Kurt Verlin
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2016 Chinese Grand Prix Recap: Rosberg Extends His Lead

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Rosberg jumps on the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix podium.

Rosberg jumps in celebration of his 6th consecutive win.

2016 Chinese Grand Prix - Top 10 ResultsIt’s the third round of the 2016 Formula 1 Championship and the (hopefully) final round of the qualifying format debacle. I’ll quickly summarize the latter for those out of the loop:

  1. The Formula One Group (a group of companies that govern the sport) implemented a new qualifying format for the 2016 season a few weeks before the first Grand Prix in Australia. It proved to be a total failure.
  2. In response to the backlash, the F1 Group immediately announced that qualifying would go back to the old format for the second Grand Prix in Bahrain.
  3. Before Bahrain, the F1 Group changed their minds again and decided to give the new 2016 format another go. It failed utterly once more, but the F1 Group insisted that it wouldn’t go back to the 2015 format.

Between Bahrain and China, the F1 Group told the racing teams to come up with a compromise, but in a rare example of Formula 1 unanimity, they all put their foot down and said they would only accept going back to the 2015 format. Ultimately, the F1 Group had to concede and officially decided to reinstate the 2015 format… for good, this time. Though given the mess that is Formula 1 management, it’s difficult to make it feel like a victory.

On the plus side, qualifying was actually entertaining this time.

Qualifying: Hamilton Starts From the Pit Lane

After qualifying on pole at every race so far, Hamilton had to contend himself with starting from the pit lane, having failed to set any time because of ERS problems with his Mercedes’ hybrid power unit.

That meant it was all up to Ferrari to grab pole away from Rosberg—and for a few moments, it looked as though it was about to happen. Vettel and Räikkönen were each on target for a pole contender, but they both braked too deep into the penultimate corner to make it happen. In a surprise twist, it was Ricciardo’s Red Bull that cinched 2nd place on the grid, proving that its Renault engine is far more competitive than it was in 2015. It also marked the first time Mercedes failed to lock out the front row since last year’s Japanese Grand Prix.

The Race: Chaos, Overtakes, Yet no Retirements

In an interview before the race, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Chairman of Ferrari, clearly explained that Ferrari needed wins and suggested that he was expecting one at the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix.

Given that Mercedes was looking more vulnerable than usual and that Hamilton was starting from the pits, a Ferrari win was beginning to look like a real possibility. There was, however, a pesky Red Bull in the way. And as it happens, it was a Red Bull that immediately compromised Ferrari’s race—though it wasn’t Ricciardo’s.

It only took a single corner for debris to start flying.

As Räikkönen went wide to avoid Rosberg in the first corner, Vettel filled the gap left behind, and Kvyat saw an opportunity to go for the inside line. Consequently, Vettel was pinched between two drivers and collided with his teammate, something that is probably at the top of the list of things any Formula 1 driver wants to avoid.

It’s hard to tell who was at fault for the incident (and in fact the marshals totally ignored it), but it’s clear Vettel wasn’t happy with Kvyat. He came on the radio a number of times to complain and then had a somewhat heated discussion with him after the race. I would guess that, having failed to see each other on the other side of Vettel, Kvyat and Räikkönen both assumed the German driver would have more space than he actually had. Vettel probably recognizes this himself, but with Marchionne watching the race with high expectations, it’s not surprising he was so adamant about defending himself and his teammate.

Vettel and Kvyat argue

Vettel and Kvyat have a tête-à-tête about the race start (as race-winner Rosberg laughs).

For someone beginning the race in the pit lane, Hamilton’s start was arguably worse. Ericsson ran into him while making an evasive maneuver, after which Hamilton’s wing detached and stuck itself under his car, causing damage to the underbody and forcing him to dive into the pits right away—just behind Räikkönen, whose own front wing had been smashed to pieces in the incident with Vettel and Kvyat.

Hamilton just can’t catch a break.

Ricciardo managed to jump Rosberg at the start, but a left rear tire puncture almost immediately cut Red Bull’s excitement short. It’s not clear what caused it; the most likely explanation is that he ran over a piece of debris left over from the chaos of the first lap—and in fact, there was so much debris on the track that the safety car was called out just four laps after the race had started.

After the safety car was recalled, Rosberg and Kvyat mostly cruised to a first and second place finish, respectively. Vettel, who had dropped to ninth after hitting his teammate, and then to 15th after changing his front wing, made an energetic recovery to grab the last spot on the podium.

Kvyat sprays Vettel with champagne

Kvyat is having none of Vettel’s complaints.

Vettel’s recovery was, in part, easier than it typically would have been because three of the fastest drivers in the fastest cars—Hamilton, Räikkönen, and Ricciardo—had needed to make an early emergency pit stop, sending them all the way to the back with everyone still left to overtake.

At first, it seemed as though Hamilton would earn the best result of the three. At the start of the final stage of the race (after most drivers had completed all of their pit stops), he had made the most progress. But Massa proved too difficult to pass for him and as he lost time behind the Williams, Ricciardo caught up on fresher tires and passed them both. Later, Räikkönen did the same, and even Verstappen might have been able to had the race lasted just one additional lap.

Ricciardo overtakes a Mercedes for the 2nd time this race.

Sainz and Bottas rounded out the top 10, both leading mostly uneventful races. McLaren had another disappointing weekend; they were aiming for points but the car simply lacked the pace necessary to get them there. Meanwhile, Gutiérrez actually managed to finish a race for Haas F1, but only in 14th place. Given the American team’s performance during the first two races, he would have likely hoped for better, though Grosjean fared even worse in 19th place.

Post-Race Thoughts: Still a Long Fight Ahead

So far, everything has lined up quite well for Rosberg, who now holds a commanding 36-point lead over his teammate. That being said, we saw Hamilton overcome multiple 20+ point deficits in the 2014 season and there are two more races in the 2016 season than there were then, so Rosberg will have to fight as hard as ever to earn his first championship title.

I expect Mercedes to win fewer races than they did last year or the year before. Ferrari is close to being a true competitor and, surprisingly, so is Red Bull. I did not expect them to do so well at the Shanghai International Circuit, where top speed can make or break a car. We also saw in Australia and China how Mercedes, despite its extreme performance, struggles to overtake cars who aren’t significantly slower. That means that it should be easier for other cars to throw a wrench into the title fight between Rosberg and Hamilton.

The next race takes place in Russia in two weeks. Let’s see if Kvyat can carry the momentum of his second place finish to a good performance at his home Grand Prix!

2016 Chinese Grand Prix - Championship Standings