The Bahrain Grand Prix did not give the expected results: while many were expecting to see the Ferrari of the tests again, this one gave once again a bad image of itself, being the victim of reliability problems. The beginning of the season did not have good results even for the most promising midfield teams. After some excellent results in Barcelona, Haas has suffered two retirements in just two races by Romain Grosjean, and arrives in China with only eight points collected by Magnussen in Australia. The same is the case with Renault. The French stable, which finished fifth in the 2018 World Championship and is once again considered the favorite this year (outside of the top three), has suffered three failures: one in Australia and two in Bahrain. Definitely not the start they hoped for. The same can be said of the rookies: all three are the authors of good performances. George Russell, Formula 2 champion, proved himself despite the problems the team is facing. As a matter of fact the British driver has always qualified ahead of his teammate and on track he has not been less than him; it is not the best scenario for a rookie driver, but this does not take away from the fact that George is working hard to acquire as much data as possible in order to improve himself more and more.
"We know where we are at the moment, but it was a good race for me (in Bahrain). I was able to fight a little bit with Robert, I'm thankful that the team allowed us to race, it was nice. Personally speaking it was a good race, but obviously it's not too rewarding to finish in 15th position. We know what we are fighting for, but the important thing is to bring the car home and collect some new data".
His compatriot Lando Norris picked up his first points in Bahrain, as well as his first for McLaren, which saw the Spanish driver retire twice. Norris arrived second in the Formula 2 championship and after having been part of the McLaren Junior team and having been a test driver for the team, he arrived in Formula 1 not only thanks to his talent, which has seen him dominate in all the categories in which he has participated, but also thanks to the trust placed in him by the English team. Finally, Alex Albon, also British but with Thai origins on his mother's side; origins that he has decided to honor by racing under the flag of this nation. Albon was classified third in the Formula 2 championship, thus having the opportunity to arrive in the top category together with Russell and Norris. The latter's performance does not disappoint: he had already given a good impression during the winter tests, then he qualified ahead of his teammate in both races held so far and finally he won his first points in Bahrain, finishing ninth. These are Albon's words about his feelings and learning process so far:
"It's been steep. Getting in the car in Barcelona, getting up to speed. The cars today are so sophisticated that you get pretty comfortable quickly. It's more the interaction with the team and studying the data outside of the car, which definitely teaches a lot. So being with Dany, listening to her feedback and how she communicates with people also helps me. But yeah, it's going well. The simulator has helped too. So far so good".
In addition, the Thai driver, after stating that he has always been a big Ferrari fan since he was a child, says he has a special helmet for this weekend, a tribute to Prince Bira, thus bringing a bit of Thai history to Formula 1 in honor of the 1.000th Grand Prix. The Thai flag is not the only novelty of this season: after eight years the tricolor is back on the Formula 1 grid. Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo driver, is the first Italian starter in Formula 1 after eight years of waiting. The last ones were Trulli and Liuzzi. The 25-year-old from Puglia has already had the opportunity to compete in Formula 1 races in 2017, replacing Pascal Wehrlein in Australia and China.
"I'm proud to bring the tricolor among the twenty Formula 1 drivers. It is almost impossible for someone who comes from Puglia like me to emerge among the greats. In Formula 1 there are only twenty drivers in the world, it takes a lot of sacrifices - including economic ones - to get here. One of my strengths was the conviction that I could make it, in fact when I was a child I believed in it more, then the more I grew up the more I realized how difficult it was. But I've worked so hard, I've trained every day since I was three years old, my life has been focused only on this".
Before reaching this milestone, Giovinazzi spent a full two years without an official role. After winning the title of vice-champion in both Formula 3 in 2015 and then in GP2 in 2016, the Apulian spent the last two years in the pits in the role of third Ferrari driver, Sauber and Haas tester, being able to participate in some tests.
"The last two years I spent them on the bench. I was watching others race while I was in the simulator. Changing team jerseys every time. It was tough but I gave it my all, earning Ferrari's respect. I hope to play my chances. The first two races this year were not the best, I need experience. Luckily I have Kimi as my teacher".
