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Button and McLaren Spring Shanghai Surprise

Jenson Button won a nail-biting Chinese Grand Prix for McLaren on Sunday afternoon, with team mate Lewis Hamilton chasing him home second after a race of many parts.

It began with light rain, a jump start by Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and an incident in the first corner when Vitantonio Liuzzi spun his Force India into Kamui Kobayashi’s BMW Sauber and Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso, bringing out the safety car.

Alonso, and the chasing Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel immediately pitted to switch from slicks to wet tyres, leaving Nico Rosberg in the lead for Mercedes GP from Button. As racing resumed on the sixth lap these two continued to lead, chased by Renault’s Robert Kubica and, briefly until his BMW Sauber’s Ferrari engine broke, Pedro de la Rosa, all of them on Bridgestones slicks.

Further back, Hamilton had taken the late decision to switch to wet tyres, but three laps later it was time for slicks again. This time as they headed for the pits, Vettel and Hamilton had an incident where the Englishman passed the German on the entry; as they left their respective pits both got sideways, and there was a question mark over whether Hamilton was released into his rival’s path. Then Vettel appeared to move over on Hamilton, pushing him towards other team’s pits. The stewards are currently debating the matter.

Back out on the track, Hamilton then dished out a driving lesson to Vettel, passing him with ease as he outfoxed both Red Bulls in one move on Lap 12.

At that stage Rosberg had a 2.9s lead over Button, who was biding his time. The 2009 champion made a mistake on the 18th lap that saw Rosberg increase his lead to 4.5s, but a lap later it was the German’s turn to err, as he slid off in the final corner and handed the lead to Button.

Rosberg’s error had been caused by heavier rain, and that triggered yet more wholesale pit stops on the 20th lap as Button, Rosberg, Kubica, the Pole’s impressive team mate Vitaly Petrov, Hamilton and Vettel all piled in for intermediate rain tyres, joining Mercedes GP’s Michael Schumacher, Webber, Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari, Force India’s Adrian Sutil, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso who had all stopped the previous lap.

But just as it seemed things might settle down there came another dramatic twist as the safety car was deployed again on the 21st lap. Alguersuari had gone off in his Toro Rosso, damaging the nose wing and leaving debris on the racing line. In a flash Button’s lead was wiped out, as was Hamilton’s 40s deficit to the leaders.

The safety car pulled in on the 25th lap, but there was a huge traffic jam at the end of the back straight as Button backed up the field so much that Hamilton actually had to pull off on to the grass to avoid hitting Webber right in front of him. The Australian then got hung out to dry on the exit to the final corner, so that he had dropped from sixth to 11th place by the time he crossed the line.

As half distance approached, Button led Rosberg by a second, with Hamilton fast closing on his old sparring partner Kubica for third. The tough Pole had resisted him in Melbourne, but here the McLaren’s straight-line pace sealed the issue in Hamilton’s favour on the 29th lap, and soon Hamilton was giving Rosberg a hard time.

Now he was himself only 4.7s adrift of Button and scented victory. On Lap 34 he pulled the same move on Rosberg that had earlier embarrassed Schumacher, but to everyone’s surprise Rosberg fought back and repassed the McLaren. That was the moment in which Hamilton lost his chance of victory, as Button’s lead over him stretched from 4.6s to 6.2s within a lap.

Hamilton did the smart thing on Lap 37, switching to another set of fresh intermediate rain tyres, before Button, Rosberg and Alonso did likewise a lap later. In the stops Hamilton had overtaken Rosberg, and now it was mano a mano between the McLaren drivers. To begin with Button pulled away, opening his lead to as much as 9.9s, but as his tyres lost their edge Hamilton moved in again, and a major mistake by Button at the hairpin on Lap 51 left him tiptoeing home to the flag just 1.5s ahead.

Behind Rosberg, Alonso drove beautifully to recover to fourth place ahead of Kubica and Vettel, with Petrov doing a great job for Renault to catch and pass Alguersuari and Schumacher to take seventh ahead of Webber, with Massa finally passing Schumacher at the end.

Sutil was 11th from Williams’ Rubens Barrichello, Alguersuari, Lotus’s Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Hulkenberg in the second Williams, who’d had to avoid the first corner melee, and the reliable HRTs of Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok.

Joining Liuzzi, Kobayashi, Buemi and De la Rosa in retirement were Timo Glock, whose Virgin was pushed from the grid and did not start, and his team mate Lucas di Grassi who was to have started from the pit lane but only did so for a while after the race had started. Lotus’s Jarno Trulli also had a truncated race, and did not make the finish.

McLaren’s first one-two of the season puts the reigning champion back on top with 60 points, followed by Rosberg on 50, Alonso and Hamilton on 49, Vettel on 46, Massa on 41 and Kubica on 40.

In the constructors’ stakes, McLaren have 109 points to Ferrari’s 90, Red Bull’s 73, Mercedes GP’s 60 and Renault’s 46.

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