"A Jack-in-a-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem,...a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit." (Mary McCarthy, An Introductory Essay to Pale Fire).
This was it then: the perfect mix of the cerebral and the visceral, a Molotov cocktail of divergent strategies and wheel-to-wheel combat, four different strategic threads interacting in game theory space, five F1 World Champions in four different teams, feinting, locking wheels, overtaking inside and outside, saving the tyres, timing the pitstops, attacking with DRS and defending with KERS.
And emerging victorious from all this complexity, with a tear in his eye, was the man whose car almost didn't make the start of the race, the man who'd lost track-position after his team-mate determined the timing of the first pit-stop, the man reputedly harder on his tyres; the purest racer of them all.
So how much of Lewis Hamilton's victory in Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix was down to Lewis, and how much of it was down to the strategy of the McLaren team? Was this another case of Lewis saving the team's blushes, as in Germany 2008, or was it more like Canada 2010, when McLaren's strategic inspiration outwitted Red Bull? The three-pitstop strategy eventually selected by McLaren, clearly trumped the two-stop strategy chosen by Red Bull and Ferrari, but did McLaren luck into this option after badly fluffing their first pitstops?
Perhaps the most important parameter here was the race-day temperature, which was significantly warmer than the smoggy, then chilly conditions of Friday and Saturday. The ultimate pace of the Red Bulls in Shanghai was clearly faster than the McLarens once again, to the tune of 0.7secs in qualifying. In contrast to Malaysia, Red Bull appeared to be confident of their tyre wear this week, presumably setting-up the RB7 to maximise its ultimate speed. However, the higher race-day temperatures may have increased the tyre wear, entailing that the time loss from worn tyres on a two-stop strategy, exceeded the combined time loss from an extra pit-stop and consequent loss of track-position incurred executing a three-stop strategy.
Vettel had got away slowly from pole position, immediately losing the lead to Button. As Vettel drifted to the middle of the track to protect second place, Hamilton feinted to the outside, before slinging his McLaren down the inside, dust streaming in his wake as Vettel squeezed him off-line. Lewis wasn't to be intimidated, however, and as he slotted into second, Vettel ran a little wide in turn1, allowing Rosberg alongside into turn 2. The Red Bull, however, had the inside for turn 3, and the order at the completion of the first lap was Button, Hamilton, Vettel, Rosberg, Massa, Alonso.
Approaching the first stops, McLaren faced the same conundrum that Red Bull tripped over at Melbourne in 2010: If you're running one-two, and you grant your leading driver first-call over the timing of the first pitstop, then it's likely that your second driver will be forced to pit after the optimal point, and will find himself demoted behind people who had the freedom to pit earlier. Thus, just as Mark Webber was dropped into the pack at Melbourne in 2010, so Lewis Hamilton suffered at China in 2011. In fact, on this occasion, Jenson Button made a late decision not to pit on the lap he was initially intending to, and Hamilton was left out so long on worn tyres, that he was overtaken on his in-lap by Massa's Ferrari.
To top it all, when Button and Vettel pitted together at the end of lap 14, Jenson delayed himself by mistaking the Red Bull mechanics for his own, and was jumped by Vettel. The leading Red Bull driver therefore found himself ahead of both McLarens, and seemingly set for victory.
Mercedes, meanwhile, had committed to a three-stop strategy from the beginning, pitting Rosberg at the end of lap 12, enabling him to jump both McLarens and the Red Bull. However, with Vettel planning one pit-stop less than the Mercedes, this was not necessarily a pressing concern for Red Bull.
As the second stint evolved, Rosberg was able to maintain a gap of 4secs or so to Vettel, who was a couple of seconds clear of Button in third, with Massa a second back in fourth, and Hamilton apparently stymied, just behind the Ferrari in fifth.
Hamilton, of course, had compromised his qualifying to save an extra set of options for Sunday's race. After allowing himself to become a sitting duck in the final stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix, one could almost see Lewis Hamilton saying to himself this weekend, 'There's no frigging way I'm going to allow that to happen again!' And tellingly, in the post-qualifying TV interview, Lewis revealed that, "I've got the set of options I've just qualified on, a new set of options and a new set of primes,...and a very decent set of options again." This seems to suggest that McLaren were always considering the possibility of switching to a three-stop race strategy. Entering the first pit-stops in first and second, and emerging in third and fifth, McLaren now committed to the three-stop option, pitting again barely ten laps later, Button getting another set of options at the end of lap 24, and Hamilton doing likewise a lap later.
