Chinese GP: Verstappen in a league of his own once again

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 leads Lando Norris of Great Britain driving the (4) McLaren MCL38 Mercedes on track during the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 21, 2024 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images ) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202404210236 // Usage for editorial use only //
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Max Verstappen was uncatchable in the Chinese Grand Prix, the Red Bull driver taking victory in Shanghai by almost 14s from McLaren's Lando Norris who benefitted from the timing of a safety car to stay ahead of Sergio Perez.

Ferrari put in a determined effort to bring Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz home in P4 and P5 respectively, with George Russell doing a good job of managing the tyres on his Mercedes to finish P6 ahead of Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso.

The race saw two safety cars, the first triggered by a smoky retirement for Valtteri Bottas that left the Sauber stuck in gear by the trackside. Congestion at the restart saw a number of incidents, during which RB pair Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo sufferied terminal damage.

The grid for the Chinese Grand Prix had a much more familiar look to it than that for the Sprint race on Saturday, with Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez locking out the front row. Fernando Alonso had inserted his Aston Martin ahead ahead of the two McLarens (Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri) and both Ferraris (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz). There were only 19 cars on the grid in total, with Logan Sargeant starting from pit lane after Williams opted to break parc ferme rules overnight to make changes to the car.

Circuit atmosphere - Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 fans in the grandstand.
21.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

As the cars made their way to the start line there were reports of some light drizzle around Shanghai International Circuit, but the official forecast for rain in the race was very low. Even so, it added a frisson to the occasion as the lights went out and the race got underway. Verstappen led the charge down the long run into turn 1, cutting across Perez to ward off any challenge which gave Alonso the opportunity to snatch second from the Mexican.

Elsewhere it was a clean start, with George Russell getting the jump on both Ferraris ahead of him to take sixth. Nico Hulkenberg also got a strong start and inserted his Haas between the two Ferraris; Sainz wasn't having any of that and soon took the place back. Hulkenberg also lost a place to Lance Stroll, who was the leading driver starting on soft tyres amidst a sea of mediums. Softs had also helped Yuki Tsunoda get his RB ahead of Lewis Hamilton at the back, the Mercedes looking no happier today than it had yesterday, but Hamilton did pick off home favourite Zhou Guanyu who had suffered a terrible early phase to his race.

By lap 5, Verstappen's lead over Alonso was already over five and a half seconds. The Aston was having to work its tyres much harder than the Red Bulls fore and aft, and he finally had to yield to the inevitable when Perez used DRS to blast past on the inside of turn 6. Alonso then succumbed to Norris on lap 8, but was at least able to prevent Piastri following through. Behind Piastri, Russell tried to hold off an aggressive Leclerc but lost out in turn 1 at the start of lap 9, the Ferrari soon going on to dispatch Piastri through the hairpin for fifth.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20 leads at the start of the race.
21.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Bearne / XPB Images

Tyre degradation meant that those drivers who had started on the soft compound including Stroll, Tsunoda, Zhou, Hulkenberg and Hamilton started to make their first pit stops from lap 10. The top eight were in no immediate rush to do likewise, Verstappen's lead over Perez now up to ten seconds with Norris three seconds further back ahead of Leclerc, Piastri and Sainz who had successfully managed to pass Russell. The Mercedes rushed to pit lane for another set of mediums on lap 12, with Alonso presenting himself for for a set of hards.

There was a surprise move by Red Bull to double stack their cars on pit lane on lap 14, the gap between them allowing the pit crew to service both cars without compromising either. Verstappen came back out in fourth ahead of Sainz, and Perez resumed in sixth, both having switched to hards. In contrast there was drama in the Alpine box as Pierre Gasly's car fell off the jack before the rear tyres were properly fitted, with one of the crew getting knocked off his feet.

Norris had been left minding the store with a couple of seconds in hand over Leclerc and Piastri, but Verstappen was soon back in charge on lap 19. Norris and Leclerc were both yet to pit as yellow flags came out for Valtteri Bottas pulling over with smoke pouring out of the back of the stricken Sauber. There was a long pause before race control finally activated the Virtual Safety Car on lap 22: Norris had just gone past the pit lane entrance when it happened, but Leclerc was able to immediately respond He dived in for an advantageous service to change to hard tyres, with other early stoppers including Stroll and Hamilton also back in.

Marshals on the circuit as Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Sauber C44 retired from the race.
21.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

With the track marshals struggling to remove the Sauber which was frozen in gear at the side of the track, Norris was finally able to pit next time around and still came out ahead of Alonso and Leclerc. The VSC continued to drag on, and with the need to get the recalcitrant Sauber hoisted away race control had no choice but to switch to a full safety car. That altered the strategic equation for the teams with Verstappen and Perez immediately back in, everyone going for fresh hard tyres to make it to the finish except for Alonso who took a set of softs, and Ricciardo who opted for mediums.

Verstappen was still in the lead ahead of Norris and Leclerc who hadn't needed to stop again so soon after doing so under the VSC. The huge gap that the Red Bull had enjoyed up to now was gone as the field packed together behind the safety car. Racing finally resumed on lap 27 with Verstappen having no problem managing the restart, but congestion in the midfield through the final corner ended up with Stroll ploughing into the back of Ricciardo which pushed the RB into the rear of Piastri's McLaren in turn, while Tsunoda was spun off dodge contact with Kevin Magnussen who had been trying to dodge past.

Tsunoda came to a stop on the grass with terminal damage, but Magnussen was able to limp back to pit lane despite a puncture. Stroll also came in for running repairs and a new set of mediums. Ricciardo initially stayed out despite suffering floor damage to his car, while the McLaren pit wall informed Piastri that his MCL38 had sustained 'significant' damage. And of course the safety car had come straight back out to allow the marshals to pick up pieces of carbon fibre from the track before the race got underway again on lap 32.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20 leads behind the Mercedes FIA Safety Car. 21.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Verstappen, Norris, Leclerc and Perez held station at the start with Alonso fifth ahead of Sainz, Russell, Piastri and Hulkenberg. Hamilton made quick work of Ricciardo to make it into the top ten and the compromised RB continued to plummet down the order before heading to pit lane to retire. Stroll and Magnussen were left battling for last place, not remotely discouraged by ten second penalties for their role in causing the second caution.

Verstappen had already shrugged off his pursuers and rapidly out of DRS range of Norris and Leclerc by lap 35. Perez was throwing his efforts into passing the Ferrari for the podium, finally pulling off the move on lap 39. Meanwhile Alonso's soft tyre gambit had reacher end-of-life and the Aston dropped out of the top ten after pitting for mediums on lap 44. The fresh tyres made it easy for him to dispatch Albon and Ocon to scramble back into the points a few minutes later, and equally rapid passes on Hulkenberg and Hamilton despite a scare dabbing his rear wheel onto the gravel at the end of lap 49. Alonso also had no trouble passing Piastri who was clearly struggling with the damage to his car, but ran out of time before he could challenge Russell for P6. He did manage to snatch the bonus point for fastest lap, however.

Of course there was no doubt about the winner, Verstappen coasting to victory with a comfortable margin over Norris and Perez despite easing off in the final laps. Leclerc and Sainz missed out on the podium but were still comfortably ahead of Russell and Alonso at the line. After the chequered flag, Norris made his only mistake of the afternoon by driving down pit lane rather than heading to the grid for post-race celebrations, but Zhou Guanyu stole the show with a hero's welcome from the crowd on the main straight having finished in 14th.

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