Lewis Hamilton’s first victory in almost eight months, in the Chinese grand prix, has breathed fresh life into the Formula One season. The young British driver declared: “I live, breathe and exist to win.”
Hamilton said he had stroked his McLaren home as if it was a winning racehorse in its final furlongs. “I was rubbing the cockpit of the car [on] the last five laps, saying, ‘Please baby please, I swear on my life, please just stay together.’ I wasn’t worried that the car would fail. I was worried that my left tyre would go or something. This is one of my top three wins. It’s up there with Silverstone and Monaco. When you win from the start it’s beautiful. But when you win having come through people and you really have to earn it, it feels that much better.”
It was Hamilton’s first race win since his victory in Spa at the end of August 2010 and it narrowed the gap between himself and championship leader, Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, to 21 points. It was an old-fashioned charge by Hamilton and he produced memorable moves to get past Vettel at the start, his own team-mate, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Vettel again just four laps from the end.
He said: “It feels like forever since I had my last race win. I can’t even remember it as it is that long ago. Every inch of the race, every second, was incredibly enjoyable. I love being able to fight with different drivers and have the battles and have them at their best. I really felt that today. While the tyres were going off on some cars I felt they were really performing and driving very well to defend their position, so it made it even more exciting.”
Hamilton made the start with only 30 seconds to spare, after his flooded engine would not start. The McLaren team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, said afterwards: “As a team we went through far from a perfect afternoon. We were lucky to get the car out of the garage with seconds to spare. It would have been very easy to go into a blind panic mode and the team did a great job. To start pulling a car apart at that time you would expect not to get out so we almost had to start from the pit lane.
“The first [tyre] stops were wrong because Jenson didn’t hear the call, so he came in one lap too late and went into the wrong box, which lost a position. Then Lewis couldn’t stop until one lap too late and that cost a position for Lewis.
“A decisive point was to change strategy and switch from a two-stop to a three-stop and that was the point we were able to win this race. But I’m not sure I can survive 19 races like that.”
Button finished fourth after his bizarre mistake on lap 15. He came into the pits but stopped at Vettel’s bay and had to be beckoned through by the Red Bull mechanics. The 2009 champion said: “As I came into the pits I flicked the wrong switch. So I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s not the right switch.’ So I looked down and went into Seb’s stop. It cost me about two seconds. I still would have finished in the same position. It was playing on my mind for a while after that.”
Vettel adopted a two-stop strategy and his tyres were fading as Hamilton made ground on him by a second a lap in the closing stages, before passing him on the 52nd. The German said: “It was quite a nice fight with Lewis. Twice, down the long straight, I was able to stay ahead. To be honest, I was quite surprised by his move into turn seven. I think he did a very good move there.”
Vettel’s team-mate, Mark Webber, started in 18th place and cut his way through the field to finish third. Asked if it was one of the best races of his career, the Australian said: “It’s easy to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, it was phenomenal, top-three drive, rah rah rah.’ But in the end that’s my job, mate, isn’t it? You’ve just got to [get your] head down, arse up and get into it. So that’s what I did.”
The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, said: “Second and third is still a fantastic result. The strategy so nearly paid off for Seb. We felt it was the best way to beat [the] McLarens. Seb lost a bit of time when Jenson decided to check out our pit crew. He is obviously so eager to drive for Red Bull that he wanted to stop there. I am sure Jenson is wondering how he finished fourth behind Mark, who started 18th. Kers worked in the first half of the race. We still need to improve on it and we have three weeks until Turkey to get it right.”