Tuesday, Apr 16 04:54pm
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Column: Unfulfilled promise signals early warning lights

For a track that sits atop the Formula 1 most-passes-completed table, Shanghai International Circuit failed to light a fire; but the Chinese Grand Prix wasn't without it's significance.


Dominant as the Mercedes were – this was the third straight one-two finish for Mercedes in as many Grands Prix –  unless you were listening intently to the commentary, you would have failed to pick up that this race also saw Lewis Hamilton pass the 4,000 laps led landmark. If you pick a random average number of laps for a Grand Prix, let's say 60, then Hamilton has led in excess of 65 Grands Prix from start to finish by comparison.


When you think about it, that is a truly amazing statistic in an era where fields are separated by tenths of a second. The overall record for laps led in Formula 1 is still held by Michael Schumacher and Hamilton has some way to go as he is around 1,000 laps behind the legendary German. But it’s very hard to see him not threatening that record. That list, of course, also includes the likes of Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark in its top ten. Lewis is also 700 laps led ahead of Sebastian Vettel, an interesting statistic and one which somewhat eclipses the argument that Hamilton has only led more laps because there are more GPs every year.


No, like him or loathe him, Hamilton could walk away right now and rightly be regarded as one of the sport's all-time greats. He has defeated many top-line team mates, world champions included and has matched or eclipsed most of the records in the sport now. He's passed Schumacher for total pole positions and currently sits on a career total of 84. With 75 wins he is now just (a ‘relative’ term) 16 GP wins behind Michael and on five titles to Michael's seven. With no apparent waining in his passion for the sport and his hunger on track, by the end of next season Hamilton – statistically at least – may well become the best ever in the sport. 


All of that aside, one has to also think ‘what might have been’ after yet another odd ball performance from Ferrari at the weekend.


Word in the paddock is that not only have they been caught with their trousers around their ankles yet again by Mercedes, but that in fact they have gone in the wrong direction with the aero of their car, and need a fundamental change. This is despite widespread reporting before the start of the season that it was Mercedes who had missed the point about the new aerodynamic rules for the 2019 season and needed a quick fix.


Was their error just a bigger one than Ferrari's? Who knows, but the engineers from Mercedes went away and created a whole new aero concept in a matter of weeks, if not days. Ferrari did nothing. And still did nothing after the humiliation of the Australian Grand Prix. And there was still no aero upgrade for China.


All up, however, that only accounted on the clock for around three tenths of a second in qualifying and on long distance runs on comparable tyres. So how was it Ferrari contrived to only take a relatively uncomfortable third and fifth at the weekend where Red Bull rather than Mercedes were their major rivals for results?


For me it stemmed from poor team orders. I'm not a fan of team orders anyway but it seemed to me doubly bad at the weekend when Leclerc was asked to step aside for Vettel. although we didn't hear it on the radio conversations that were broadcast, I suspect Seb was having a good whinge to his team about his young team mate holding him up. And they listened. The fact is, on this notorious tyre eating track, that both drivers were conserving their medium compound Pirellis. It was Leclerc that pointed that out, but he duly obliged, nose suitably out of joint, and let his team mate through. Vettel, however, couldn't break away and indeed started locking up at regular intervals in his efforts to build a gap between himself, his team mate and a flying Max Verstappen behind them.


At the time it didn't look bad, but the upshot of it all was that Ferrari had to keep Leclerc out and switch his strategy to give him more pace at the end of the GP. Whether they believed it or not, Ferrari told him it was a good idea. It was ultimately a ‘fail’ on the Ferrari post race report, of course, as Charles emerged after his pit stop behind Verstappen and far enough down to negate any chance of a fourth place finish. Given his pace and the panic reaction for Vettel that compromised him so severely, I think a third place finish would have been easily on for the youngster.


I wonder how much Ferrari will listen to Vettel if the situation arises again, which it almost certainly will. Time will tell.


So often over the years we have seen Ferrari snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and I am hoping this won't be the case this season. The drivers, mechanics and even the designers deserve better than they are getting from their strategists. So, for me at least, Ferrari needs to win in Baku with either Vettel or Leclerc or the title, to all intents and purposes, will be gone. Whatever they admit in public, I think Mercedes will certainly see it that way.


Talking of young Verstappen, I was mighty impressed by his race craft and pace in the Honda-powered Red Bull in China. The Honda haters were out in force when Red Bull confirmed their switch to the Japanese manufacturer from Renault last season but Verstappen at least is comfortably ahead of the Renault powered opposition and an ever-present thorn in the side of both Mercedes and Ferrari.


Honda seem to have found something of their mojo this season with Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon both having their moments over the weekend when they looked very impressive. After a solid start to the season, Kvyat reminded everyone at the weekend why he earned the nickname Torpedo with some real clumsiness in the race, but I was impressed with Albon. Yes he crashed badly in third practice and therefore missed a shot at quali and had to start from pit lane. Given all that, his rise through the field to tenth place and a championship point was commendable but also indicative I think of how good the Honda engine is this year. If he can keep off the walls in practice, Verstappen could win at a track like Monaco. Either way I feel a Honda win this season is increasingly likely.


All of that shines a poor light on Pierre Gasly though. Although he is now popping up in sessions generally in sixth or seventh now, the gap between him and Verstappen is alarming by Formula 1 standards. Not a tenth or two (a gap which has cost many drivers their careers), his at the weekend seemed to be around a second a lap. An absolute eternity. Formula 1 being Formula 1, it didn't take long for the tongues to start wagging and barely three weekends into the season, there is already talk of his lack of speed compared to Verstappen and what Gasly must do about it. Are his days numbered already?


Baku may be only the fourth Grand Prix of the season, but it represents a very early D-Day for quite a few of the major players in Formula 1. Ferrari, Vettel, Gasly will all be under the spotlight and time may be running out for Robert Kubica too, a shadow of his former self so far this season in a truly lamentable Williams car.