Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Brilliant Hamilton brings season alive

Lewis Hamilton was fighting back the tears as he prepared to go out on to the podium after winning the Chinese Grand Prix. It had, he said, felt like "an eternity" since his last victory, in the Belgian Grand Prix last August. After he has come down to earth, he might well think it was worth the wait. This was - Martin Brundle and David Coulthard agreed - one of the greatest performances of Hamilton's career.

A thrilling race, in which it was impossible to pick a winner until very close to the end, put an end to Sebastian Vettel's domination of the 2011 season. From looking like his Red Bull had the pace to win every race, the world champion now knows he faces a fight.

From the very beginning of the season, it has looked like Hamilton would be the man giving the Red Bulls their closest challenge, but events had transpired in the previous two races to prevent him taking the fight to Vettel.

In China, though, Hamilton finally got the chance he had been waiting for and the result was one of the most exciting Formula 1 races for a very long time.

It ebbed and flowed, the advantage swaying one way and then the other between four teams and five different drivers, all coming together in a thrilling final few laps as the various strategies chosen by the different teams merged.

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What allowed it all to happen was both Hamilton and team-mate Jenson Button beating Vettel, who started from pole position, away from the grid. That demoted the German to third place on the first lap and prevented him from unleashing the full pace of the Red Bull and building an advantage he could then defend for the rest of the race.

Instead, Vettel spent the first part of the race bottled up behind the McLarens and from that position Red Bull made what eventually turned out to be a critical error - to do only two pit stops compared to the three of McLaren.

For a long time, it looked like it would work - starting from when Button made the astonishing error of stopping at the Red Bull pit instead of his McLaren one as he and Vettel came in for the first time.

That put Vettel ahead of both McLarens, into clear air and seemingly on course to cruise to victory. But it soon became clear it would not be as simple as that. He did not close on the leading Mercedes of the impressive Nico Rosberg as quickly as might have been expected, and neither was he pulling away from Felipe Massa's Ferrari behind him.

As the race developed, it soon became clear that it was turning into a classic F1 strategy battle - two stops versus three.

Had this been last year, with more durable tyres, the two-stoppers - Vettel and Massa - would have won out, as they were in front by the time all the leading runners had completed the stops.

But the deliberately rapid degradation of the new Pirelli tyres means that races are no longer about track position going into the final stages. Because the tyres can lose their edge so quickly, they are about who has the most grip in the closing laps. It is no good being in front if you do not have the grip to defend your position.

That created a brilliant spectacle - as was the idea when Pirelli were asked to design tyres in this way. Once everyone had completed their pit stops, Hamilton was in fourth place, and on tyres with much more grip than Vettel, Massa and Rosberg in the first three positions.

Hamilton's passing moves on those three got better and better - peaking with a superbly audacious dive down the inside of Vettel into the 150mph Turn Seven to take the lead. It was, as even Vettel had to admit, "a good move".

But arguably the best of all was the overtake that made the victory possible - taking what at the time was second place from Button into Turn One on lap 35, with 21 laps to go.

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It is not the easiest of places to pass - there is no sharp braking into that corner; the cars dive in and slow progressively as it gets tighter and tighter through nearly a complete circle. Hamilton seemed to catch Button unawares and there was a nervy moment when the older man suddenly realised his team-mate was there.

Button had a little wobble as he made room for Hamilton, and up on the pit wall team principal Martin Whitmarsh had his heart in his mouth. But it worked out and Hamilton had three laps to make up some time before his final stop.

"It felt absolutely incredible and was probably one of the best races I've ever competed in," Hamilton told BBC Sport's F1 Forum after the race. "It was one of the best grand prix wins I can remember."

It was indeed a quite superb drive, probably his best in the dry, and one that certainly ranks up there with his wet-weather wins at Japan 2007, Silverstone 2008 and Spa last year.

It was also a timely reminder that for all Vettel's impressive run of wins and pole positions at the end of last year and the beginning of this, there are a few other drivers out there who are at least a match for him if they are provided with the right equipment and circumstances.

Among them, Hamilton is right up at the top - and this win has closed the gap to Vettel in the championship to 21 points. Suddenly, a season that had looked poised to be a Red Bull walkover has come alive.

The key themes of the narrative are still not absolutely clear.

One, it seems, will be Red Bull's struggles with Kers. These again proved an Achilles heel for the team - Webber struggled with the system through the weekend, and it malfunctioned on Vettel's car in the race, just as it did in Malaysia a week ago.

Another will clearly be the impact of the tyres and the controversial moveable rear wing, or DRS as it is known in F1 jargon. For ultra-purists, there is an argument that the racing, while exciting, feels a little artificial at times.

As Webber, whose fabulous recovery drive ironically made him one of the biggest beneficiaries of the massive grip differences between old and new tyres, put it: "I'm still not a huge fan of how it is; sometimes the overtakes are not all that genuine because the guys don't have anything to fight back with."

But after a race as good as this, how much does that matter?

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/andrewbenson/2011/04/brilliant_hamilton_brings_seas.html

Emilio de Villota Ottorino Volonterio Jo Vonlanthen

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