Only 6.250s separated Lewis Hamilton from Sebastian Vettel when they crossed the finish line for the 2017 Chinese Grand Prix.
But, at the beginning of the race, such a result looked almost impossible as the frantic rush of pitstops to switch from intermediates to slicks forced Vettel into an effective 6th place behind Raikkonen.
After a safety car restart, Vettel would then spend 13 laps behind his team mate before having to overtake him on track.
In the same period of laps, Raikkonen couldn’t get past Daniel Ricciardo ahead; once Vettel was through, it took him just two laps. Because of this, we must ask ourselves if Ferrari should’ve let the clearly quicker Vettel through earlier?
Looking at the timing data between the safety car restart on lap 8 and Vettel overtaking Raikkonen on lap 19 – a total of 12 laps – Hamilton was faster than Vettel on ten of them. During this time, Vettel lost a total of 5.337 seconds to Hamilton.
In comparison, between Vettel’s overtake of Raikkonen and his second pit stop – a total of 14 laps – Hamilton was only faster than Vettel on 50% of the laps.
In the end, after adding all the lap times up in this period, Hamilton only increased his lead over Vettel by 2.333 seconds – undoubtably proving – even if Hamilton was being conservative – that Ferrari can match their race pace.
If Ferrari had let Vettel past Raikkonen directly after the safety car restart – Vettel would’ve undoubtedly gotten closer to Hamilton. However, the time he lost behind Raikkonen doesn’t match the inevitable gap of 6 seconds that separated the two drivers when the chequered flag dropped.
So, statistics would tell you that Vettel would not have caught Lewis Hamilton if Ferrari had instituted team orders following the safety car restart on lap 7.
Post-race, Sebastian Vettel seemed to agree that team orders weren’t necessary. “They asked me if I’m faster,” Vettel told reporters. “I said, yes, I can go faster, but I answered straight away Kimi can go faster.”
This battle, which promises to be settled by the tiniest of margins, will continue during the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend, on the 16th of April.