By Neil Leverett
- Defending World Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton wins Round Three of the season at Shanghai International Circuit in China
- Briton heads McLaren-Mercedes’ further domination, with German manufacturer winning all three opening races of season so far
- Ferrari again forced to play second fiddle, as Sebastian Vettel comes in third after teammate Charles Leclerc suffers engine problems
SHANGHAI, CHINA – After Lewis Hamilton’s second win the season after just three races, what did we learn from Round Three of the 2019 F1 campaign in China?
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Hamilton still rules F1 roost
Despite Valtteri Bottas surprising many by winning the opening race of the season in Australia last month, it now appears it’s business as usual for Lewis Hamilton after back to back wins in Bahrain and now this past weekend in China.
Already leading the World Drivers’ Championship by a single point, the Britain’s win in Shanghai on Sunday saw his lead over his team-mate extend to almost double figures after just three races.
Having won four of his last five races, the Briton’s current 80% win ratio is nothing if not daunting for his rivals for the F1 crown even if Bottas has thrown down the gauntlet to his number one, that 2019 will not be see a repeat of Hamilton having secured the title with at least three races left.
The 33-year-old Stevenage driver may well have sealed his place in motor racing history, but it seems more evidence that ever that five world titles is not enough for the Briton. The dangling carrot of the great Michael Schumacher‘s imperious seven-championship wins continues to be a roaring fire that has Hamilton – for this moment at least – still firmly in control across the paddock.
Mercedes’ dominance threatens procession
Whilst it is of course still far too early to cast aspersions over the coming season, Hamilton rarely starts the season in such strong form. Last season it took until Round Four to register win and the previous year he won just one of the opening four races of the campaign.
With Bottas’ strong start to 2019, Mercedes achieved a third one-two in succession for the fist time in a Formula 1 season since Williams achieved so back in 1992, under Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese.
With Ferrari bent on wrestling back control of McLaren-Mercedes’ recent domination of F1, the addition of Charles Leclerc has and is making a swift impact for the Prancing Horse manufacturer. But as Sebastian Vettel continues to struggle to get the best from his car – the German has not won a race since last August at Spa – the challenging pack are looking like coming up shorter than ever in 2019.
Daniel Ricciardo will still be a man who will unquestionably come close to a world championship win in his career, but for the moment his new Renault team are some way down the pecking order. Max Verstappen is seemingly the closest individual who could throw a spanner in Mercedes’ works, but the Red Bull also is still some way of the pace of the top two teams. Though early still in the season as documented, the signs are increasingly ominous of a Mercedes stroll once more.
Vettel still Ferrari priority…
Vettel is coming under increasing scrutiny after his poor start to the season, but in China at least the full support of his team was in evidence, as the German is still considered the priority over Leclerc.
With the Monagesque driver suffering power problems, team orders to allow Vettel to overtake may not have been any real surprise, but after seeing Leclerc essentially ‘overtake’ his more illustrious team-mate mere laps later, said orders looked a little thin on the ground.
Vettel may indeed have ended up on the podium, but Scuderia decision themselves have come under scrutiny. But Team Principal Mattia Binotto was under no illusions that he made – as he and his team believed – the correct decision.
Binotto told BBC Sport:
“We simply tried to give Sebastian a go and see if we could have kept the pace of the Mercedes, which was key at that stage of the race.”
“It was not to give an advantage to a driver, to the other driver; merely as a team to try whatever we could. The early stage was an important moment of the race.”
Leclerc is becoming a big team player for the Italian manufacturer, but Ferrari need to be careful not to undermine their own man for the sake of points. Vettel’s string of under-performances are beginning to mount up and a point may come down the line, to decide where their priorities lie going forward.
Even before his drive for Ferrari this season, Leclerc distinguished himself with Sauber last season and his obvious talents are beginning to shine with a far superior team, engine and car.
The problem for Ferrari are there are already whispers of the 21-year-old’s disillusionment after a few short months in the cockpit. The same issues Kimi Raikkonen faced before leaving for Alfa Romeo in the summer.
Leclerc is another name who is primed for great things in F1, but if his current team fail to accommodate their number two Scuderia may find themselves in a tricky spot. Then, Leclerc may find himself at the top of the pecking order at Vettel’s behest.
Bonus point incentive works
One of the big inclusions this season has been the addition of the bonus point system for the fastest lap for each race. The rules stipulates that as long as said driver finishes in the top ten, a one-point addiction to their weekend tally can be made. That change was clear for all to see that this particular change to F1 is definitely for the better.
As we saw on the final laps of what was largely a formulaic procession to the chequered flag – in terms of the top positions at least – there was a concerted effort by all teams sitting within points range of taking something away from the weekend to clock the fastest time.
Pierre Gasly ended the round with the fastest lap but only after a late sprint on the penultimate lap with a clear track ahead of him. As the race trundled to its’ conclusion at the head of the field, Gasly’s late run saw an almost mini qualifying session extension from Q3 on the Saturday, and it gave to a race that had long since been determined.
The 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix takes place at the Baku City Circuit in Baku, between April 26-28
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