The circus then moves to China, to the Shanghai circuit, for the third round of the season. Ferrari states that the cause of Leclerc's SF90 power unit's loss of power was caused by a short circuit to an injection control unit. The Monegasque will use a different power unit this weekend in order to avoid problems. Ferrari seems optimistic: despite the first two disappointing races, the will to win is felt. Sebastian Vettel has not yet been on the podium this year, and Shanghai is a track on which the German has never won, so the desire is great:
"I've had several good races here, I've come close to victory more than once. Maybe if a little bit of luck is on our side this will be the right time, especially as this is the one thousandth race in Formula 1. Shanghai is one of the most technical and difficult tracks and two corners in particular are fundamental, 1 and 13, which lead onto the very long straight of over a kilometer. They are both very technical and it's not always easy to find the best line to take because in both cases the track is very wide. They are difficult not only in qualifying, when I have to give everything in a lap, but also during the race. Saving the tyres in Shanghai is the most important thing, it's the task that everyone knows they have to do in the best way on Sunday to make the tires last and be competitive throughout the race. I think that from the performance point of view we went much better in Bahrain than in Australia, but not from the reliability point of view, if we can solve this problem, and this is our goal, the situation will become good. It's the third race at a different track with different conditions, we will see what will happen. I don't know what will happen, but I hope there will be a lot of red and yellow on the podium".
Unlike the German driver, Leclerc has already put in his trophy cabinet his first trophy of the season, even if not the one he wanted after the mockery in Bahrain. His first races aboard a Ferrari did not disappoint, but there is still a long way to go:
"Already in Bahrain I felt much more comfortable with the car, but there is still a lot to learn and get to know, I am also referring to the same people in the team. There will be progress from this point of view and also in driving. I repeat, I felt more comfortable in Bahrain, but it's not yet how I would like it to be, I hope to take more steps in the next races. The World Championship? I'll give everything for the title, but I can't say yet if I'm ready, it's too early to say, but I'll certainly give my best".
Expectations towards Ferrari are always high, the World Championship is always the ultimate goal and managing director Louis Camilleri has every intention of bringing it to fruition:
"Although in the first two races we clearly did not meet our ambitions, we remain confident that we have all the necessary qualities to be a strong contender for the World Championship title. The season is long, we have proven to have a fast and balanced car and we are committed to improve its reliability. We have two great drivers, a great Team Principal who is not only a great leader but also has a deep knowledge of Ferrari and technology. We have a united, calm, determined and talented team both on the tracks and in Maranello, who will give everything to achieve their and our ambitions".
But as is well known, a driver's greatest enemy is his partner, and the rumor about an alleged rivalry between the two Ferrari drivers is starting to swirl. Taking Leclerc as a second driver was certainly a particular choice, given the little experience of the Monegasque, who is only in his second year in Formula 1, but certainly his performance has not given rise to second thoughts. On the contrary. After the first two weekends he has made his way, acquiring the reputation of a possible contender for the title. In Australia a team order had prevented him from overtaking his teammate and in Bahrain he came close to victory, while the German, four-time World Champion and Ferrari's strong point, is the protagonist of anonymous performances.
"At that moment I had a pretty big advantage over Sebastian. When I had the opportunity to pass him in a straight line safely, I took it. Everything is fast in Formula 1. After Melbourne no one saw me as a contender for the title, after Bahrain everyone has me as a favorite. Evaluations change quickly. But I remain focused on my work, we are only at the third race. Did I say in Australia that it was up to me to change my status from number two to number one? That's a question for Mattia Binotto. I don't make these decisions, unfortunately. Has my relationship with Vettel changed? No, not at all. We both want to fight, as I think happens in every team between teammates with a different car just to adapt it to different driving styles. But we've found a great compromise: on the track we fight, but when we get out of the car we work together".
We talk about teamwork, which is fundamental in a competition, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Vettel, considered the favorite in the fight with Hamilton, now finds himself facing another opponent.
"It was seen in Bahrain how fast he is. He deserved the win. I always have respect for people who are good, and he was. I'm not surprised he passed me, he was much faster than me. I could have passed him in turn in the next straight, but seeing his pace would have made me lose more time, and he would have lost it in turn as well. So it wouldn't have made sense to hinder Charles' race".
The team principal also commented on the issue:
"As a team we have to prioritize the team itself, maximizing the team's points. For us, Vettel is the driver who is most likely to fight for the title, but if in a few races things should change, for some reason, our position can also change. If there is a driver is clearly faster he will have an advantage, as it happened with Charles in Bahrain".
Having said that we are only at the third stage and at the moment Ferrari has other things to think about and the alleged couple crisis is not at the top of the list. Instead, reliability issues are, and on these Binotto admits:
"The problem in Bahrain only occurred once in the race, never in practice or testing, we have to be strong in reliability, these are things that sometimes happen, we were unlucky. Losing the Bahrain Grand Prix was tough and a bit frustrating, but also a confidence boost for the race in China".
