso jumped up to second off the line, while Felipe Massa shot up into third to relegate a slow-starting Räikkönen to fourth.
At the start of Lap 5 though, Alonso used DRS to pass Hamilton on the left down the pit straight, stealing the race lead. To add insult to injury, Massa then passed Hamilton on the right. The Brit had been complaining of understeer – clearly his soft tyres had gone already – and he pitted at the end of that lap.
Nico Rosberg also came in for his pit stop on the same lap, requiring Mercedes to pit both drivers in quick succession. Fernando Alonso came in one lap later, along with Räikkönen, handing the race lead to Massa.
While these early pit stops were taking place, there was drama further down the field. Esteban Gutierrez, the Sauber rookie, failed to stop at the end of the long straight, and careered into the back of the Force India of Adrian Sutil.
Gutierrez was instantly out of the race, left sitting in a gravel trap in a shower of carbon fibre and wheels hanging from their tethers. Sutil made it back to the pits, but there was a heavy damage to his front wing and while the German sat stationary in his pit stop, his brakes burst into flames.
Massa stopped one lap later than his team-mate, but this was too late. The Brazilian emerged from the pit stops behind Mark Webber, who had started from the back of the grid, but had made the same number of pit stops.
Once the early pit stops were out of the way, Nico Hulkenberg, who started tenth, led the race. The German had Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button close on his tail. The top five were all on the set of medium tyres on which they started the race. Fernando Alonso was sitting sixth, one second ahead of Hamilton.
Hulkenberg and Vettel stopped on Lap 14, coming in from P1 and P2 respectively. Hulkenberg had a slow stop, and Vettel took overtook him in the pit lane.
While this was happening, there were more collisions out on track. Mark Webber had a coming together with Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso, and had to pit for a new front wing. Meanwhile, Kimi Räikkönen ran into the back of Sergio Perez when the young Mexican failed to see the Finn attempting an overtaking manoeuvre.
Webber retired from the race shortly after this stop. He started going slowly, reporting a problem with his right-rear tyre. Red Bull told him to recover slowly to the pits, but the wheel fell off the car before he got there.
Alonso re-took the lead of the race on Lap 21. He passed Jenson Button who, along with team-mate Perez, were the only two drivers yet to make a pit stop.
Alonso and Button pitted at the end of Lap 23. For Alonso it was the second stop of the afternoon, and for Button, who was trying to make a two-stop strategy work, it his first tyre change of the race. This handed the lead back to Vettel, who now had a comfortable lead over Hulkenberg. Alonso emerged from the pits in third place. Button was now fourth, and Hamilton was fifth.
By Lap 29, Alonso had made good use of his fresher tyres to get to the front of the field. Once Alonso had relieved him of the race lead, Vettel came into the pits for his second stop of the afternoon, taking on another set of the medium tyres.
Hamilton came in for his third stop off the afternoon on Lap 38, 18 laps from the end of the race. He emerged from the pits just behind Räikkönen, who had already made his final stop of the afternoon.
Räikkönen was now sitting fourth. The two cars in front of him (Vettel and Button – running second and third) all needed to make one more stop as they had not yet used the nasty soft tyre. Alonso was also due a third stop for another set of medium tyres, but the Spaniard had a 30-second advantage over the Räikkönen.
Alonso made his final stop of Lap 41, and re-emerged close behind Vettel, who was in temporary lead of the grand prix. Within a few corners, Alonso was past Vettel, back into the lead, and heading for victory.
The remaining podium places still had to be decided though. At some point, as close to the end of the race as possible, Vettel and Button needed to pit to use that mandatory set of soft tyres. Räikkönen and Hamilton were scrapping in fourth and fifth place, but waiting for the chance to snatch themselves a place on the podium.
It turned out that Räikkönen and Hamilton did not even need to wait for Button to make his pit stop to get past him. Both passed the McLaren within just a couple of corners once they had reached him.
Button made that final stop on the end of Lap 50, and Vettel came in one lap later. Vettel emerged from the pits in fourth place, meaning that Räikkönen had moved up to second, and Hamilton was now third. Hamilton had a cushion of over 11 seconds to Vettel though, and was not going to come under any pressure from the three-time world champion in the final five laps.
Vettel gave it his best shot though. He was two seconds behind Hamilton when the final lap started, and was on the tail of the Mercedes. Vettel had DRS at his disposal on the back straight, but was just too far back to make a move on Hamilton. In the end, he finished just 0.2 seconds behind the Brit.