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Opinion| The best driver isn’t always the fastest

Lewis Hamilton, who won the race in unchallenged fashion, was rarely the fastest man on the track.

other sports Updated: Apr 16, 2019 09:06 IST
Raja Sen
Raja Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Lewis Hamilton,Valtteri Bottas,Mercedes
Formula One F1 - Chinese Grand Prix - Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China - April 14, 2019 Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the race (REUTERS)

It was poetic to see Alain Prost wave the chequered flag at the Chinese Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton, who won the race in unchallenged fashion, was rarely the fastest man on the track. The Mercedes driver swept past his increasingly bullish teammate Valtteri Bottas at the start of the race and built up just enough of a lead to keep himself comfortable while treating his tyres well, and now leads the world championship by six points.

Prost, nicknamed The Professor for his unwavering technical proficiency, had famously said his ideal victory was “to win the race at the slowest speed possible.” The French legend used to conserve his tyres, his engines, his fuel — and his energy. At the 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix, after setting a blazing Qualifying time he was convinced wouldn’t be beaten — particularly by his McLaren teammate Ayrton Senna — Prost peeled off his racing overalls and lounged about in smart casuals while the session continued, with other drivers struggling to match him. (They didn’t.)

In keeping with that era where Senna was Prost’s only true rival, Hamilton too looks unchallenged by other teams, left to duel his own Mercedes teammate. The silver cars are in a class of their own, and while there has been many a whisper about Ferrari’s straightline-speed advantage, it is becoming all too evident that the Italian outfit can’t muster up the downforce to keep up with the cars ahead. This season has begun with three Mercedes 1-2s, and already it looks like Ferrari can’t mount a credible challenge.

Behind the silver cars, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finally took his first podium of the year, and showed glimpses of his vintage self as he masterfully held off the ever-eager Max Verstappen over at Turn 14, a beautiful wheel-to-wheel battle where the four-time champion showed the youngster his place. He couldn’t do the same with his teammate: Racing in third place, Charles LeClerc was asked to move over so Vettel could have a go at Bottas, but Vettel failed to close that gap. The Ferrari garage can’t be pleasant these days, with LeClerc emerging both fast as well as a fan-favourite, and Vettel consistently unable to shine. If LeClerc wins a couple of races ahead of Vettel, the German may well implode.

The Chinese Grand Prix was the thousandth Formula One race, but proved a drab celebration, livened up at the end when Red Bull driver Pierre Gasly took a last-minute stop in order to set the Fastest Lap. Gasly won that point, but finished over a minute behind teammate Verstappen. Add that to the fact that none of this year’s three races have been won by the driver in pole position, and it looks like a very Prost season indeed. The truly fast driver knows when to slow down.

(Raja Sen is a film critic and India’s longest-running Formula One columnist)

First Published: Apr 16, 2019 08:51 IST