Lewis Hamilton has predicted the closest title battle of his career, after he joined Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the top of the Formula One championship following victory at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Hamilton claimed a record fifth win in Shanghai after leading from start to finish in the inclement conditions. Vettel, who won the Australian Grand Prix, recovered after an early stop under the Virtual Safety Car had sent him to fifth, to finish six seconds adrift in second place.
Max Verstappen, who is still only 19 years old, was the driver of the day. He qualified 19th on the grid and passed 16 cars to complete the podium.
Vettel’s race was scuppered by a portion of bad luck. His Ferrari team pulled him into the pits to change to slick tyres on only the second lap, following the deployment of the virtual safety car as Lance Stroll was punted out of the race by Sergio Pérez.
But when the safety car was deployed for real, only moments later – after Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian filling in for the unfit Pascal Wehrlein, crashed his Sauber for the second time in as many days – Hamilton took advantage.
It allowed him to retain his lead before marching to his first win of the campaign, the 54th of his career, and his fifth from the last six grand prix, stretching back to last season. The result leaves Hamilton and Vettel level on 43 points in the drivers championship.
‘It is going to be one of the closest championships, if not the closest I’ve personally ever experienced,’ proclaimed Hamilton, 32, who is relishing his battle with Vettel, three years his junior, this year.
‘The scenario I am in right now, I am fighting against a four-time world champion, who is at his best and is phenomenally quick, and a Ferrari team which is the best they have been in a decade. I feel like I am at my best, too.
‘The ultimate fighter always wants the best battle that you can have because, when you come out on top, it is so much more satisfying.
‘I love this fight that we are having and sitting there with Sebastian I was like, “this is going to go right down to the end of the season,” and I hope for both of us there is nothing mechanical that will come in between our sheer battle through ability.
‘I really hope it is an out-and-out fight through stubbornness, through mental stability, through fitness, composure and through just out-driving the person on track.’
Vettel’s premature pit stop left the German having to do just that. He was stuck behind Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen for the opening phase of the grand prix before he made his move on lap 20.
He then took on Daniel Ricciardo, his former teammate at Red Bull, with the move of the race. Vettel dived to the outside of the Australian at turn six, and despite a near-disastrous ending as they banged wheels, the gutsy Ferrari man held his nerve and made the pass stick at the following corner.
By now, Verstappen was up to an incredible second, but the Dutchman’s only error in a spectacular race was over-cooking the penultimate corner on ageing tyres.
It allowed Vettel through and he set about chasing Hamilton down, but the triple world champion, who is now level with Alain Prost on 106 career podiums from just 190 starts – only Michael Schumacher has more – was in no mood to be caught.
‘Lewis did the best job,’ said Vettel. ‘We were unfortunate with the safety car. I tried to chase Lewis down as much as possible, but I had the feeling every time I put a lap in he was able to respond.
‘We were a good match. It could have been a different race, but it was a good recovery. We finished second and I am very happy with that.’
Back on top. Congrats Lewis/Merc! Well deserved
— Nico Rosberg (@nico_rosberg) April 9, 2017
The poor weather, which wreaked havoc with Friday’s practice schedule and forced the sport’s new owners to consider moving the race forward by 24 hours, returned overnight here. But despite a damp track, under overcast skies, the race went ahead as scheduled.
There will be no such concerns this week as they head to Bahrain with the temperature set to peak at nearly 40 degrees.
Almost as hot as the championship battle.
You may also like