The 1,000th race to count for the F1 World Championship since 1950 had promised a grand prix worthy of the celebrations after a tight qualifying session on Saturday. But the promised Mercedes vs Ferrari vs Red Bull epic never materialised in the grey smog of Shanghai, as the Chinese Grand Prix turned into… well, let’s just say it’s a race that will be easily forgotten as F1 enters its second millennium.
Still, if the action at the front never quite erupted as we hoped, the race did at least spring some key talking points. The season remains full of promise despite the anti-climax of the ‘Big 1,000’ in Shanghai.
Team orders are never welcome in F1, especially this early in the season, but it’s fitting in a race of special historical significance that the oldest team of them all should act entirely in character. Ferrari has never shied away from the dreaded call when it comes to a question of its greater good, and to Charles Leclerc’s clear annoyance that was the case once again on Sunday.
The 21-year-old couldn’t quite outqualify team leader Sebastian Vettel this time, but he sure was hot out of the blocks into Turn 1. As the four-time champion tried the wider line behind the two Mercs, Leclerc filled the gaping hole on the inside and was past.
When the radio call came to let Vettel through, in the belief he could go quicker once free of his team-mate, Leclerc said: “But I’m pulling away.” Further frustrations were aired. It wasn’t what he said (he never lost his rag), but rather his tone of voice that gave away the tension.
And who can blame him? The knock-on effect of that radio call was a seriously compromised race on a strategy that dropped him not only behind Vettel but also Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.
In fairness, Ferrari’s boss Mattia Binotto had repeated earlier in the weekend that in any 50-50 scenario Vettel would still take priority – and this was one of those occasions. So what else could we have expected?
But if Leclerc emerges as Ferrari’s strongest title threat this season – and who’s to say he won’t on what we’ve seen of him so far? – Binotto might have to change that strategy. Especially if Leclerc’s lost points in Shanghai begin to haunt Ferrari come the autumn.
2. Ferrari vs Mercedes: a duel hard to predict
Mercedes has a trio of one-twos to show from the first three races. That’s perfection, to a level that exceeds everything we’ve seen from this remarkable team in the whole hybrid era.
But happily for us, those stats tell little of the true story. Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were on top in Australia, but Ferrari had a clear edge in Bahrain, and while form swung back to the silver cars in China it wasn’t by as much as the race suggested.
This is a duel between two F1 giants that could continue to swing in each other’s favour from race to race. Behind the scenes, a development war will rage – and to our benefit, it should spill out on to the race track throughout what’s left of the spring and into the summer.
Who knows what will happen next? We still can’t take our eyes off this one.
Fastest lap and a solid sixth place suggests progress from the second Red Bull driver – but the Frenchman still finished more than a minute behind Verstappen in Shanghai.
That won’t be good enough for Helmut Marko, the driver development manager notorious for his lack of patience and swift action against those who don’t live up to his exacting standards.
Gasly just plain hasn’t done enough as Daniel Ricciardo’s replacement so far. But he has fortune on his side – because despite Red Bull’s efforts to nurture young talent, it doesn’t have anyone on its books who currently looks a better option.
Still, that will give Gasly little respite. Marko won’t expect him to beat Verstappen, but he’ll want to see a sign that it could happen at some point. So far, the graduate still looks like he’s still at high school.
4. Alexander Albon: from worst to best
Could the Thai driver at Toro Rosso replace Gasly? Not yet, surely. But his remarkable performance in Shanghai suggests he might be worthy in the future.
Albon described himself as “the worst driver” after his practice crash forced him to spectate through qualifying. Yet on Sunday, he put in a great race to rise from the back of the grid to 10th by the flag to score his first World Championship point – and he was even voted the fans’ Driver of the Day. Quite a turnaround.
Even better, his performance was in stark contrast to team-mate Daniil Kvyat, who clipped Lando Norris’s McLaren on the first lap and nearly flipped the teenager in an incident that ruined both their races. Kvyat’s clumsiness cost him dear during his first shot at F1. He needs to avoid such trouble if history isn’t to repeat itself.
We all know Renault has played a long and significant role in F1 history, but it had little more than a bit-part in the 1,000th race.
Daniel Ricciardo broke his duck, at least, with a distant seventh place behind his Red Bull replacement Gasly. But Nico Hülkenberg logged yet another DNF after apparent hybrid system problems.
The team has a growing reputation for poor reliability and is far from having enough pace to challenge at the front. Not a good combination for a manufacturer team that needs to start living up to its board’s expectations.
History counts for nothing in F1 if you’re not winning. For Renault, the clock is ticking.