Ten years gone: China in our hands

There are few moments to savour like a first win. Perhaps it’s the lack of familiarity with the emotions that come with the sudden realisation that what once seemed an impossibly elevated peak has been reached. Or maybe the deep satisfaction that the countless hours of intense labour that preceded it has at last borne fruit. Or more immediately, it’s ultimate the unbridled joy that explodes from the unbearable tension of the contest just won. Whatever the feelings inspired by that moment of crossing the line before any other team, the first instance of finishing first is impossible to repeat.

For us that moment arrived a decade ago this weekend, when the Team overcame the odds and battled mechanical woes, torrential rain, unpredictable strategic curveballs and a mid-race collision that nearly derailed our race to not only emerge with a brilliant maiden victory but with a 1-2 finish that set the team on the path to even bigger things to come. 

As Formula 1 celebrates its 1000thrace, Team Principal Christian Horner looks back 10 years, to race number 806, the Chinese Grand Prix of 2009, and the Team’s first taste of champagne on the top step of the F1 podium.

Ten years on what’s your abiding memory of the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix? 

Just seeing the car cross the line for the first time in first position, of getting to that chequered flag first. Seeing the joy and elation in everybody’s faces, it was an amazing moment for the whole team, not just to win the race but to also a 1-2 finish – an amazing day for the whole team.

It was a hard-won victory, though. Sebastian Vettel set up the possibility of victory on Saturday with a phenomenal single lap in Q3 that secured, but there was a distinct possibility that he wouldn’t qualify at all wasn’t there? 

The problems started on Saturday during qualifying when Sebastian had a driveshaft boot split and all the oil and CV grease was coming out so it looked like the gearbox was going to fail. The upshot was that he was only able do one lap at a time in each sector of qualifying. 

More and more grease was leaking so he had to go out slower and slower but he still managed to nail that pole position. It was just an enormous thing. 

On Sunday morning, I remember opening the curtains in the hotel and it was absolutely teeming down with rain. The race started under the Safety Car and Sebastian Buemi nearly obliterated Sebastian, nearly took him out of the race behind the Safety Car, so there was a little bit of luck on our side as well that day. Sebastian rode it out and it was just an amazing feeling to see our cars bring it home first and second.

Can you recall the feeling of climbing up those steps onto the podium to receive the race-winning constructors’ trophy? 

Absolutely. It was a massive thing to go and pick up the constructors’ trophy up, even though it was broken and missing one of its handles! It was a huge moment to look down and see the emotion of the team, to see Helmut almost crying, to see the faces of every member of the team and to see how proud they were of what they’d achieved. 

How long did that feeling last? 

That year the race in China was the first leg of a double-header and on the flight to Dubai heading to the next race in Bahrain I just remember the feeling of getting on the aeroplane still smelling of champagne. I remember thinking that this moment has been so special, that it feels really good going back as a Formula 1 winner, and that we’d definitely need to feel that sensation more times in our careers.

The Brawn GP team had dominated the start of the season with a car equipped with a controversial double diffuser, which some viewed it as counter to the spirit of the regulations in force at the time. As one of the teams with a single diffuser during that period, was the victory all the more satisfying? 

It was a big thing for us, because of the whole debate going on about double diffusers. Adrian, for example, wasn’t at that race in China because he was back in the UK drawing our double diffuser that would make its debut at the Monaco Grand Prix. There was a huge amount going on at the time, there was a lot of politics in the sport as well, but that victory set us up. After that, the next race we won, I think was in the dry, at the British Grand Prix.

There’s an old adage that the first victory is the hardest and that afterwards winning becomes easier. Was China the catalyst for the championships to come?

I think so. It was our Eureka moment, the breakthrough victory, but from there, in 2009, we just ran out of races. There were only 17 races in those days and we ran out of races to catch Brawn and Jenson Button and capture that championship. We did it the next year in 2010 and then obviously defended it in 2011, ’12, and ’13, so China was the starting point of some very big moments for us.

Has the Shanghai International Circuit retained a special place in the affections of the team? 

There’s always that recognition that it’s a special venue for us. We’ve been fortunate enough to win there again, with Daniel Ricciardo last year. We’ve also had some horrible races there as well, but it will always be a special place for the Team because it was the scene of that first victory.