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Jenson Button Wins in Shangai – Race Analysis

McLaren’s Jenson Button took his second win of the season in Shanghai on Sunday, becoming the first driver in 2010 to score multiple wins.  He has also vaulted to the top spot in the championship point standings.  Button has called it the best win of his career.

The win was certainly well-earned.  While Button’s team mate, Lewis Hamilton, has already developed a reputation for being a rain-meister, and a brilliant over-taker, it was Button once again who prevailed with his ability to read changing conditions correctly and take care of his tires, much as he’d done in Australia.  Button made half as many pit stops as Hamilton, and was generally able to use his ultra-smooth driving style to stall degradation of his tires.

While the race was never exactly rain-drenched, the changeable conditions made strategy perhaps even more difficult than if it had been.  Most drivers switched between slicks and intermediate tires during the race, and found it challenging to preserve the inters, which essentially turned into slicks very quickly if drivers pushed too hard.

Lewis Hamilton took second place, trailing Button by a mere 1.5 seconds, which, under these conditions, was a wafer thin margin.  Had the race been five or ten laps longer, Hamilton might have mounted a successful attack on his team mate, but in the end, Button was able to defend his lead by merely looking after his tires as much as possible (he allowed that he’d lost most of his tread by race-end), and not making too many mistakes (he did have one minor off-track excursion that cost him several seconds).

The podium was rounded out by Mercedes pilot Nico Rosberg, who once again did a stellar job.  This is Rosberg’s second podium of the season.  It’s generally acknowledged that the Mercedes doesn’t quite have the pace of the other three first-tier teams (Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren), but Rosberg has been consistently competitive thus far this season.  Moreover, he has out performed his illustrious team mate, seven-time champ Michael Schumacher, at virtually every turn.

The remaining points-paying positions were occupied by the Ferraris, Red Bulls and Renaults, as well as Michael Schumacher in tenth, for Mercedes.  Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso came in fourth, once again showing his dominance over team mate Felipe Massa, who was ninth.  While these two drivers have managed to put a good face on their new partnership for the media, one suspects that if Alonso evolves into the Ferrari number one in his first year with the team things might get a bit tense in the Ferrari garage.

Alonso is much the way Michael Schumacher was in his prime, or Aytron Senna before him: he likes to be the focal point of the team, and will generally bring this about through a combination of dominant performances and intra-team political maneuvering.  It was because these two strategies proved ineffective at McLaren in 2007 (Hamilton was as quick as he was, on balance, and was also the team’s favorite son) that his tenure at the Woking squad was aborted after a single season.  Alonso has learned from that experience, and he will very likely play his hand at Ferrari to perfection.

Renault’s Robert Kubica finished fifth, in another strong drive which is becoming a habit for him this season.  He drove a steady, consistent race, with no mistakes, once again flattering his equipment.  His team mate, Vitaly Petrov, managed seventh, even after a few lurid moments.  Renault has progressed by leaps over last year’s car, and it looks as though they’re competing with Force India to be the best mid-field team.

The Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had been expected to dominate the race today, as they had in qualifying.  In the event, however, it didn’t happen.  While they were on the same tire strategy as Lewis Hamilton, they were unable to match the McLaren driver’s pace.  Vettel finished sixth, 33 seconds behind the leader, and Webber finished eighth, 52 seconds behind.

Felipe Massa managed to squeak by his old mentor Michael Schumacher in the closing laps, to take ninth place, but on the whole the Brazilian drove an unremarkable race, trailing his team mate Alonso by some 46 seconds, and once again demonstrating that he doesn’t shine in the wet.

Michael Schumacher managed to cling to tenth for the final points-paying slot.  While the German was able to show some of his old race craft, most particularly in a battle with Lewis Hamilton, he was generally down on pace, and he later indicated that much of his difficulty lay in trying to judge the intermediate tires properly.  The inters have evolved since Schumacher’s last active season, in 2006, and he was unsure of how to pace himself to prevent degradation.  In the closing laps, he’d lost all grip, and steadily slipped backwards.

Schumacher had been having difficulties with grip all weekend, however, especially in the exits of slower corners.  Prior to the race, he’d been hoping that a wet race might provide him with opportunities to advance, but in the event he actually dropped back one spot in relation to his position on the starting grid.

Only seven cars were classified finishers outside the points-paying positions.  Williams drivers Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hulkenberg finished 12th and 15th, respectively.  Barrichello might have been hoping to move up the grid in these conditions, in which he normally excels, but the car wasn’t up to it.  The Williams generally seems to have fallen down in the pecking order this year.

Last year, they began the season on a high, being one of three teams to have started the season with the new double diffusers, which helped them raise their game.  But this year, they have nothing to give them a similar competitive edge.  Barrichello, the most experienced driver in the field, is on a short-term contract to help develop the car and mentor his rookie team mate.  He has his work cut out for him: thus far, both the Williams chassis and Hulkenberg have failed to impress.

Heikki Kovalainen had a victory of sorts for Lotus.  He managed to be the only driver for a rookie team to beat one of the established teams for position.  He came in 14th, just ahead of Nico Hulkenberg.  Both cars were a lap down, and while this might have been an ignominious position for Hulkenberg, it wasn’t a bad showing for the Lotus, which is currently far off the pace.

And both HRTs were running at the end, which is another type of victory, I suppose.  They were two and four laps down, however, which once again shows that the Dallara-built chassis are really Formula 1 cars in name only.  There have been numerous complaints within the team that the cars aren’t even built to GP2 standards, and their lap times have often been comparable to those seen in the feeder series.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Dallara built the chassis on a third-party vendor basis, and their contract doesn’t call for ongoing development.  The team is responsible for this on their own.  Moreover, all the plans and specs for the chassis are currently the property of Dallara.  HRT will actually have to acquire these from the Italian manufacturer, or reverse-engineer their own car, if they wish to move forward with developments.  And in Formula 1, if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling further behind.

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