Lewis Hamilton dominated the Chinese Grand Prix and heads into the final race of 2008 with a strong chance of claiming the title that eluded him last year.
At the scene of his disastrous retirement last year, Hamilton simply ran away with the race this time, leaving the Ferraris to swap positions late in the race to limit the damage to Felipe Massa’s title chances.
After all the hype and tension building over the race start the Grand Prix began in an orderly fashion – the top five crossed the line at the end of lap one in the same order they started. Hamilton got a clean start and team mate Heikki Kovalainen did even better, picking off Fernando Alonso around the outside of turn one.
Alonso came back at Kovalainen though, hustling him around the first lap until Kovalainen ran wide at turn 14, allowing the Renault driver bck ahead.
The only drivers to misbehave were Sebastian Bourdais and Jarno Trulli, who tangled at the first turn. Trulli spun off and pitted with damage at the end of the lap. He limped around another tour with a visibly damaged sidepod, then retired.
Hamilton gets away
The Ferraris simply couldn’t live with Hamilton’s pace in the opening stint. Each time around, the MP4/23 was another two or three tenths further ahead, so that by lap 13 Raikkonen was 4.1s behind.
Massa was having just as much trouble keeping up with Raikkonen, losing just as much time to his team mate in the same 13 laps. But the driver really struggling in the opening phase was Heikki Kovalainen. His brake had visibly been smoking on the grid and he lost around 1.5 seconds per lap to his team mate in the opening stint.
Mark Webber, who started 16th after an engine penalty, made excellent progress in the opening stint. He leapt up to 12th at the start, then picked off Timo Glock, Rubens Barrichello, and Nelson Piquet Jnr to take ninth.
Kovalainen hits trouble
Webber was clearly running light and made his first pit stop on lap 13. But Massa and Alonso came in the next time around. McLaren – possibly reacting to Massa’s stop – brought Hamilton in on the next tour, and Raikkonen pitted at the same time.
This made no material difference to the running order, however. Massa briefly fell behind Robert Kubica, who was running heavy after uncharacteristically qualifying outside the top ten, but it made little difference to his race pace.
Kovalainen pitted on lap 17 but the tyres he took on wouldn’t last the stint. On lap 35 he limped in with a puncture front-right tyre – the same corner of the car where he seemed to have a brake problem earlier in the race. Fifteen laps later Kovalainen came back in to retire.
Hamilton consolidates lead
Hamilton began his second stint with an out lap 1.2s faster than Raikkonen’s. He quickly increased his lead to over seven seconds and kept it at that level.
Meanwhile Ferrari began manoeuvring their drivers to get Massa into the second place he needed to minimise the damage in the championship to Hamilton. Their problem was that Raikkonen had a seven second advantage over Massa, which had been eight seconds until he lost a lot of time lapping Giancarlo Fisichella’s Force India.
Raikkonen lost several seconds during his final pit stop but still found himself over two seconds ahead of Massa. Over the following laps the gap sporadically decreased and finally Raikkonen slowed right down and Massa took second.
Aside from Webber’s moves and a brief pass-and-re-pass between David Coulthard and Bourdais, the Ferrari shuffle was one of very few overtaking moves in a surprisingly calm race.
Hamilton, though, was dominant throughout: he won from pole and set fastest lap, and was fastest in every session bar one. Just as he did at Silverstone, he responded to the criticism and pressure of the previous races with an utterly consummate performance.
But with Massa second and Raikkonen third neither of the titles are decided yet: but Ferrari look as comfortable at the top of the constructors’ leader board as Hamilton does in the drivers’ title race.
Alonso was fourth ahead of the two BMWs, cementing Renault’s resurgence in form. Heidfeld finished fifth ahead of Kubica, whose slim title hopes were finally extinguished.
Timo Glock claimed seventh ahead of Nelson Piquet Jnr, with Sebastian Vettel out of the points.
Coulthard was tenth, suggesting that Webber’s strategy of fuelling light had been a mistake. The Australian finished 14th, behind several cars he had overtaken. Between them were Rubens Barrichello, who put in an excellent performance for Honda, Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Bourdais.
Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella rounded off the finishers, with Adrian Sutil joining Kovalainen and Trulli in retirement. It was the sixth mechanically-induced retirement of the year for the Force India man.