These, of course, are just words: performance on the track will provide the answers. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the Chinese Grand Prix, Pirelli, the sole supplier of tires, is bringing hard (C2), medium (C3) and soft (C4) compound tires for this race.
The Federation establishes two zones where drivers can activate the Drag Reduction System, confirming those of previous seasons: the pit straight, with a point for determining the gap between drivers before the last corner, and on the long straight between turns 13 and 14, with a detection point at turn 12. All drivers using a Renault-powered car use the second MGU-K of the season. The only exception is on the McLaren of Carlos Sainz Jr., who had already fitted this new component in the previous race, while on the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg the entire power unit has been replaced, after his retirement in Bahrain. The Scuderia Ferrari has no problems with the power unit of Charles Leclerc, who two weeks earlier lost his victory due to a cylinder problem. But, as mentioned, as a precaution the power units are replaced for both drivers. In addition, on both Ferrari and Haas, the electronic ECUs that control the power units are replaced. The FIA forces Mercedes to modify the design of the front wing. The commissioners have in fact judged the new lateral bulkhead, designed by the German company to control the passage of air towards the outside of the wheel, as not complying with the regulations. However, the Federation has specified that the side wing cannot be cut so that the flaps are not visible from the side. The former Formula 1 driver, Briton Derek Warwick, is appointed assistant commissioner for the race. He has served in this capacity before, most recently at the 2018 United States Grand Prix. Scuderia Toro Rosso, heir to Minardi, celebrates its two hundred and fiftieth Grand Prix in the Formula 1 World Championship. Friday morning opens with the first free practice and Ferrari is placed in first position with a time of 1'33"911 marked by Sebastian Vettel. During the session, the team from Maranello used the Medium compounds, managing to keep up with the two Mercedes, which in turn used Soft tyres, without any problems. Behind the four times World Champion we find Hamilton at two tenths of a second, immediately followed by Leclerc.
The performance of the Ferrari seems promising: in fact, even in the race pace they are faster by a full second than their main rivals. Bottas is instead in fourth position behind the Dutchman of Red Bull, who set a time of 1'34"334 on Soft tires, while his teammate is a full second behind and only in seventh place in the ranking. Problems instead in Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen is only in fifteenth position, while Giovinazzi did not set any time. The Italian driver did not leave the pits because of some problems with the power unit. The situation in the afternoon changes: in FP2 we find a Mercedes at the top of the ranking. Nevertheless, the performances between the teams are closer both on race pace and in qualifying simulation. Ferrari changes strategy compared to the morning and mounts the Hard and Medium compounds: Vettel with the former sets a time of 1'34"783, while Leclerc with the latter drops to 1'34"271. The German's time is soon overtaken by Valtteri Bottas, who, in his Mercedes, with the same compound, is two tenths behind him. After the first half hour, the teams focus on the qualifying simulation, using Soft tires: Bottas sets the best time of the day, 1'33"330, ahead of Vettel by just 27 thousandths, while his teammate is fourth at seven tenths. Leclerc is forced to end the session early to check the car's cooling system and avoid damages, stopping his time at 1'34"0. Verstappen's Red Bull is a surprise, setting the third fastest time on Soft tyres, two tenths behind Bottas. As for the second Red Bull driver, the situation is different: Gasly ends his day one second behind his teammate, in tenth position. Very good also for the McLarens, both in the top ten, while there were some problems in Toro Rosso on Kvyat's car: the Italian team was forced to replace the power unit, and the Russian driver went off the track thirty minutes before the end. For Ferrari the race pace times with Hard tires are also very good. In fact, Vettel goes under 1'38 and Mercedes is almost in the vicinity. Not bad results after all, and both Ferrari drivers are positive:
"All in all it was a positive day. We still have work to do but I would say that we are in a pretty similar situation to Bahrain, where we were competitive. There are certain parts of the track where I am already satisfied with the set-up, others where we still need to improve. For qualifying and the race I expect us and our rivals to be very close, so it will be important to continue working to get an even better understanding with the car".
Despite the problems encountered in the final part of the session, Leclerc too is not complaining about the performance:
"The sensations that the SF90 transmitted to me were positive, at balance level there is still some work to do but overall I can say I am satisfied. It was a shame not to be able to test the long run, because it would have been useful ahead of the race, but otherwise we are not worried. We have all the indications we need to do well, now it's just a matter of putting everything together for qualifying, also because I think it will be a very close battle".
