Why the Chinese GP was the tonic Formula 1 needed

Full article published on Crash.net

Sunday’s entertaining Chinese Grand Prix provided a stimulating injection for fans sceptical of the direction Formula 1 is headed.

At the conclusion of the Australian Grand Prix, there was much debate about whether the change in regulations had improved the spectacle and given new life to the perceived ‘stale’ racing of recent years, largely induced by Mercedes’ dominance.

Fears the increased downforce added to the new breed of F1 cars would make passing on-track more difficult weren’t exactly quashed in Melbourne, as there was only a handful of completed passes during the 57 laps of racing. That said, a glimpse into the future was realised as Sebastian Vettel took the first victory of the season as he and Ferrari out-paced the Mercedes.

Fast-forward a fortnight to the second round of the championship in China, and F1 received a fresh breath of life as the criticisms that surrounded the sport’s direction were dismissed.
Not only was there action on-track, which climaxed when Vettel had a brilliant wheel-to-wheel fight with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, touching wheels as they headed into the Turn 7 left-hander, but there was a significant rise in the total number of overtakes in the race compared to Australia.

There were 54 passes completed during the race, and to add value to that statistic, the DRS gimmick took a backseat as only 10 of the overtakes were DRS aided. Drivers were forced to put faith in heavy braking and chancy manoeuvres into the two hairpins to fight one another for position. It was old-school style, providing fans with truly thrilling entertainment.

To put it in perspective, last year’s Chinese GP saw the record of the amount of overtakes broken as drivers passed each other 161 times, which was heavily assisted by the use of DRS on the two long straights. While there were over 100 less overtakes this year in changing conditions, the quality of overtaking exceeds the quantity.

Former F1 driver and current GPDA chairman Alex Wurz was more than impressed with the result of the new regulations, where courage is rewarded over patience.

“Overtaking this year is a matter of size of balls! Mega! I don’t need 135 easy overtakes, I love the real mega moves like Max and Seb showed,” Wurz tweeted after the race.

Many the overtakes during the race were credited to Max Verstappen’s remarkable drive to third after starting the race in 16th position. With a race start in wet conditions, and Verstappen starting out of position at the tail end of the grid, all eyes were on the teenager to deliver another spectacular performance comparable to his heroics at last year’s Brazilian GP. The Dutchman didn’t disappoint, immediately making up for a miserable qualifying session by gaining nine positions at the start of the race.

Fans were treated to another great scrap between Verstappen and Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo, as the youngster’s pace was uncharacteristically quick given how far off the team was in qualifying. The pair met again in the final six laps of the race, as Ricciardo had the edge thanks to a front wing adjustment during his second pitstop. However, a mature defensive drive on Verstappen’s part ensured his place in the top three, seeing off Ricciardo’s last gasp lunge into the Turn 14 hairpin and forcing the Australian to lock up and run deep.

In addition to the exciting battle between the two Red Bull drivers, there is the prospect of an open championship fight between Ferrari and Mercedes, which sees an end to the Silver Arrows’ dominance of the past three years. Vettel was less than two-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, and despite falling behind in the race due to an untimely pitstop during the early virtual safety car period, managed to keep on Hamilton’s pace as he fought his way back through the field from sixth position.

“I think it’s going to be one of the closest ones, if not the closest that I’ve ever experienced,” said Hamilton on the 2017 championship.

“I’m looking forward to this fight, not only with Sebastian but the other guys as well who are going to be in amongst it. Ferrari have done a fantastic job and I think it’s great that we’re both pushing. Those last 20 laps, really exchanging times. I kept having to be fed what times he was doing so I could try and match it. He was closing the gap a little bit, but managed to stay ahead.”

For the first time since 2012, the lead for the championship is tied between Hamilton and Vettel at 43 points apiece, while surprisingly, Verstappen sits ahead of both Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen in third.

The next few races will be crucial for Bottas and Räikkönen to see how they respond to a convincing defeat by their respective team -ates during the Chinese GP, and whether they can get their season into gear and mount a challenge for the title.

While Verstappen’s high position is not representative of where Red Bull sit in the championship pecking order, as was highlighted when the closest Ricciardo could get to Hamilton’s benchmark in qualifying was 1.3 seconds, the team is known for its efficient development and is anticipated to play a part in this year’s championship.

Once Red Bull’s anticipated major upgrade arrives in time for the Canadian GP, the Austrian outfit should pose more of a threat to the leaders. Despite showing they’re capable of outperforming the car, both Ricciardo and Verstappen are proven race winners and proficient in overtaking, meaning they could be a thorn in the side of either Mercedes or Ferrari in the title battle.

“It’s still pretty early and I think we’ve got the room to grow, develop and understand,” Ricciardo said.

“Do I think we can get there? Yes, but if it’s going to take a few more races or if it’s going to take until the mid-season break I’m not sure.

“I feel like the last few seasons we’ve had slow starts and it’s not intentional, we don’t obviously want it to be like that. If Canada’s as soon as it can come, that’s what it is, but we want it to come ASAP.”

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