Ferrari simply didn’t have the pace to challenge Mercedes at the Chinese GP, whether they attacked, defended, swapped or blocked. And with Red Bull not fulfilling all of their potential at the moment this created a rather ordinary race up front.
As the famous five red lights extinguished Lewis Hamilton’s first job in the GP, from second on the grid, was to balance the throttle pedal and clutch lever for the best launch with minimal wheelspin. He did this to great effect and the race was effectively his in the first few hundred meters.
Valtteri Bottas, from pole position, had some wheelspin as he crossed a white painted line in front of his grind slot and was probably lucky to remain in second by the exit of the T1/2/3/4 complex.
Behind him Sebastian Vettel had the better start but in avoidance of the struggling Mercedes lost out to his team-mate Charles Leclerc, who sliced up the inside to seize third place.
This would set the scene for some uncomfortable decisions on the Ferrari pitwall.
Behind, the pack were largely well behaved until the Turn Six hairpin when Danny Kvyat corrected a slide to an extent into the path of Carlos Sainz’s McLaren, which in turn was heading into a wedge formed by his team-mate Lando Norris returning to the race track.
Kvyat has a reputation which may have harmed him here.
He did marginally lose control of his car which walked him towards Sainz, and it did skittle both McLarens, but a drive-through penalty was harsh. It was after all the opening lap with other mitigating circumstances, and you could argue this one either way for a good while.
4:09 Anthony Davidson examines the start of the Chinese GP on the SkyPad. Anthony Davidson examines the start of the Chinese GP on the SkyPad.
I believe a five or 10-second penalty at his pit stop might have been more reasonable. A 21-second drive-through at the beginning of the race putting you at the back of the pack is doubly painful.
The big question here is whether the third-party consequences and resulting car damage of an error should impact on the scale of the penalty? That’s luck of the draw and there’s a more general ‘let them race and sort it out amongst themselves’ these days, but as I’ve said many times you have to have rules and a referee in all sports.
Which of course involves human interpretation and actions, and the Stewards have a lot of information and precedents to consider.
A general perception was that Vettel and his set up was the faster Ferrari in Shanghai, and so when he ended up in the slipstream of Leclerc in the sister car, with the Mercs pulling away up front, the team had to do something about it.
They ordered Leclerc to let him through which of course is humiliating and frustrating for the young Monegasque, and especially galling after car reliability robbed him of a glorious victory two weeks earlier. They mustn’t harm his credibility and paint him as a support act, that’s damaging psychologically and reputation wise, and isn’t easy to reverse.
0:55 Listen to Charles Leclerc's team-order radio woes during the Chinese GP. Listen to Charles Leclerc’s team-order radio woes during the Chinese GP.
If you were tuned into my commentary you’d know that I’d already suggested this may happen and I’d have done the same thing from how it all appeared. But, once past, Vettel didn’t have any more pace and proceeded to regularly lock his tyres up under braking.
That’s when it became clear that the Ferraris were staying in touch with each other only through the DRS rear wing available to the following car, and the switch only served to put Leclerc towards the clutches of the watching Max Verstappen.
Ferrari on Vettel-Leclerc order
Ferrari have been remarkably open and frank about how they will handle team orders this season, with a bias towards the more experienced Vettel if required. This was presumably to avoid some of the mistakes and dramas in recent years which created significant criticism and pressure.
But it won’t defuse or solve the problem because Leclerc is every bit the match for Vettel and he’s his own man despite his tender years.
A later Leclerc radio call ended in a slightly sarcastic ‘if you’re interested to know…’. I fully expect he’d still rather be a frustrated Ferrari driver than a happy Sauber/Alfa Romeo driver, but this will come to a head at Ferrari sooner than later and will become acrimonious.
Leclerc’s ‘no man’s land’ first pit stop consigned him to fifth place behind Verstappen.