Dubai: As Valtteri Bottas edged out Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday with the fastest lap in practice for Formula One’s 1,000th world championship race, only one thing is clear. The race for the Drivers’ Championship will be as tight as it has ever been.
So far in Australia and Bahrain, we have seen five different drivers dominate in practice, qualifying and the race itself.
While Mercedes have two wins and two 1-2s on the board — Bottas winning Down Under before swapping places with Lewis Hamilton at Sakhir — that doesn’t begin to tell the story.
The Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc have been far more dominant in preparations and for on-track speed than the Mercedes duo. If it were not for technical mishaps (Leclerc) and driver errors (Vettel — again!) we would be looking at a very different scenario at the top of the standings after two races.
And then there is Max Verstappen. Red Bull’s youngster has continued to defy logic in his five-year, event-filled career as he consistently puts his car in the mix with the Silver Arrows and Ferraris, despite having a clearly inferior package this campaign. He only missed out on a podium last time out due to a safety car preventing him from overtaking Leclerc’s power-failed car.
And the practice standings in China on Friday illustrated how quickly things can change — and just who tight the fight will be to be top of the pile come Abu Dhabi in December. Bottas — the championship leader, a point clear of Hamilton — set a benchmark time of one minute 33.330 seconds in the afternoon.
The Finn was just 0.027 seconds clear of Vettel, who was fastest in the morning by a 0.207-second margin ahead of Hamilton.
“We made it to the top of the timesheets but it is always very difficult to find a good balance through an entire lap on this track,” said Bottas.
“Ferrari still seem to be quicker than us on the straights, whereas we were better in most corners in FP2 (the second session).”
Verstappen left Hamilton red-faced as he was third fastest in the afternoon, 0.221 seconds off Bottas’ best, but the 21-year-old struggled with shifting gears and clutch issues throughout the session.
His Honda-powered team won in China last year, when they used Renault engines, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton, the most successful driver by far around the 5.4-km Shanghai International Circuit with five wins to date, ended the day fourth.
Leclerc had a difficult day. He and Vettel are running a new electronic control package following his disappointing time in Bahrain and the youngster’s session ended early as he parked up in the garage with some 20 minutes to go so that Ferrari could carry out cooling checks.
“We had to stop for further checks on something on the oil,” said Leclerc. “We will check it but no big issues.
“I think it will be very close, Mercedes and also Red Bull are actually quite close, so it will be an interesting battle.”
Hamilton also found the going tough, “We’re going to work hard tonight to find some tweaks and hopefully come back stronger tomorrow” said the five-time champion. “The car has the pace in it to compete at the front, we just need to find the right set-up.”
Nico Hulkenberg was fifth fastest for Renault, ahead of Carlos Sainz in the McLaren.