Verstappen charges to Sprint victory in China

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen moved back to the top of the pecking order during Saturday’s Sprint race at the Shanghai International Circuit as he turned his low-key P4 starting position into a commanding victory.

Verstappen steadily worked his way up the order across the 19-lap encounter, benefitting from pole-sitter Lando Norris running off track during the first lap and then completing moves on Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso and the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton.

With Hamilton finishing as runner-up, a thrilling battle for third ultimately went Sergio Perez’s way after Alonso picked up a puncture, as squabbling Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, the McLarens of Norris and Oscar Piastri and George Russell – on a bold soft-tyre strategy – completed the points.

Given the tweaked format in play for the 2024 season, Friday afternoon’s Sprint Qualifying session set the grid for the 100km dash, in which points would be offered to the top-eight finishers – from a maximum of eight for P1 down to one for P8.

It was Norris who started from pole after a stunning lap at the end of a pulsating, rain-hit SQ3 phase, followed by a trio of world champions who have claimed a whopping 12 world titles between them in Hamilton (seven), Alonso (two) and Verstappen (three).

When the cars lined up on the grid and the tyre blankets came off amid much-improved conditions, it was revealed that the vast majority of the field had chosen the medium compound tyre, with Russell the only driver opting for a more aggressive approach on softs.

Hamilton got a better start off the line to snatch first place.

As the lights went out, Hamilton bolted off the line to take the fight to Norris through the sweeping Turns 1 and 2, with the McLaren driver sliding his way wide as they rounded the second part of the double right-hander and dramatically tumbling down the order.

At the end of the first lap, Hamilton led the way over Alonso, Verstappen, Sainz, Perez and Leclerc, with Norris down in seventh from team mate Piastri, and home hero Zhou Guanyu sitting just outside the points in ninth after a compromised start for team mate Valtteri Bottas.

“Why is my battery flat?” Verstappen swore over the radio at this point, as he dropped almost two seconds away from the Mercedes and Aston Martin machines of Hamilton and Alonso, who were separated by a matter of tenths as DRS came into play and a fight for the lead beckoned.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s team mate, Russell, put his soft tyres to good use to make his way up to 10th with a clean move on Kevin Magnussen’s Haas into the final hairpin, though it remained to be seen if the red-marked rubber would hold on for the race distance.

At this point, two incidents were noted by the stewards, with a Turn 6 moment involving Zhou and Bottas being looked at for leaving the track and gaining an advantage, and Lance Stroll and Nico Hulkenberg for forcing another driver off the track – both being quickly dismissed.

Just over a third of the way into the Sprint, Hamilton had built a little bit of a margin back to Alonso, with some 1.5 seconds now separating the pair, as Verstappen worked through his battery gremlins to put some pressure on the Aston Martin man.

Verstappen hunted down Hamilton before easing to victory.

At the end of Lap 7, Verstappen tucked into Alonso’s slipstream down the back straight, closed in and completed a straightforward pass into the hairpin for P2, with his sights now set on leader Hamilton, who concerningly radioed that “this thing won’t turn in the low-speed corners”.

A lap later, those troubles were highlighted when Hamilton ran wide at the hairpin and opened the door for Verstappen, who slashed the gap to just half a second as they crossed the start/finish line and hounded his former title rival through the first sector.

Hamilton was informed of the gap by his engineer as he reached the middle sector, prompting a frustrated “leave me to it” radio message, but there was nothing the Briton could do to stop the advances of the Dutchman, who pulled off another overtake into the hairpin.

Verstappen romped into the distance as he and the RB20 came into their own in clean air, lapping 1.6 seconds quicker than anyone else in the field at the first time of asking, with attention turning to the battles behind as the final few laps ticked by.

While Hamilton remained a comfortable second, Alonso began to fall into the clutches of Sainz, Perez, Leclerc and Norris, with a thrilling scrap developing for that last top-three spot, as a distant Piastri held the final points position over soft starter Russell.

On Lap 14, the scrapping moved to another level as Leclerc attempted a pass on Perez around the outside of the final hairpin, something he repeated one tour later, only to lock up heavily at the apex and leave the positions unchanged.

Verstappen takes the chequered flag to become the first person to win a sprint race from outside the top 3.

However, Sainz then attacked Alonso heading into Turn 6 next time around, with a strong exit from the Ferrari seeing the pair go side-by-side through Turn 7, where the two Spaniards made contact – allowing Perez to close in and sneak past them both at Turn 8.

Alonso dropped back with a puncture from that contact, losing several places in the last sector, with the two Ferraris then getting extremely close at the final hairpin – prompting an angry radio message from the Monegasque – before Sainz ran wide at Turn 2 and his team mate slipped through.

From there, the lead positions remained unchanged, with Verstappen taking victory over Hamilton and Perez, as Leclerc, Sainz, Norris, Piastri and Russell completed the top-eight positions and secured the points on offer.

Zhou had to settle for ninth at the end of his first race on home soil, followed by Magnussen, RB’s Daniel Ricciardo, the other Kick Sauber of Bottas, the lead Alpine of Esteban Ocon and Stroll, who was the sole Aston Martin to finish after Alonso pitted and retired.

Pierre Gasly was 15th in the second of the Alpines, while Yuki Tsunoda (RB), Williams drivers Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant and the Haas of Hulkenberg rounded out the finishers after the German’s aforementioned incident with Stroll.

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