Shanghai’s infamous smog may be bad for your health, but a superb race through the haze was a perfect tonic for Formula One.
The 2017 season is a nervous step into the unknown for the sport. Though F1 brashly travels around the world proclaiming to have all the answers as the pinnacle of all motorsport, the 2017 regulation changes were mostly a shot in the dark.
They were deliberately written to give the sport its spectacle back — wider cars, fatter tyres, faster cornering — but little attention was paid to the show itself. Would the increased speed be noticeable? Would the racing improve? Could the competitive order be closed? Would the formula for ‘faster cars and thrilling races’ deliver on either count?
As this column analysed after the Australian Grand Prix, not all of those unasked questions are being answered in the affirmative. The cars are harder to drive, but they’re also harder to race at close quarters, and the competitive order in some cases has widened.
But while these are important long-term matters for the establishment of a sustainable foundation for Formula One, they are not necessarily the makings of a classic season of themselves — and indeed great seasons can materialise in seemingly harsh regulatory environments.
In Melbourne this was whispered. Ferrari got one over Mercedes on pure pace, but a straight fight it was not, with the lead change coming about through a pressure-induced strategic error on Hamilton’s part.
So cautiousness was Formula One’s carry-on baggage on its trip to China, and when most of both Friday practice sessions were suspended due to low-lying cloud and heavy smog preventing the medical helicopter from operating, an underlying pessimism began to set in.
But qualifying on Saturday after a brief hour of practice was a thriller, with Ferrari again threatening to overcome Mercedes’s one-lap power unit boost by having Sebastian Vettel split the two Silver Arrows.
Better still was that the speed of the cars was visceral around the long and wide Shanghai International Circuit. Lewis Hamilton’s pole lap not only looked blisteringly fast, but it broke the all-time lap record by more than half a second — and things continued to improve once the race rolled around.
Despite the cold and damp track, the fastest race lap of 2016 was smashed by 4.4 seconds — almost exceeding the three-to-five second promise made by the regulations — and the 2015 fastest lap was obliterated by 6.83 seconds.
And fears that the racing had unduly suffered after a processional Australian Grand Prix run on the hard-to-pass Albert Park circuit were also shown to be unfounded, with as many as 54 changes of position throughout the Chinese race, only a fraction of a which were DRS assisted.
Cynics may decry that action wasn’t lights to flag in the way some of the sport’s more bombastic races have managed and that therefore the racing was lacking, but such overtaking-fests have always been outliers rather than the norm.
What the Chinese Grand Prix strongly suggested was that instead of overtaking being a simple matter of developing a tyre offset through strategy or using of a super-effective drag reduction system, the quality of the pass and the working of the driver to execute it are now more important.
Passing manoeuvres require more bravery, more daring — so it’s little wonder the movers and shakers of the race included Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel. Even Daniel Ricciardo, renowned for his smooth passing style, couldn’t resist having an unlikely go on his teammate in the final sector of the last lap.
In one race the fundamental components of a classic grand prix were revealed raw: a blend of strategy tension, moments of pure pace in unadulterated air, and a variety of overtaking opportunities , both executed and unsuccessful.
At the flag Vettel was just six seconds behind Hamilton — an exaggerated margin given the five seconds the German lost stuck behind his lumbering teammate early in the race — and best of all was what the Formula One community was treated to on the podium as a result.
Beaming drivers brimming with enthusiasm not just for their sport but for the battle into which they’re pitching themselves. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton lauded each other’s talent, each clearly relishing the chance to go head-to-head with the other for the duration of the season.
It was dawning on them, just as it was dawning on us: maybe the cars aren’t perfect, maybe the off-track politics remains toxic, and maybe the regulations need tidying, but 2017 regardless has all the hallmarks of a classic down-to-the-wire season.
Bring on Bahrain.