Lewis Hamilton ended Sebastian Vettel’s run of Formula One wins by chasing down the championship leader to win the Chinese Grand Prix.
McLaren driver Hamilton, who used a three-stop strategy to Vettel’s two, capitalized on his fresher tires to finish 5.1 seconds ahead of the defending world champion yesterday in Shanghai. Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber was third after starting in 18th place.
Hamilton, the 2008 series winner, took the lead with four laps remaining to secure his first victory for nine races and prevent Vettel from getting a fifth straight win. The German driver finished last season with back-to-back triumphs and opened his title defense in similar fashion.
“This race is in my top three of race wins,” Hamilton said in a news conference. “I exist and I live and I breathe to win. I love winning and I just couldn’t be happier.”
Vettel tops the standings with 68 points through three of as many as 20 races. Hamilton is 21 points back as the series pauses for two weekends before resuming May 8 for the Turkish Grand Prix.
Vettel said his two-stop strategy had been the wrong one as he ran the final 25 laps on Pirelli & C. SpA’s faster-wearing tires, which are designed to force two to three pit stops per race to help promote different strategies.
“We tried too hard staying on two stops,” Vettel said. “We can learn a lot from today. With two stops, you have to be patient and look after your tires, but it didn’t work.”
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner said it was a gamble that “nearly paid off” for Vettel.
“We got within four laps of making it work but, ultimately, he just didn’t have enough grip to defend that place,” Horner said in a team statement.
McLaren’s Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion, finished in fourth after Webber completed his comeback from near the back of the starting grid to take third place and the final spot on the podium. Button is third in the championship with 38 points, one ahead of Webber.
Mercedes’s Nico Rosberg was fifth ahead of Ferrari duo Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher of Mercedes, Lotus Renault’s Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi in a Sauber rounded out the top 10.
Hamilton’s 15th career win came after his team raced to get his car to the grid on time following a fuel-flooding issue that prevented his engine from starting. Hamilton said he tried to remain relaxed to help the mechanics focus.
“I didn’t question what was going on, I just wanted to stay calm and not add to everyone’s stress,” Hamilton said. “When I finally left the garage, I drove down the pit lane watching the light and hoped it wouldn’t turn red, and it didn’t. It’s never been that close before.”
The garage crew managed to fix the issue and reassemble Hamilton’s car with about 60 seconds remaining, according to McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh.
“The mechanics did an absolutely superlative job to identify the problem and rectify it within a very stressful timeframe,” Whitmarsh said in a team statement. “Lewis responded magnificently to the pressure to record one of his most finely judged and aggressive race wins.”
Hamilton’s first victory since the 2010 Belgian Grand Prix in August made him the first two-time winner at a Shanghai International Circuit that had seen a different driver take the checkered flag in seven previous editions.
Vettel, starting from the 18th pole position of his career, started slowly and was overtaken by the two McLarens to come out of the first turn in third place.
Six different drivers led the 56-lap race and Hamilton took the lead for good when he passed Vettel, who had lost communication with the Red Bull garage because of a problem with his car radio, on the inside of a left-hand turn.
After bowing to the crowd as he stepped out of his car, Hamilton flung himself into the arms of his mechanics.
“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,” Hamilton said. “The team will keep on pushing as hard as ever as we head into the European season.”