On Saturday, April 13th 2019, the teams prepare for qualifying, which will outline the grid for Sunday's race. Before these, however, the drivers try their hand at the last free practice session. These end with Bottas once again in the lead, the only driver to break the 1'33 wall, followed by the two Ferraris of Vettel and Leclerc, while Hamilton is only fourth. More disappointing are the two Red Bulls, fallen in seventh and fifteenth position. Kimi Raikkonen's Alfa Romeo does much better, after some difficulties encountered on Friday, getting ahead of the Dutch Red Bull driver. The session ends with a terrible accident for the young rookie Alex Albon, who crashes into the barriers completely destroying his car. Because of his mistake, where fortunately he didn't find any damage, the Thai driver will not be able to participate in the qualifying session, starting last in the race. As always, the first to get on track for Q1 are the Williams drivers, while the rest of the grid starts turning on their engines halfway through the session. Vettel sets a good time, 1'33"557, at the first attempt, but the first position is soon taken away from him by Bottas, who is eight tenths of a second faster. Leclerc struggles more, stuck in traffic: the Monegasque driver is one and a half second faster than the Finn, while Hamilton and Verstappen both outpace Vettel. Once again Gasly finds himself drastically behind his teammate, therefore having to make a second attempt like Leclerc. A few minutes from the end there are few drivers who improve: among them we find Leclerc, who goes up to second position. This, however, puts him at a disadvantage because he mounts a new set of Soft tires, thus finding himself with one less than his rivals. Lance Stroll fails to cross the Q1 line, as do George Russel and Robert Kubica. The last two to fail to pass Q2 are Antonio Giovinazzi and Alex Albon. The former does not go on track, and therefore does not set any time, due to another problem with the Ferrari power unit, which had prevented him from testing during the day on Friday. While the second one could not participate because of the serious accident occurred during FP3, destroying the car in such a way that it was difficult to repair it before the beginning of the qualifying. The rookie is clearly disappointed by what happened, taking full blame:
"I'm fine, I'm more angry and disappointed than anything else, because yes it was a big accident, but also a stupid one, a bit too pretentious for free practice. I'm a bit disappointed especially because I think we would have had a good chance in Q3 today, the car has been strong all weekend, I'm not happy with what I did. It would be a bad excuse to say it was a rookie mistake. I think it simply shouldn't have happened, I was too pretentious, that's all. I was obviously pushing and trying to find the limit, but it should have been like that in qualifying and not in Free Practice".
The first to set a time in Q2 is the Mexican Sergio Perez, but his time is immediately overshadowed by a fantastic Valtteri Bottas: the Finnish driver goes under the wall of 1'32"0 at the first blow with Medium compounds, setting a time of 1'31"728. To break the Mercedes hegemony we have the Ferrari, but Vettel in second position has to record a delay of half a second from the world leader. The last to cross the finish line in the first part of Q2 is Gasly, in sixth position on a set of Soft tires, while his teammate is fourth on Medium. Perez, Sainz, Raikkonen, Norris and Grosjean, who did not set any time at all, drop out of the top ten. The French driver will have only one chance to pass to Q3. With just under three minutes to go, the fifteen remaining drivers take to the track. Mercedes tries two different strategies: Hamilton on Medium tyres, Bottas on Softs. Leclerc does not go out.
Lewis Hamilton improves, setting the best time of 1'31"637, Kimi Raikkonen, moving up to tenth place, and the two McLaren drivers, but without being able to enter the top ten. In a good first attempt Romain Grosjean climbs to eighth position, followed by Hulkenberg. Verstappen, Bottas and Vettel slow down, keeping good their previous times, qualifying on Medium tires. The drivers eliminated in Q2 are therefore Kvyat, Perez, Raikkonen and the two McLarens of Sainz Jr and Norris. For the first time since the start of the season Gasly reaches Q3. Less enthusiastic is Raikkonen. The former World Champion finds himself out of Q3 for the first time since the 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix. Through no fault of his own, since during the pit stop, through a team-radio he declares to have some power problems. He therefore finishes thirteenth:
"I would say we still completed some decent laps in qualifying, my feeling on the last lap was right. I was going on the opposite straight, alone, but at a certain point I simply didn't have enough speed anymore. Unfortunately, this is the way things go sometimes. We'll find out tomorrow what we can achieve in the race".
