SHANGHAI — Fernando Alonso delivered the perfect race to win Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix for Ferrari at the Shanghai Int’l Circuit.
The victory catapulted Alonso back into the title hunt on a day when point leader Sebastian Vettel could only manage fourth for Red Bull behind runner-up Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus and third-place Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton led from the start for Mercedes, but could not contain Alonso’s challenge by the fifth lap as first the Spaniard’s red car swept by on the left-hand side and then his team mate Felipe Massa’s F138 snatched second place on the right-hand side.
The leaders quickly ditched their fragile soft-compound Pirelli tires — Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on the fifth lap, Alonso and Raikkonen on the sixth, Massa on the seventh.
That left all of them to run to the flag on varying sets of mediums, whereas Vettel, McLaren’s Jenson Button and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg were amongst those to start on mediums and would thus have to make very late stops to switch to softs.
These out-of-kilter circumstances put Hulkenberg into the lead from laps seven to 14, but when he encountered a delay with the right-rear tire at his pit stop it put him behind Vettel, who had been chasing the Sauber and had stopped at the same time.
By the 15th lap Button, yet to stop, led Alonso and Sergio Perez in the second McLaren, who also had yet to pit. Hamilton at that stage was fourth under pressure from Raikkonen, with Vettel sixth.
Alonso, however, caught and passed Button on the 21st lap, before pitting again on the 23rd. That temporarily put Vettel back into the lead from Hulkenberg between laps 24 and 28, when Alonso sliced confidently back in front of Vettel to set up his 31st career triumph.
“It was a fantastic race for us, from the start to the end, without big problems with the car,” Alonso explained. “The tire degradation was better than expected probably, so we managed more or less the pace. Yeah, it feels great after the retirement in Malaysia, we had some pressure to finish the race. The two races we finished this year; one second place and today the victory so definitely the start of this 2013 campaign is looking good so we are very optimistic.”
As Vettel stopped for more medium tires on the 31st lap, Hamilton and Raikkonen moved back into second and third. The Finn had collided with Perez on the 16th lap, sustaining some damage to his front wing, but over the remainder of the race the Lotus had the edge over the Mercedes despite increased under steer, and after Hamilton’s final pit stop on the 37th lap Raikkonen had the advantage.
Out front, Alonso was never really troubled, nursing his tires yet maintaining a fierce pace. Raikkonen and Hamilton battled to keep Vettel and Button in sight, and moved ahead of them when they duly pitted for their soft tires. Button did so first, on lap 49, followed by Vettel on 51. The German was ever so slightly delayed, and that cost him his podium chance.
Raikkonen clearly wasn’t going to catch Alonso, but he still had to keep an eye on Hamilton who was still pushing hard even though his tires were all but finished.
But it was Vettel who was really on the move as he slashed the gap mercilessly to Hamilton. It didn’t help that the Mercedes driver came across Caterham backmarker Giedo van der Garde on the last lap, and that enabled Vettel to get right on to the Mercedes’s tail.
Hamilton finally sliced by the Dutchman, but as Vettel also lunged aggressively by he ran wide in the next corner, and that was enough to save Hamilton’s podium position. By the flag he was still just two-tenths of a second ahead of Vettel as Alonso led Raikkonen home by 10.1 seconds with Hamilton a further 2.1 seconds behind.
Button kept going to take a respectable fifth for McLaren ahead of Massa, who lost his early pace when he got stuck in the midfield after having to make his first stop a lap later than Alonso.
After three rounds, Vettel still leads the title chase with 52 points, three ahead of Raikkonen with Alonso another six back.