After Verstappen's Chinese GP victory, who can challenge his F1 dominance?

SHANGHAI — As his era of Formula One domination steamrolls into a third year, Max Verstappen is somehow continuing to up his game. Of his four victories this season, the Chinese Grand Prix was by far his most dominant and laid waste to any credible notion of a championship challenge emerging from his rivals, including Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez.

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Two midrace safety cars meant the 13-second gap to Lando Norris in second place was not representative of the true pace of the three-time world champion. Had things gone his way, the gap could have easily been doubled, and even by simply combining it with the one he had prior to the safety car neutralizing his lead, it would have stood at 25 seconds.

“He’s just like a metronome,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race. “The pace that he showed last year to win the title, he’s just continued that through to this season. Since the last Chinese Grand Prix [in 2019] he’s won 50 percent of all the races. He’s won 21 of the last 23 races. He’s in fantastic form, at one with the car and at one with the team, and enjoying his racing.”

Verstappen himself was typically understated about the performance.

“It was a good one, yeah,” he said when asked if it was his most dominant win of the year. “Also, in terms of the balance in the car, we did a good job as a team to make it even better than what it was at the start of the weekend.”

The routine answer makes you wonder how much he is holding in reserve. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s coming easy.

Each tenth of a second of lap time he finds over his opposition comes from fastidious attention to detail, and when F1 arrives in Miami in two weeks for the first of three rounds in the USA this year, the hunt for performance will start afresh.

“It’s a completely different track,” Verstappen said. “You know, different tyres, different tarmac, so you never know.

“We need to be perfect — need to try and be perfect. We need to always try and find the best setup on the car to be able to show performances like we did today.

“So that’s what we’ll try to do but also on the other hand I don’t want to think about it too much now. First of all to go home, and then we will prepare like we always do and hopefully that’s good enough when we get there.

Lando Norris returns to the podium

Behind Verstappen, and in the absence of the Ferraris, Norris starred for McLaren in China and beat Perez to second place. Although he is still chasing his first win in F1, the British driver continues to impress and this weekend had not only his podium to celebrate but also an impressive pole lap from Friday’s qualifying session for Saturday’s sprint race.

“Whenever I finish behind Max I feel like it’s a win,” Norris said on Sunday. “A great day, really a surprise, I was not expecting a day like today. So very happy for myself and for the whole team, more importantly. Definitely exceeded our expectations but a lot of things went our way.”

The cooler conditions seemed to play to McLaren’s strengths. One of the reasons Norris found so much performance in the wet sprint qualifying session on Friday was because he could get his tyres into a temperature window other drivers couldn’t match.

Over the course of a long, hot race that characteristic of his McLaren might have been a disadvantage — Norris struggled in the sprint race itself when he lost six places at the start and became stuck in traffic — but on the cooler conditions on Sunday, he took advantage of the safety car period that promoted him to second place and managed his race to perfection in clean air.

“Today I could control things on my own,” Norris said. “I could break away from Charles [Leclerc] very quickly. And then Charles was holding up Checo [Perez] a lot.

“Checo probably had to use a lot of his tyres to try and get past him. So yeah, it depends how you think of it. I probably maybe expected a bit more of a battle but then when I know how much he pushed in the beginning to pass the Ferrari, it allowed me to be a bit more comfortable, which was a nice thing.”

What happened to Ferrari’s threat in China?

At the first four races of the season, Ferrari was Red Bull’s closest rival. When Verstappen retired from the Australian Grand Prix with a brake issue, it was Carlos Sainz who took the race victory, showing signs along the way that he might have put up a genuine fight with Verstappen had the Red Bull not retired.

There was a theory ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix weekend that the Shanghai International Circuit might offer a similar opportunity for the Italian team.

The cooler weather at both venues and the need to fend off a tyre wear phenomenon known as “graining” — the buildup of small balls of rubber on the tyre’s surface that reduce grip — led to the belief that Red Bull could be more vulnerable. Combine that with a sprint race format in which teams have just one practice session to understand their cars, and perhaps a surprise result was in the cards.