In Q3 the first position is immediately contested between the two Mercedes, with Bottas winning by only seven thousandths of a second, setting the best time of 1'31"563. The Ferraris are immediately behind with Vettel at four seconds. Verstappen with an excellent start, while his teammate, despite being sixth, is one second behind the Dutchman. Closing the top ten are Hulkenberg and Ricciardo, while the two Haas drivers have not yet set any time. With three minutes to go, the pressure is on. The single-seaters take to the track led by Hamilton. It's the English driver himself who, with a very slow out lap, slows down the group behind him, and both Red Bull and Haas drivers fail to launch themselves for the last attempt, crossing the finish line at the end of the time. The English driver sets the record in the first sector, while Bottas doesn't seem to improve, but appearances can be deceptive and Hamilton crosses the finish line without being able to get the best time, unlike Bottas who reduces his time by another sixteen thousandths and marks the provisional pole with 1'31"547. The only ones able to take pole from the Finnish are the Ferrari drivers: Leclerc is only third while Vettel, who was informed by radio of the little time left, overtakes Verstappen and goes for his last lap; but his time is not fast enough and the German driver is only ahead of his teammate. Qualifying ends with the Mercedes of Bottas and Hamilton first and second, followed by the two Ferraris of Vettel and Leclerc, the two Red Bulls of Verstappen and Gasly, the Renaults of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, and finally the two Haas of Magnussen and Grosjean. To follow from the eleventh position Kvyat, Perez, Raikkonen, Sainz, Norris, Stroll, Russel and the two non-qualified Giovinazzi and Albon. The Finnish driver seems unstoppable and adds the first pole position of the season, as well as the seventh in his career, keeping the lead in the standings. Once again the two Mercedes are present in the front row. The Anglo-German team seems unstoppable and Bottas doesn't give up: will this finally be his year?
"This has been a good weekend so far for me. I have always felt comfortable since free practice. In qualifying I struggled a bit to put together the perfect lap but in the end it was enough. The lap was not bad, although not exactly as I would have liked, but luckily it was enough for the pole. The car went well for the whole weekend, also Lewis was very fast and improved a lot getting very close to me".
Bottas also receives compliments from Hamilton, who will start from second position in the race:
"I never gave up, congratulations to Valtteri who was stellar all weekend. I struggled, fighting against the car all weekend and nibbling away at the gap. I'm very happy, because at one point I was eight tenths away and to come so close is fantastic. This is an incredible result for the team. There is still some catching up to do, but I will see that tomorrow. The Ferraris? They seem to be faster in the straights, but it's clear that we were able to be even faster in the corners".
The Englishman's words tell the facts. From this start of the weekend we can see how the Mercedes is clearly superior in the corners, unlike the Ferrari that flies in the straights, characteristics that obviously adapt to some circuits more than others, and this is well remembered by the team principal of Mercedes, Toto Wolff, who had the better of it in qualifying:
"Our data tells us that compared to the Ferraris we lose three and a half tenths on the straights, but we recover very well in the corners and in the driven sections. That's where we made the difference. We feel like they have the ability to push the engine more, or at least use it more aggressively".
Ferrari is still beaten, although the gap is minimal and the performance is there. Now we have to see if they will be enough to bring home a podium or a win. The two drivers will start in the second row, with Vettel behind Bottas. These are the words of the German:
"Unfortunately, they had more speed today. Already from Q1 they had something more than us. Maybe there was still something to squeeze in, but in the end I'm glad I did my last lap because we were really on the limit with the timing. The team talked about a margin of a few seconds. I'm glad I was able to make it across the line and make the lap. I could have improved some more, but not enough to stay ahead of the Mercedes. They are quite a bit faster in the corners, but on the straights we will get closer and try to do something. It will be a long race".
For Leclerc, only in fourth position, so far it has not seemed the best weekend: first the problems in free practice, then the traffic in Q1 and the missing set of new tires. The Monegasque driver is disappointed and does not hide it, but he is ready to fight:
"I was very fast in the last lap, but I made a mistake and I'm not happy today. However, I'm consoled by the fact that the car made progress during the weekend: we'll see tomorrow. The Mercedes were going strong in the second sector, but we believe in it and I will give everything to get the best in tomorrow's race".
These performances of Ferrari are justified by the former president, Luca Montezemolo, as a result of the inexperience of the new president John Elkann and therefore also of an isolation towards Binotto. These are statements that warm the hearts inside the team. The new team principal denies it all, declaring to have great support:
"I have the full support of the president and CEO, great people who give total support to the team and I have many people to talk to in Maranello and colleagues who help me. It's a hungry team full of skills, I am fully supported and I look forward to a long life in the team".
