Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo head into this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix hoping to enjoy a slice more luck than they had at last month’s season-opening 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
After contrasting experiences in Melbourne, both Mercedes and Red Bull are on ‘red alert’ following Ferrari’s renaissance which brought them a long-awaited victory.
Pre-season title favourite and three-time champion, Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes dominated qualifying with a record-breaking show at Albert Park, but failed to turn pole position into victory as Sebastian Vettel romped to an emotional triumph for Ferrari.
Luckless home hope Ricciardo spun off in qualifying, started two laps down from the pit lane, after pre-race car problems, and then retired his Red Bull with gearbox problems.
“To start – and to finish, that’s my target,” said the ever-smiling 27-year-old Australian ahead of this Sunday’s race in Shanghai. “I just want to finish qualifying and start the race – that would be better than Melbourne.
“We want to get close to Ferrari and to Mercedes and if we can to try for a podium finish. Anything like that will be a great result.”
Hamilton’s target is an outright victory – which would be his fifth in China -- to stop Ferrari, and Vettel, enjoying a chance to set up any kind of early-season domination in a title race that promises to be much more competitive with the new ‘fatter and faster’ cars – which were nearly five seconds a lap faster in Melbourne -- introduced this year.
“This year, we have all the best drivers at the top and that includes Ferrari, who showed how competitive they are,” said Hamilton. “I think it’s great and I am grateful to have a chance to have this fight against a great driver in Sebastian and Ferrari.”
Hamilton has been given solid, but qualified, backing to bounce back at Shanghai by his Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff who has described the Englishman as “the best Lewis that I’ve seen in the last four years, both on and off the track.
“He’s become a pillar of the team and he proved that in Melbourne. But we need to be careful to manage our expectations…”
He added that Mercedes had been analyzing their performance in Australia carefully after Hamilton had struggled to pull clear and win before finishing second behind Vettel.
“If you think you are going to cruise to victory in the future, based on a track record of success, you’ll be proven wrong very quickly. You need to put the finger in the wound, identify your weaknesses and then respond,” said Wolff.
While Vettel has kept a relatively low profile after his first win since Singapore in 2015, Hamilton has been out scuba diving – but knows how difficult it is likely to be to win on the wide open spaces of the Shanghai track.
Ferrari’s victory in Melbourne lifted the hearts of many fans as it brought to an end Mercedes long period of clear domination, but it also demonstrated how difficult it is to overtake with the new era wider and faster cars.
Mercedes new boy Finn Valtteri Bottas, who finished third in Australia in his first race since moving from Williams to replace retired 2016 champion German Nico Rosberg, believes it will be a very different story in China.
“Places with really long straights will produce very good racing because the slip-streaming will have a much bigger effect… and so will DRS with the new rear wings.
“With the new cars, it’s more difficult to follow once you’re within two seconds of the car in front, as you lose quite a large amount of grip. So we need big pace difference to really go for it to try and overtake. I think it’s a bit of a shame, but it will be much better in China.”
Shanghai’s long and wide main straight could produce plenty of thrills in a race that is expected to deliver another close scrap between Mercedes and Ferrari.