It was wishful thinking.

Ferrari’s first slip-up came in qualifying, with Charles Leclerc ending up sixth and Sainz in seventh. Both drivers lost more ground at the start — dropping to seventh and ninth, respectively — but once the race settled down they moved back up the order past George Russell’s Mercedes, Oscar Piastri’s McLaren and Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin to fourth and fifth.

“When you drop to P7 and P9 the race is much more difficult because you have dirty air [from the cars in front] in the first laps, and even if you are faster it’s particularly hard,” Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur said. “Even if you are faster, you struggle to overtake because if you don’t have the big gap in front of you, you damage the tyres for the first 10 laps behind other cars and then your race is dead.

“I think it is really a matter of not putting everything together. We didn’t have a clean weekend from our side which meant collectively too many mistakes, and we know that in this group of teams behind Red Bull, if you don’t do the perfect job, you won’t be in front.”

As has been the case throughout this year, the Ferrari initially looked after its tyres reasonably well in the race, allowing Leclerc and Sainz to pursue a one-stop strategy, while Verstappen and teammate Perez went harder and faster on a two-stop. The safety car period worked in Ferrari’s favor by neutralizing any advantage Red Bull could gain from its two-stop strategy, because logic dictated Verstappen and Perez should pit under the safety car to minimize time lost in the pit lane. In doing so, they ended up committing to a much longer final stint than they planned.

“The only thing we got unlucky with,” Horner said, “is we were on a reasonably aggressive two-stop because that was the fastest race and it looked like Lando and Charles had committed to a one-stop, and then when the safety car came out.

“It was at just the wrong time and we had to effectively convert to go on the same strategy as them for the rest of the race, which lost Checo’s [Perez] track position behind Lando and Charles, and probably pushing hard to pass Charles took too much out of the tyre at that point, which didn’t leave him with enough to have a go at Lando at the end.

“Without the safety car I think it would have been a 1-2, but nonetheless an amazing performance,” Horner added.

When Ferrari made its pit stop under the safety car, it switched both drivers from the medium compound tyre to the hard compound. For reasons the team didn’t understand after the race, that switch came with a loss of relative performance to its nearby rivals, seeing Leclerc lose third place to Perez after he’d hoped to continue to catch Norris.

“The strength of this car since the beginning of the year is that it is very solid in all conditions, with all tyres, but today is a bit of an outlier,” Leclerc said after the race. “As soon as we put on the hards we were half a second off. That is very strange, we will look into it and try to understand what went wrong on that front.

“We expected it again to be closer this weekend in terms of Red Bull’s race pace, but I still believe strongly that our medium-tyre race pace was very strong. It was very difficult to show because we were in traffic, but once we went longer in the stint we were stronger.

“But as soon as we put on hards we were miles off — not a little bit, but half a second compared to McLaren when I was pushing and knew the lap times of Lando. So that is very strange.”

For the first time this year, Vasseur admitted his Ferrari team had underachieved given the potential of the car.

“It’s more a matter of extracting the best of what we had,” he added. “Honestly, if we are speaking about development, first as a team we have to get the best from what we have and we didn’t do the job together on this.”

Ferrari’s first major upgrade of the season is due in two races’ time at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola. F1 teams often underplay future updates in the hope of under-promising and over-delivering, but Sainz admitted a lot was riding on the Imola update if Ferrari stands any chance of closing the gap to the front this year.

“That’s the plan, but let’s see if it works like that,” he said. “I hope so, so we can try and make the Red Bulls’ life more complicated. If not they are walking off with many wins this season.”

Horner remains wary of his rivals’ potential later at future races, but with Verstappen behind the wheel he sounds far from concerned.

“It may be we go to the next event and the gap concertinas again, and I think it will probably do that because we’ve not raced in really hot temperatures [like Miami] yet,” he said.

“There is still an awful lot of variables to come, but across the different circuits that we’ve had RB20 is delivering. Our drivers, and in particular Max, has done an amazing job.”

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