One of the problems of this strategy was that Rosberg was already running ahead of the McLarens, and was also three-stopping. Having lost the effective lead of the race to Vettel, by switching to a three-stop strategy McLaren were potentially surrendering another place to Rosberg. In fact, Mercedes responded to Button's stop by pitting Rosberg at the end of lap 25. The Mercedes therefore had exactly the same number of laps to complete as the McLarens on one further set of options and the final set of primes. McLaren's strategy would force Button and Hamilton to overtake both Rosberg, and the two-stopping Massa, if they were to get a shot at Vettel later in the race.
It was an audacious strategy, and one which looked unlikely to succeed at the time. For a start, Rosberg, Button and Hamilton were initially running 4th, 5th and 6th in their third stint, and needed to circumnavigate Alonso, running a two-stop strategy like his team-mate, but struggling now on his worn second set of options. Rosberg surprised Fernando down the inside into the final corner on lap 28; Button sold him a dummy into the hairpin on lap 29, accelerating past the Ferrari exiting the corner; and Hamilton also took Alonso on traction coming out of turn 6 on lap 30. Nevertheless, the McLarens were ten seconds behind Vettel at this stage, and like Vettel, they had one further pit-stop to make.
Revealing the extent to which a two-stopper was compromising the speed of the Red Bull, Massa was now drawing onto Vettel's tail, and Sebastien made his second and final pit-stop at the end of lap 31. This put him onto primes, when Rosberg and the McLarens were still on options, and it left Vettel with a 25-lap stint to reach the end of the race. Simultaneously, Hamilton was setting consecutive fastest laps, leaping onto the tail of Button.
Massa made his second and final stop at the end of lap 33, emerging a couple of seconds behind Vettel. Button, meanwhile, was holding up Hamilton, but Lewis pressured Jenson into running wide at the hairpin on lap 35. Cutting back on a tighter line, Lewis forced his team-mate to take a defensive line into the final corner. Onto the start-finish straight, Lewis deployed the last of that lap's KERS, drew into Button's slipstream, dipped into the next allocation of KERS, and ducked down the inside going into the first corner. Lewis didn't really have the corner, but remained committed. Button made as if to turn-in, but conceded the corner with a violent twitch at the last possible moment.
This was a move which wouldn't have succeeded on any other driver, Lewis simply trusting, as he did at Istanbul last year, that Jenson would avoid the catastrophe of an intra-team McLaren collision. Eventually, there may come a time when Jenson refuses to concede in such circumstances...
The order was now Rosberg, Hamilton, Button, Vettel and Massa. The first three were yet to make their final stops, but with Rosberg now 16 seconds ahead of Vettel, the three-stoppers would emerge just behind the two-stoppers. Button pitted at the end of lap 37, Hamilton at the end of lap 38, and Rosberg at the end of lap 39. Nico emerged in third, but with Hamilton immediately on his tail, looking for a way past.
Into turn 6 on lap 40, the McLaren tried down the outside, only for Rosberg to ease him out at the apex. Lewis tracked Nico with predatory zeal through the following swerves, deployed the remaining half of his KERS allocation onto the back straight, triggered the DRS, but was just out of range into the hairpin. Onto lap 41, and Lewis had a look down the inside into turn 6, but Rosberg parried, and Hamilton veered across to the outside, the McLaren's left-front locking up in desperation. The McLaren's tyre was flat-spotted, but Rosberg and Hamilton were closing on Massa even as they fought tooth-and-nail. Onto lap 42, Maldonado's Williams exited the pits right in front of Rosberg, and Hamilton was inches off the rear of the Mercedes into turn 2. This time, when Lewis swung down the inside into turn 6, Rosberg took the wide line and conceded the place under braking.
Only Massa now lay between Hamilton and his quarry. Lap 44, Felipe defended the inside into the hairpin, and Hamilton was able to undercut him on the exit, drawing alongside, almost brushing wheels. Felipe took the defensive line into the final corner, ran wide, and Lewis dragged past down the start-finish straight. The chase was on!
Vettel was 4.6secs down the road, but Hamilton swiftly began slicing into his lead. By lap 50, he'd caught the Red Bull. Onto the back straight, Lewis deployed the remaining half of his KERS, then triggered the DRS. Bereft of KERS himself, Vettel had to defend into the hairpin, Hamilton cut back on the exit, and almost drew alongside into the final corner. Vettel, however, squeezed the McLaren, its right-hand wheels mounting the kerb, and Lewis had to concede the corner. Onto lap 51, and Lewis repeated the routine, wheel-to-wheel this time into the hairpin, but Vettel sat his car on the apex, and prevented Lewis getting alongside under acceleration. Into lap 52, and Lewis was menacing the Red Bull into turn 1, almost touching its diffuser. He pressured Vettel into turn 6, and then used his KERS into turn 7 to surprise Seb, taking the lead, and then the victory four laps later.