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China race analysis - Hamilton's luck runs out 08 Oct 2007

The car of Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 after he retired from the race with tyre problems.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race Day, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 7 October 2007 Race winner Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari celebrates 200 GP wins for Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race Day, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 7 October 2007 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Scuderia Toro Rosso celebrates with the team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race Day, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 7 October 2007 Jenson Button (GBR) Honda RA107.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race Day, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 7 October 2007 Robert Kubica (POL) BMW Sauber F1 on the grid.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race Day, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Chinese Grand Prix could scarcely have been better for Ferrari, nor worse for McLaren. For the first 25 laps it went the latter’s way, with Lewis Hamilton leading comfortably from Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.

But then the Englishman’s McLaren ate its wet-weather Bridgestone tyres faster than the Ferrari did, and suddenly not only could and had Raikkonen passed him, but Hamilton had that celebrated slide into the gravel trap, and the agonising retirement which threw the world championship for drivers wide open again.

It was an understandable mistake, for his rear tyres in particular looked almost down to the canvass, and the team took their share of the blame for keeping him out a lap too long.

That was the problem: in a wet but drying race where it rained again briefly, making the right calls was a nightmare that some got right, and some didn’t. McLaren didn’t want to bring Hamilton in for dries when there was a chance of more rain, but the deliberate delay in making the crucial decision on the timing of his second stop would prove very costly.

By the time Hamilton’s race ended, it had already slipped into Ferrari’s hands. Raikkonen had passed him easily on lap 28, and streaked away. Alonso and Massa had also closed in, though the Brazilian would also lose time with his switch to dry tyres that would cost him his chance of victory. Their first, second and third places were never in doubt, however, once lap 34 had accounted for Robert Kubica. The Pole was leading when his BMW Sauber rolled to a stop, having run longer than the trio. Towards the end, Massa was the fastest man on the track, but the gaps between Raikkonen and Alonso, and Alonso and him, remained largely static as the final laps were reeled off.

Kubica’s misfortune, due to yet another of the hydraulic failures that afflicted the team over the weekend, robbed BMW Sauber of a possible third place, maybe more.

This time the gods of fortune rode at last with Toro Rosso. In the early stages, Tonio Liuzzi was the star, climbing past Mark Webber’s Red Bull on lap one and Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber on lap four. He was fourth when he made his first pit stop on lap 19, but thereafter he got caught up by the rain, and began to lose valuable ground. His initial set of wets grained at the rear, while his replacement dries grained at the front, but he was happy to finish a good sixth, especially as he fended off Heidfeld for the last 17 laps. Team mate Sebastian Vettel was on a single-stop strategy compared to Liuzzi’s two, and that proved critical. The German rookie benefited greatly from stopping at just the right moment, and was thus able to make up for his Fuji gaffe with a smooth and polished drive to fourth place. Thus the once-troubled team took home a haul of eight points that catapulted it from last place in the constructors’ championship, to seventh. Only Ferrari, with 16 points, went home with more.

Honda took home four points, courtesy of Jenson Button who put in a great drive to fifth place which made up for his mistake in Japan. He struggled early on in the wet and slipped to the tail end of the field, but the timing of his first stop and a very strong run on dry tyres enabled him to set fastest laps for while and the climb back. Rubens Barrichello’s race was much less convincing. He clobbered Anthony Davidson in Turn One on the second lap, spinning them both, and after three pit stops finished only 15th.

China was one of those ‘what if’ races for BMW Sauber. After Kubica’s unfortunate demise, wherein his F1.07 lost power steering and then gears, Heidfeld clung on to finish seventh right behind Liuzzi, but he wasn’t happy either and rued the decision to take a second set of wet tyres after 28 laps. By that time my first set was completely finished and he was losing around 12 seconds a lap. Four laps later, when it was clear there wasn’t going to be any more rain, he had to stop again to switch from his new wets to dries.

David Coulthard put Red Bull in the points again with eighth place, but that counted as a disappointment to the Scot as he’d started fifth. It didn’t help that the team’s Toro Rosso stablemates were in the points. He was another one who was unlucky with the timing of his stops, as he changed to dries just before it rained again. At the end he held off a charging Heikki Kovalainen for the last point, with Mark Webber in 10th leading home a challenging Giancarlo Fisichella. Like Coulthard, Webber rued going back to the pits for wet tyres as the rain ended. Red Bull’s sole consolation was that Coulthard’s point brought the deficit to Williams down to four points.

The race marked the first time Renault hasn’t scored since Hungary 2006, Kovalainen reporting lack of grip early on, and Fisichella’s second pit stop robbing him of a better finish. By the end, however, the R27s were flying and Kovalainen firmly believed they had the pace to have finished fourth with better fortune.

Williams’ terrible weekend continued into the race. Nico Rosberg made a poor start, fought back hard, then picked up a puncture on lap 29 as he got pincered by the Renaults going into Turn One and went off together with Kovalainen. That effectively ended his hope of points. Alexander Wurz was running well in the wet, set a fastest lap when he was the first to change to dries, but struggled towards the end of the race as the track dried out.

Toyota’s day began badly as sixth-fastest qualified Ralf Schumacher spun in the first corner. He then staged a great comeback, with an excellent move round the outside of Kovalainen in Turn One. Then on lap 25 he collided with Liuzzi, and slithered off the road before spinning and retiring. Jarno Trulli could do no better than 13th.

Takuma Sato brought his Super Aguri home 14th, as a mechanical problem caused the handling to go awry, but after the collision with Barrichello, Davidson retired with damaged brakes.

Sakon Yamamoto was Spyker’s sole finisher in 17th, three laps down, after Adrian Sutil blotted his copybook by spinning in Turn 16 and walloping the inside wall quite hard. He had switched to dry tyres too early. Yamamoto did the same thing but kept it on the road.

Another dramatic race thus leaves the championship for drivers wide open for the final round, where three men will fight it out for the first time since 1986.

David Tremayne