The one who takes it more personally is John Elkann, who responds to the accusations by putting a point to the matter:
"You are in Ferrari not for personal gain, vainglory or visibility, but for what you can give to the company. Being Ferrari means contributing every day to something bigger, each with his role, in a constructive way. One belongs to this society not for what Ferrari can give. On the contrary, being part of it means thinking first of all about what each person can give to Ferrari, working with humility motivation and passion".
The 1.000th Formula 1 Grand Prix begins on Sunday, April 14th 2019. According to Pirelli, the fastest strategy would be to start with Soft tyres and then mount the Hard, something that obviously the top five will not be able to do, starting with the Medium. In that case, the tire supplier suggests stopping around lap 19 to switch to Hard tyres. The third quickest strategy is to make two stops with Soft-Soft and then Hard. During the formation lap both Max Verstappen and Robert Kubica spin, but they are still able to start from the grid. On Sunday Hamilton is protagonist of a great start, with which he takes the lead of the race. Vettel loses one position, overtaken by his teammate Charles Leclerc. Then the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly follow. Great start for Perez, who climbs up to seventh position, while in the back Norris is the victim of a clash with Kvyat and his car jumps in the air. The Toro Rosso driver lightly touches Sainz Jr. and then runs into the British rookie's McLaren, compromising not only his race, but also that of the British team. Both McLaren drivers return to the pits to replace the front wing and are further slowed by some problems during the replacement on Sainz Jr.'s car, which will inevitably return to the back of the queue, a minute behind the race leader. The race direction briefly decides to activate the virtual safety car, during the first pass. Because of this mistake, Kvyat will be penalized with a drive through and two points on the Superlicense. Norris is informed, shortly after his return to the track, of a damage on the bottom of the car, so it won't be an easy race for the McLaren driver. Unlike Kvyat, Albon is the author of a good recovery that sees him starting from the pit lane up to the fifteenth position. Shortly after Haas opts for a premature pit stop, stopping already at the eighth lap: Kvyat takes advantage of it to serve his penalty. In the following minutes the situation at the head of the race doesn't change: the Mercedes cars move away, while the two Ferraris slow down each other. From the box they start to react: Riccardo Adami, Vettel's track engineer, asks his driver if he feels faster than his teammate. In the meantime Leclerc is warned that there is no need to manage anything, and that he must push to the maximum. Leclerc is told in the pits to increase speed or let his teammate pass, which happens on lap 11, even though the pace of both is almost the same. In any case, this exchange between the two Ferrari drivers allows Verstappen to make up ground. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen has moved up to ninth position after overtaking Nico Hulkenberg on the track. The German, who had started on Softs used in Q2, pits to mount Hard tyres and try to go all the way. Four laps later the situation doesn't seem to have changed for Ferrari: this time it's Leclerc who complains about his teammate's performance, too slow according to him, thus causing a slowdown and consequently a close approach of the Dutchman.
"What do we do now?"
The Monegasque asks:
"Stay focused on your job Charles".
The luck doesn't seem to turn for Renault, since at the sixteenth lap comes yet another retirement: Hulkenberg, after having made the pit stop at the twelfth lap, retires four laps later for car problems. On lap 18 Verstappen pits for a tyre change (Hard), and drops to eighth position. The Dutchman remains behind Vettel, who pitted on the next lap to change to Hard tires, and is now fifth. Taking advantage of some stops Verstappen is just behind the German, and the fight for fifth place begins. Verstappen tries to overtake Vettel on the inside at turn 14, but Vettel takes advantage of a blockage and they end up side by side; after that, Vettel pushes Verstappen slightly off the track, closing the inside line, and is back in front. It's now Gasly's turn, who pits for a tire change and returns to the track in eighth position. After the first two weekends of adaptation, the French driver seems to have finally found the right rhythm and consistency to run a valid race.
Also Albon is the author of a great race so far: the Thai driver, started from the pits, climbs up to tenth position after just twenty laps, but falls back to sixteenth position after the first pit stop. Mercedes decides to call Bottas back to the pits on lap 22 to mount Hard tires, before Lewis Hamilton, causing dissent from the latter who stops only one lap later to mount Hard tires and finds himself a few meters behind his teammate.
"Why is he so close to me now? Why did you stop him before?"
