Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton is tied for the lead at the top of the title table with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after a serene Chinese Grand Prix victory in Shanghai.
Hamilton led from pole in damp conditions, but he was never challenged for position thanks to a clean getaway on his intermediate tyres.
The three-time world champion had his lead threatened only once, when interludes of virtual and physical safety cars interrupted the race between laps two and eight.
Mercedes initially opted against switching Hamilton to slicks under the virtual safety car — which was triggered when Lance Stroll beached his Williams in the gravel — despite all bar four other cars changing to the dry rubber.
A safety car triggered two laps later by Antonio Giovinazzi’s crash on the main straight, however, gave Hamilton and Mercedes, along with the four other intermediate-shod cars, a prime opportunity to undo the potentially devastating strategic error and pit with minimum time loss.
From that point Mercedes attempted to run Hamilton’s race without stopping, hoping the soft tyre would last the distance, but by lap 37 Hamilton had enough of an advantage to pit for free, just as his tyre performance was declining.
A clean Mercedes stop enabled him to emerge from the pits with his lead intact, guaranteeing victory.
“I want to just say thank you to this team,” Hamilton said on the podium. “I’m so tremendously proud of everyone … who work so hard back at the factory to make this possible.”
But Hamilton reserved most of his post-race praise for Ferrari and second-placed Vettel, with both the Briton and the German visibly excited on the podium by the realisation they’re pitching themselves in a closely fought title battle.
“A great job done by Sebastian,” Hamilton said. “We were matching times, so I think if there weren’t safety cars and stuff, it would’ve been a lot closer.
“Ferrari have done a fantastic job, and I think it’s great we were both pushing. Those last 20 laps or so we were really exchanging times. He was closing that gap a little bit, but I manage to stay ahead.”
Vettel finished just 6.2 seconds behind Hamilton by the end of the race despite the German spending 12 laps stuck behind his slower teammate, Kimi Räikkönen, in the first stint of the grand prix.
Unusually Ferrari didn’t switch its cars despite the obvious pace difference between the pair and despite Hamilton’s proximity to the field at that stage of the race, which could have left the Mercedes open to a Melbourne-style attack.
Once Vettel got ahead of his teammate on lap 20 he was able to demonstrate blistering pace to cut his way to second place, scything past both Red Bull Racing cars helmed by Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.
However, by the time he could see Hamilton ahead of him, the gap to the lead was eight seconds, which ultimately proved insurmountable with the pair on similar tyres.
“I was stuck behind the train [of Räikkönen and the Red Bulls] and I was getting a bit angry and annoyed,” Vettel said. “I had a feeling I could go a lot faster in these conditions.
“I was in the train for a while, then I finally made the move and tried to chase Lewis down as much as possible.
“I think we were a good match. It could’ve been a different race, but it was a good recovery.”
While the ongoing shadowboxing between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton dominated the race, Max Verstappen stole the show with a sensational drive on the podium after starting sixteenth on the grid.
The Dutchman effortlessly passed nine cars by the end of the first lap, and he put his RB13 in fourth place once most of the field stopped for new tyres under the early virtual safety car.
Verstappen needed only to apply pressure to his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, and once past on lap 11, he attempted to close on Hamilton using his superior supersoft-tyre grip against Hamilton’s softs.
The Pirelli rubber ran out of puff, however, and Verstappen found himself stuck in second until Vettel charged past on lap 29, cementing the order.
“It was very challenging,” said Verstappen, before deadpanning, “I think on lap one I passed nine cars, so not too bad!
“I’m happy to be on the podium, I didn’t expect that at all starting from P16.
“I didn’t have a lot of track time for car balance yesterday [during practice], so it was basically nursing the car to the finish.”
Ricciardo and Räikkönen finished fourth and fifth, while Valtteri Bottas completed an embarrassing second race for Mercedes after spinning his car behind the safety car and falling to nineteenth, consigning himself to a recovery drive for seventh place.