There are inherent flaws with Formula One as a sporting spectacle. Its complex rules are constantly tinkered with, just as mechanics meddle with their cars on a daily basis, and when it comes off critics say it is a contrivance.
But Sunday’s Chinese grand prix was a great race, helped when Jenson Button managed to occupy Sebastian Vettel’s place in the Red Bull pit on lap 15 before being shooed off by the lollipop man. The Malaysian grand prix, the previous week, was described in some quarters as a great contest too, though it appealed mostly to the race fan who goes home thinking: “Wow, didn’t we see a lot of pit stops today.” In Kuala Lumper we also saw technology let its hair down, with Kers and DRS – the moveable rear wing – coming into their own after rather passive showings in Australia.
Here, though, while those innovations and – even more – the highly degradable tyres were vital ingredients, they did not dominate the event. The primacy of the racing was there for all to see. There were cut-and-thrust overtaking manoeuvres, most of them marked by the quality and sportsmanship of their execution. There were the contrasting strategies of the teams, even within teams. And there were team-mates pitted against each other, most noticeably in the case of Lewis Hamilton and Button.
But it is impossible to view the race in isolation, for Hamilton’s victory shattered – however briefly – the hegemony of the Red Bull organisation. It put an end to Vettel’s disturbing sequence of victories, for the precocious and gifted German had won the previous four races, and five out of six. Vettel’s dominance had created furrowed brows, not only among his closest rivals at McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes, but also in the entire noisy community of Formula One.
The swagger of Michael Schumacher’s ascendancy at Ferrari at the beginning of the century had laid a dead hand on the sport and Vettel, last year’s world champion and the current leader, was beginning to look capable of a comparable domination.
Red Bull still have the fastest cars. But when Hamilton, eschewing the drivers’ professional optimism, said that it might take McLaren several races to catch up with the designer Adrian Newey, he erred on the side of pessimism.
Red Bull may very well win the next race, at Istanbul Park, a meaty, challenging track which will once again test the tyre strategies of the main competitors. But we now know we have a contest. McLaren, who are renowned for the depth of their engineering resources and their ability to catch up within a season, have surpassed themselves.
After an inept pre-season they hit back in Australia and here, after the frustration of Malaysia, they again counter-punched with conviction and brio. With significant upgrades in the pipeline once the circus comes to Europe they are confident of at least giving Red Bull a serious argument this year. That is why the pure elation of Hamilton afterwards was mixed with expressions of relief. He jumped into the mass embrace of the McLaren team, he kissed the television camera lens and threw his arms round Vettel.
Hamilton felt a sense of relief just to start the race with only 30 seconds to spare. His flooded engine would not start and with just a few minutes to go his mechanics had to take it apart to remove the fuel.
He and Button still managed to overtake a rather ponderous Vettel going into the first corner. There was another problem for Hamilton. Because Button did not hear the radio message to come in for fresh tyres he came in a lap late, which in turn delayed Hamilton’s return to his garage.
McLaren also changed their strategy, from two stops to three. And this paid off in the closing stages when Hamilton, in a vintage performance, closed down Vettel by a second a lap before overtaking him with a slick thrust, a banzai attack, on turn seven, four laps before the end.
But Hamilton was not a solitary hero. Red Bull’s Mark Webber had an audacious couple of hours. He started in 18th place, on the slower, hard tyres, and carved his way through the startled field to finish third, overtaking Button near the end.
Mercedes made a fragile promise of better times ahead. Nico Rosberg, still looking for his first win at the 92nd attempt, led for a long stretch of the race, benefiting from the inspired choice to bring him in for new tyres on lap 12 and then releasing him into clean air; he finished fifth, three places ahead of Schumacher, who is surely in his final season.
The day, though, belonged to the thrilling Hamilton. This was his 15th victory and he became the first driver to win twice in this teeming and voracious city.