It all boils down to tactical play

The wild weather conditions in Shanghai put premium on driving skill, but Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen struck the right balance to finish in front. By Alan Henry.

Lewis Hamilton’s defeat and Kimi Raikkonen’s victory in the Chinese Grand Prix reflected just what an unpredictable lottery Formula One can be when a wild card, in the form of extreme weather conditions, is tossed into the competitive mix. The race was all about tactics, drivers grasping any opportunity to inch their way up through the field while harnessing every bit of their teams’ technical and strategic experience to claim an advantage.

In dry conditions races usually unfold in a routine and orderly fashion. But in Shanghai the challenge was more complicated, calling on the competitors to strike the optimum balance between the weight of the fuel load, the grip of the tyres and the wet or drying track. The real risk in these conditions is being greedy and trying to squeeze too much performance out of your car for too long, as McLaren did with Hamilton, who skidded into a gravel trap and out of the race on his entrance to the pit lane after 31 laps.

“It was tempting to bring him in earlier,” said McLaren’s chief executive, Martin Whitmarsh, “but there were spits of rain at that point and the threat of another shower. We could have brought him in. Our assessment at the time was wrong, but we thought there’d be a greater risk if we put him on to dry tyres. The circuit was about ready for it but there is always a risk of a driver sliding off on coldish tyres in difficult conditions like that.”

In the opening stages Hamilton, having started from pole position, had built up a six seconds lead over Raikkonen after only 10 laps, with the Finn’s Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa, third ahead of Hamilton’s McLaren team-mate, Fernando Alonso. Hamilton made his first refuelling stop at the end of lap 15, briefly dropping to fourth, then climbed back to second before going back into the lead again on lap 19 after Raikkonen made his first scheduled pit stop.

As the race settled back into its rhythm after the first spate of refuelling stops, Raikkonen stepped up the pressure, trimming Hamilton’s advantage to less than 0.1sec on lap 28, the two surviving a brief wheel-banging moment before Raikkonen took the lead. And after Hamilton’s untimely exit the Finn was left comfortably in front of Alonso and Massa, with the impressive Jenson Button running strongly in his Honda, relishing treacherous conditions that put a premium on driving skill.

Raikkonen managed to keep using wet-weather tyres until his second refuelling stop and maintained very quick lap times right through to the end of the second stint. While the Ferrari driver won with a two-stop strategy, Toro Rosso’s rising star Sebastian Vettel made very good use of a one-stop strategy to finish fourth, a performance described as “a fantastic effort” by the team’s tyre engineers.

Raikkonen said he had to battle serious understeer at the start of the race which slowed the pace of his Ferrari. “I was one of the last to switch to dry tyres but this was a help as after a little while it began to rain again,” he said. “Even after the second stop the understeer came back again but, as before, the situation improved in the final stages.”

Hamilton had driven superbly to take his sixth pole position of the season, handling his McLaren with a deft economy of effort that was as immaculate as it was effective. At the post-qualifying media conference the mood of the weekend was thrown into sharp relief as the Ferrari drivers Raikkonen and Massa — second and third respectively in the final grid order — sat scowling morosely on either side of the elated young Briton. Raikkonen had set the pace throughout the three practice sessions but lost time in qualifying with power steering problems.

Alonso was equally furious that he had been unable to match Hamilton’s pace in qualifying. The Spaniard climbed from his car and hurled his helmet at the pit garage wall before storming back to the team office in the paddock where he punched a door off its hinges. But some 24 hours later he was smiling at Hamilton’s expense. “Today was a very good result for me,” he said after finishing second. “I had a battle with Felipe Massa at the start but was not able to get ahead of him by the end of the opening lap. I lost a lot of time due to understeer in his slipstream and just managed to jump him at the final round of refuelling stops which assured me of second place.”

The Spaniard refused to back down on his comments the day before the race that he had “expected much more” from the team this season and that “their treatment hasn’t been that good. It’s not treatment that a two-time champion deserves or even an ordinary person”.

“I didn’t say anything that is not true,” he said. “The team has been saying many, many things, many bad things about me, from Spa onwards especially, and the relationship hasn’t changed too much. He (the team principal, Ron Dennis) was the first one to say that he was not speaking with me and things like that, so from that point I understood that the championship was not easy for me at all.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007 WHERE McLAREN BLUNDERED

Bridgestone tyre technicians revealed that McLaren ignored their advice

The race is over for Hamilton. The McLaren driver gets out of his car after skidding off the track.-AP

It will be a three-way fight, with his team-mate, Fernando Alonso, four points behind him and the Shanghai winner, Kimi Raikkonen, seven points behind.

Although nobody at the tyre company would comment on the matter, it is understood that the Bridgestone engineers told McLaren to abandon their gamble of keeping Hamilton going with wearing tyres to avoid having to make an extra pit stop for fuel later in the race. At the time Raikkonen, in second place, was slicing several seconds a lap off Hamilton’s lead.

Hamilton said he was dismayed at sliding off just after entering the pit lane but remained confident that he would win the title. “I was having a great race and we didn’t know whether it was going to rain or not,” he said. “The tyres I was on were getting worse and worse and in the end I could almost see the canvas underneath.

“Coming in to the pits it was like ice. I couldn’t do anything about it. My mirrors were dirty; I couldn’t see the tyres but it felt like they were completely finished. I was coming in on that lap so it could have worked out perfectly. I’m sorry for the team; they did a fantastic job as always. We’ve still got one more race to go. Don’t worry, I can still do it.”

Ron Dennis, McLaren’s team principal, said that Hamilton accepted some share of the blame for his failure to finish a race for the first time this season. “I think Lewis drove an excellent race,” he said. “This was about how wet the pit lane was, tyre condition — it’s just one of those things. He was very keen to maintain the lead and was so comfortable pulling out a gap on Kimi, although I suppose he gave the tyres just a little bit more of a hard time. “I don’t think we did anything dramatically wrong and I don’t think Lewis did. But the circuit was much drier than the pit lane entrance and that made the difference. Lewis has been very controlled, obviously disappointed, and he acknowledges his part in the whole thing.”

McLaren’s chief executive, Martin Whitmarsh, admitted the team had to shoulder much of the blame for not calling Hamilton in earlier. “With hindsight we should have brought him in one lap earlier and we would probably have got the job done,” he said. “But it was a long race and we made those calls. Sometimes they’re bang on, sometimes they’re not quite right.”

Alan Henry © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007