“Tyre management” doesn’t sound like the most thrilling of phrases, but try telling that to the audience of yesterday’s Chinese Grand Prix. In a strategic race that would have slipped into the annals of mundanity before the ban on refuelling, the super-computers weren’t just needed for the precise game-plans employed by each team but to keep track of a race in which 23 finishers constantly fought over every position in the field. And the side-by-side action didn’t stay on the track, as the weekend afforded us the chance to see how the BBC would weigh up to new champion Sky’s coverage on the first of their agreed race weekends.
Nico Rosberg embraced the number ’1′ throughout his 111th race weekend, reaching his first pole position on Saturday with an astonishing qualifying lap that left the rest of the field scrambling half a second in his wake. The fact that this was the first timed lap of the final shoot-out let the German enjoy his achievement with a broad smile in the paddock (and an extra set of tyres in his garage) while the rest of the front-runners were still sweating over the other grid positions. A penalty for second-fastest Hamilton meant that Mercedes went into Sunday with a front row lockout – courtesy of third-placed Schumacher’s promotion – a feat accomplished by McLaren in the previous two races.
Many tipped Schumacher, coming from second, to win the umpteenth GP of his career, but his younger teammate was not to be denied. Rosberg held the lead from the start, and as pit stop errors saw Schumacher retire and McLaren’s Jenson Button damage his chance to race for the lead, the German nursed his tyres home for his first win and Mercedes first victory as a works team in the modern era.
In the rest of the field, nothing could be taken for granted until the finish line was passed. Lewis Hamilton is making the third step of the podium his own this season, scoring his third third-place in as many races on McLaren’s 3-stop strategy, and completing a podium lockout for Mercedes-powered cars. Reportedly disappointed by the result, Hamilton’s skillful driving saw him overhaul Alonso and Webber at the start to chase his teammate early in the race, proving to be perhaps his best race this season. His consistency, lacking in two previous seasons, has taken him to the top of the overall driver standings, two points ahead of Button, as McLaren dominate the constructors’ championship also. Both McLaren drivers were helped by their skillful overtaking, allowing them to scythe through the field when their strategies left them in heavy traffic.
In a race that had more than a season’s worth of on-track passes, it was hard to keep tabs on all the cars. The Red Bulls – more ‘cow’ this year – still managed to impress in the competitive field, as they passed Raikonnen. On a similar 2-stop to the Red Bulls and Rosberg, the Louts driver did his best newborn-deer impression to slide from third to tenth in the space of two laps as his tyres lost all grip, eventually finishing out of the points as the field flooded past him. Despite Webber managing to pull a wheelie and Vettel sliding to 15th from the start, the Red Bulls managed a fourth and fifth spot on similarly-worn tyres ahead of the three-abreast sparring that dominated the midfield. It’s almost as if someone in the team found a Faustian spell whilst desperately searching for the German translation of ‘grace in defeat’ after their torrid time at Sepang.
The BBC must have been overjoyed that their first race weekend facing Sky’s all-encompassing coverage was such an eventful one, and the terrestrial broadcaster seized its opportunity with two assured hands, slipping back into the F1 groove as if Jake Humphreys and co hadn’t spent the previous two race weekends enviously glancing at defector Martin Brundle leading his live crew around the paddock. But they still had to contend with Sky’s team, who really found their feet in Malaysia after a shaky opener in Australia, and are now using all their expertise to their advantage.
Watching race day side-by-side was less of an eye-opener than an embarrassment of riches as my television was tuned to BBC coverage, my laptop covered various race trackers offered by both broadcasters and my iPad used the Sky Go app to offer me a Minority Report-esque wraparound. This saturation allowed me to be in two places at once, as Coulthard speaking to Jean Todt at one end of the grid sat side-by-side with Brundle spoke to Webber at the other. In fact, I think I invented a new F1 game, trying to spot the other crew on one broadcaster’s footage. Yet despite Eddie Jordan’s bright shirts giving the BBC a clear advantage, I only managed it once when Sky beat BBC to the Mercedes garage to grab the exclusive post-win interview.
The battle of the broadcasters was closer than any of the action on track. Both BBC and Sky, veteran and newcomer, offer brilliant coverage, but while the BBC relies on its sporting nous and attempts to rebuild its presenting team, Sky has developed its own ideas and poached the best talent (the commentary is so much better than it was – still not Coulthard and Brundle good, but not far off) to become the more polished operation, with its slick analyses and first-to-the-punch interviews edging it over the finish line a little ahead of the Beeb in a fair fight (one that doesn’t take into account the fact there’s a whole channel dedicated to F1 on Sky). Still, it looks like that on every race weekend, the biggest winners in this battle -and the battle on track – are going to be the fans.