From the Mercedes box they reply that they are worried about tyre wear in the final laps of the race. On lap 23, Leclerc also stops to fit Hard tyres. He returns to the track in fifth position, but from his tone of voice, perceived through a team-radio, it is clear that he is not happy with the situation, and if it had not been for the exchange of positions with Vettel he would probably be further ahead. Also in Mercedes the two drivers are battling each other: Bottas, seeing an opportunity, starts pushing to reach his teammate, but Hamilton doesn't waste time and creates again a minimum gap. A great protagonist is Raikkonen, who led an excellent race so far finding himself sixth ahead of Gasly. The Finnish driver will remain in the top ten after the pit stop (on Hard tires), made at lap 26, gaining the tenth position on Magnussen just returned to the track, and starting a heated battle with Grosjean. Shortly after the halfway point of the race Kvyat returns to the pits to change the nose still damaged by the first crash, but then retires on lap forty-three due to problems encountered following the contact at the beginning of the race. On lap 35 Verstappen, whose tyres were suffering from obvious graining, pits for the second time and puts on Medium tyres, thus prompting Ferrari to call Vettel back into the pits, who is also on Medium tyres: the two come back in fifth and fourth respectively, while Leclerc switches to plan B and pushes his SF90 to the limit. The choice of Mercedes is unexpected: on lap 37 they opt for a double pit stop with Medium tyres, perfectly executed, which results in Hamiltom keeping the lead, while Bottas slips in third position, but not compromising his race as Leclerc is the only one who still has to stop.
Between the two starts a fierce fight, but Leclerc defends himself, preventing Bottas from passing at first, but giving up shortly after the second position on lap 39. Charles now faces Vettel, who after changing tyres is soon behind him. Leclerc, not having changed tyres yet, is in trouble and the German completes the overtaking move on lap 43, just when the Ferrari team calls the Monegasque back to the pits to make the stop and mount the soft tires. Leclerc re-enters the track behind Verstappen. On lap 50, Lando Norris is forced to retire due to the damage he felt at the start of the race, just as Kvyat did on lap 41. The positions do not seem to be changing, although Leclerc warns his engineers that he had a problem with the gearbox gears, so Red Bull takes the opportunity to let Gasly back in two laps from the end, to mount Soft compound tires and attempt the fast lap. The French driver wins without any problem, thus ending his best race of the season. Hamilton crosses the finish line first, six seconds behind there is his teammate. Sharing the podium with the two Mercedes there is Sebastian Vettel, for the first time on the podium since the beginning of the season. He is followed by Verstappen, author of an excellent race, and Charles Leclerc, more in the shade compared to the Bahrain Grand Prix. The top ten is completed by Gasly, Ricciardo, Perez, Raikkonen and a fantastic Alex Albon, who once again scores points, well deserved after the start from the pit lane due to his mistake in FP3. Out of the top ten are in order Grosjean, Magnussen, Stroll, Sainz, Giovinazzi and the two Williams of Russell and Kubica. Once again to occupy the first two positions we find Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton conquers the victory for the second consecutive time in the season, this time well deserved after leading the race for all fifty-six laps. This is his seventy-fifth victory in his career, and with this he also leads the championship with sixty-eight points, six more than the Finnish driver.
"It wasn't the most straightforward weekend for me, but for the team it's a fantastic result. When we arrived here we didn't know what the balance of power would be with Ferrari, which had been very fast in Bahrain. But here Valtteri was very fast from the beginning, he did a great job. Doing a double in the Grand Prix number one thousand is important. The start went very well, I made the difference there. The rest is history. The double pit stop? It was an exemplary race for everyone, but we are only in the third race. We are all very close and I have no idea how the next one will be. Now I'm excited to the max, the public has been incredible. Thanks to them, wonderful reception. I'm so happy".
Maybe this is not the weekend Bottas expected after dominating in free practice and qualifying, but in any case the Finnish driver was the protagonist of a great result for himself and for the team:
"Honestly I lost the race at the start, but beyond that the car was fine and the pace was similar. But clearly with the dirty air in front I couldn't follow, it's a pity because at the start I had a bit of a skid when I took the outside line and there I lost the race. It's the details that make the difference, but it's still early in the season, so far I've done well and I'm still proud for the team, we've done three one-two's in three weekends so far and so it couldn't be better. Have I lost the leadership of the world championship? Yes, it's not a good moment but I'm sure I can get back in front".
