“That really was one of my best races,” declared Lewis Hamilton after a thrilling victory in China that broke the domination of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and gave F1 fans some hope that this season won’t be one long victory lap for the young German.
But his chances of victory were almost ended in the garage before he set off to play his part in a race that ebbed and flowed as drivers from McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari traded places at the front and Mark Webber charged from the back to elbow his way onto the podium.
As the minutes ticked away to the start of the race Hamilton’s car would not start – fuel had flooded the airtray, leaving the engine inoperable and putting its driver in danger of missing the deadlane for taking his place on the grid, forcing him to start from the pitlane.
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh said: “The mechanics hurriedly took the airtray out, cleaned up the excess fuel and fired it up. We quickly assembled the car and sent it to the grid with 60 seconds to go.”
Estimates at the time put the margin of safety as being nearer 35 seconds.
Hamilton said: “I was sat in the car and thinking, ‘Okay, let’s go,’ but the car wouldn’t start. I didn’t question what was going on, I just wanted to stay calm and not add to everyone’s stress.
“When I finally left the garage, I drove down the pitlane watching the light and hoped it wouldn’t turn red – and it didn’t! It’s never been that close before.”
Once the race began, both Hamilton and his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button passed polesitter Vettel at the start, Button leading until it was time to pit and the contest turned into a battle of differing strategies.
Mercedes team-mates Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher chose to pit early: the decision took Rosberg into the lead but his chances of victory foundered on a need to conserve fuel and on the limitations of his admittedly much-improved car.
Vettel and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa chose a two-stop strategy that, for a while, put them in control of the race – but the resulting tyre wear was too great and they had no defence late in the race as three-stopping rivals on fresher rubber attacked.
Webber had qualified 18th and spent the early stages of the race stuck among the back-markers on the disadvantageous harder tyres – but once they were out of the way this left him with a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of soft tyres and he hurtled untouched through the field to claim an unlikely third place.
Button’s challenge suffered its first hiccup when he took his initial pitstop. Distracted by operating the settings on his steering wheel, he pulled up at the Red Bull garage and had to be waved past to the McLaren one by a surprised team of Vettel’s mechanics.
He said: “I was looking down at the steering wheel to adjust a switch: when I looked up, I thought I was in my pitbox, but then I saw the Red Bull pitcrew in front of me.”
That dropped him behind the German, and he was soon overtaken on the track by Hamilton. On the last but one lap he lost the final podium slot when he became the last victim of Webber’s charge.
Hamilton, meanwhile, had raced off down the road in pursuit of Vettel, finally overhauling him with four laps to go. He said: “It’s rare to have battles like the ones we saw today; you really had to think about the situation, and I loved that challenge, but having to overtake people made things so much sweeter.
“At the end, it was tough to get past Sebastian – even though he was getting slower, he never looked like getting out of shape. It was always going to be difficult to follow him onto the back straight, so I wanted to get him before then – I wasn’t expecting to overtake where I did, but I had the grip to keep ahead, and I made it stick.
“Looking back at these three flyaways, it still feels absolutely amazing to have a car beneath us that can compete. We’ve still got some way to go to close the gap to the Red Bulls, but we had the better strategy and were able to execute it really well. The team will keep on pushing as hard as ever as we head into the European season.
“I feel so proud: this race is in my top three of race wins, it’s up there with Silverstone and Monaco in 2008. I exist and I live and I breathe to win: I love winning and I just couldn’t be happier.”
Button said: “We saw a lot of action out on the track today, but we just weren’t quick enough today. For some reason, I really struggled to look after the rear tyres, and fourth place was the best I could get out of my car today.
“Nowadays, getting strategy right is very important. I didn’t have a clue where I was going to finish: I could have been seventh, I could have been second.
“Nonetheless, fourth position is a good result, all things considered.”
The other British driver in the field, Force India’s Paul di Resta, suffered the poorest result of his short F1 career, finishing 11th as rear tyre deterioration left him unable to defend the points-paying position he’d held onto after qualifying eighth. He did, however, beat his team-mate Adrian Sutil.
He said: “It was always going to be quite a tough race, starting from where we were. We came very close to scoring points, but just missed out at the end when the tyres had gone.
“Having gone into the race without heavy fuel runs may have compromised us a bit. We didn’t quite get the aero balance right at the start, but the second and third stints I think were pretty good, just a bit longer than expected because we had to stop early to try and cover Michael [Schumacher].
“Maybe a three stop strategy would have suited us better, but we came here relatively strong in performance and I think we have to be very thankful of that.
“Overall I am still very happy on how the weekend went considering we qualified into Q3 and came close to scoring points once again.