Lewis Hamilton may have won Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix for McLaren but Australia’s Mark Webber produced the drive of the day – the drive of a lifetime – to come from 18th on the starting grid, take third place and secure a double podium finish for Red Bull.
Webber’s team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who started from his third pole position of the year, led late in the 56-lap race but as the World Champion’s tyres fell away he had no answer to Hamilton and had to settle for second.
A troubled weekend saw Webber manage just one timed lap in the final free practice session because of electrical and gear-change problems, and the gamble of going into the first qualifying segment on hard tyres proved unsuccessful – the first time since 2009 the Australian had been eliminated in Q1.
“Maybe that’s the way to do it, not take part in qualifying at all!” joked Webber, who had never previously reached the podium from a lower starting spot than sixth and still looked in trouble after an opening stint on the harder Pirelli prime tyre that left him stuck among the back-markers.
He made the first of three pit stops as early as lap 11 and used the remaining sets of softer option tyres to perfect effect. His dazzling charge through the field included a nostalgic duel with former World Champion Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, passing the German’s team-mate Nico Rosberg with two laps left and claiming the final podium spot from McLaren’s Jenson Button with just one lap to go.
In a race that saw multiple passing manoeuvres, several different leaders and incidents galore, Hamilton’s result was pretty good for a car that nearly failed to make the race start at all.
Minutes before the pit lane closed a suspected fuel leak saw the McLaren mechanics working furiously to mop up and get the 2008 World Champion out on to the grid, but once they managed that – with 35 seconds in hand – all seemed to work smoothly from then on.
“Quite a few things came together,” said Hamilton, the first driver to win twice in Shanghai after his 2008 success. “The pit stops were fantastic, the car felt great – it was one of the best races I’ve experienced.” The 26-year-old Englishman has now experienced 74 of them; this was his 15th career victory and his first since Belgium last year.
Though Button beat Vettel off the starting-line and looked strong in the early laps, his first pit stop suggested it might not be his day – he pulled into the Red Bull box instead of his own and had to be waved through to allow the following Vettel into his rightful place.
Vettel himself had problems in the latter stages as his radio failed. “I asked a lot of questions but didn’t get any answers!” he joked, relieved to find himself still comfortably in the Championship lead despite his sluggish start to the race.
Behind Button there was encouragement for Mercedes as Nico Rosberg, who also led the race, came home fifth, three places ahead of Schumacher as the Silver Arrows finally found some race pace. Rosberg was frustrated by a mid-race order to conserve fuel but convinced the team is on the up.
Between the two Germans came Ferrari duo Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, Massa showing something like his 2008 flair and combativity to match his Spanish team-mate.
Paul di Resta looked a candidate for his third straight points-scoring finish in a brilliant start to his rookie F1 season but his Force India could not fend off the attacks of Vitaly Petrov’s Lotus Renault and Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber right at the end.
Once again all 24 cars started the race – and amazingly all but one finished it. The exception was Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari, who was overtaken by his own right rear wheel shortly after his first pit stop but came to no harm.
Webber accompanied the 21st podium of his career with fastest lap, a 1:38.993 (198.232 km/h) on lap 42, for the second race in a row and the eighth time in F1.
After three gruelling ‘fly-away’ races the teams now head slightly closer to home with the fourth round due to take place in Istanbul on May 1 ahead of the hectic European season.
“I feel so proud,” said Hamilton before leaving. “This race is in my top three of race wins, it’s up there with Silverstone and Monaco in 2008. I exist and I live and I breathe to win: I love winning and I just couldn’t be happier.”
1. Vettel 68 points
2. Hamilton 47
3. Button 38
4. Webber 37
5. Alonso 26
6. Massa 24
1. Red Bull Racing 105 points
2. McLaren-Mercedes 85
3. Ferrari 50