In third position we find Vettel with his first podium of the season. Surely the German had his redemption after the first two rather anonymous races, but the results are once again not the ones he hoped for:
"I'm happy to be on the podium, however it was tough because we tried to stay with them but we couldn't. Then I had a little battle with Max, it was quite funny but the goal was to try to stay behind the Mercedes, but they were too fast for us, so congratulations to Valtteri and Lewis. The fight with Verstappen? The gap in the straight was quite big, but knowing Max even if there was a good gap to our advantage, I was sure that he would try and take the inside. So I tried to cross the line going to the outside and it worked, there was a little scare but it went well because I was able to take a car advantage. Maybe it wasn't a very sexy maneuver but it was enough. Charles? I was faster than but then I wasn't able to pull away and I did a couple of blockages that didn't allow me to go very fast. We saw throughout the race that we didn't have the pace of the Mercedes. A bit of a shame that Charles couldn't catch Max at the end, I was watching a bit on the screens hoping he could beat him. We have to work hard at home, it's a good result but not great".
Undoubtedly the most disappointed is Leclerc, his race has had ups and downs starting from the team's order to let his teammate pass (although both had more or less the same pace), thus losing the position he had earned at the start, and then the pit stop made a lap after Verstappen, thus disfavoring a possible close.
"I did my job, we tried, but it didn't go well. I haven't talked to my engineer yet, I don't know if I stayed out that long to try to brake Bottas and help Sebastian. If the move had worked I would have been very happy for the team, but it didn't go well, it wasn't my race, I will work to make sure it will be the next one".
The issue of hierarchies risks becoming dangerous if no clear action is taken, because in the face of the choices made in China, Charles makes it clear that he accepts certain decisions with some pain, even though he recognizes them as necessary.
"It was a difficult situation to manage. I haven't seen the data yet to get the full picture. I understand the team's decision, for me it was frustrating from the car to see Vettel not going away and having damaged the tires being behind him. I understand that sometimes races don't go my way, I have to work for the next one".
At three races from the start of the Championship the only position that seems to change is that of third place: the Ferrari so promising that was expected has not yet shown up. The words of Ferrari's team principal make us think:
"Of course Leclerc's race was a bit compromised, but we were trying to give Sebastian space to see if he could keep up with the pace of the Mercedes. I think that was the right choice. Situations change with every race. Today we don't come out with too much disappointment but more with the desire to understand what didn't work and to improve. The Mercedes were very fast and overall definitely superior all weekend. For Vettel a third place can be good but probably more is needed...".
It's three weekends that we postpone the fateful victory of Ferrari and the excuse is always the same: we need to understand what did not work. Well, while its supporters are waiting for a strong response from the team in Maranello, Mercedes is not standing still but starts to create a certain detachment occupying the first position both in the drivers and in the constructors' standings, with 130 points against the 73 of Ferrari. The situation is so surreal that after the tests not even Mercedes expected to be in such a good shape compared to its opponents; a clear domination over the other teams, three doubles in a row and two poles out of three. And Lewis Hamilton, with his usual modesty, attributes the success to the team:
"We have a complete package, which works very well: car, weekend work, race management and also the drivers, since so far both Valtteri and I have not made any mistakes. Everything is needed, and this is what is emerging in this first phase of the season. I've been saying this for a long time now, we are truly capable of great feats. It's clear that there is still a long way to go and there is a lot of work to do, but let's remember how fast the Ferraris were in Bahrain and we had to catch up. That's why the one-two achieved here is even more special".
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is undoubtedly amazed and proud, and admits:
"To win the 1.000th race, in such a controlled way, is amazing. It is a very special victory and I can say that everyone within the team is very happy with the result. Based on our long run simulations, we didn't think it would be so easy and our advantage over the two Ferraris was a bit of a surprise. They still seem very fast on the straights. I'm not sure if it's just the power of the Ferrari engines, our car is maybe a bit stiffer, but we need to keep working on our straight-line performance".
The Mercedes team principal goes on to talk about strategy:
"Pulling the cars in for a double pit stop was risky. You have everything to lose while leading the race, but we thought we would lose positions if we stopped one driver at a time. Our plan worked perfectly. It was a well-managed pit stop with the team doing a great job. Lewis had a good break at the start today and controlled the race from then on. Valtteri certainly won't be happy as he had taken pole and had the speed to win, but the start and the first stint were the deciding factor".
In the end he pauses to talk about the next round of the world championship:
"Baku is a track with different characteristics, there is a very long straight and we need to reach the ideal power level to be able to improve the top speed on the straights. I think we will be ready for the fight and I am looking forward to it. The whole Mercedes team will be working to get ready for the next round. We will see in the next race weekend. Ferrari's speed is scary and the straights in Baku can be an advantage for them".
Mercedes leaves China with a growing confidence that they can continue their winning streak, which has now been going on for a good five years. While for Ferrari, the awareness of having to do better to win the title remains.