Great brawl of China
Much about the Chinese Grand Prix feels big. Not just due to the vast host country, the Shanghai International Circuit set the standards on dimensions too. The gleaming futuristic architecture towers and spreads. Paddock occupants are sure they walk far further in the Shanghai weekend than any other.
The race’s genesis is big too. A Government-backed Grand Prix in a coming economy and geopolitical power.
The track has much of the typical Tilke layout. A bit-of-everything – quick, medium and slow corners feature. A long straight – underlining the theme of vastness it’s reckoned to be about the longest in F1 – and a big stop at the end plotted with overtaking in mind. Trademark Tilke long fast esses elsewhere.
And heading into this Chinese Grand Prix the chief considerations are appropriately big. In Australia’s season-opener things looked simple even with Sebastian Vettel’s win – that 2018 was going to be a stroll for Mercedes and especially Lewis Hamilton as testing had indicated; as Mercedes had dominated habitually in recent years indeed. In Bahrain though things turned. Ferrari left Mercedes behind in qualifying and held it off in the race.
Therefore the big event has a big question attached to it. Which of those two is our norm for this season? Or is the norm somewhere else entirely?
Adding to the confusion, Melbourne and Bahrain for their own reasons weren’t standard challenges and neither is Shanghai. The Chinese track is, in the parlance, ‘front limited’ meaning it puts more strain on the front of the car than the rear (something that is unusual). This is particularly via the long and doubling-back-on-itself opening complex and that later in the lap before the vast straight.
Set-up is challenging, the long turns here create high lateral loads for the tyres and graining is a fairly common issue here particularly when the weather is cool (which it is forecast to be this time). Strategy and getting tyres into the ‘window’ often frame results here. The corkscrew opening complex can also be the scene of grief and resultant jumbling of the order first time through.
Pirelli has aimed for two-stoppers as the norm this year but Melbourne was one-stop all round while as we know the top three in Bahrain was also able to eke out a one-stopper.
This year Pirelll’s changed the compounds it’s bringing to China, replacing the supersoft with the ultrasoft to join the soft and medium in an attempt to craete more difference and more even gaps between the three available compounds.
Adding to the fun rain is a fairly common presence in Chinese visits and was in qualifying and the race last year. The forecast for this weekend is that rain could hit Friday practice, adding further to the set-up challenges.
Overtaking will be more presentable than at most tracks plus with the recent agonising more generally about passing we can expect the DRS zone to be generous. After last year’s Shanghai race many of us thought F1 had cracked its overtaking problem, then again that was a wet-to-dry jumbled affair. On the other hand the run to the first turn here is short meaning it’ll be hard to make places off the line.
And at the front it may not just be about Mercedes and Ferrari, as Red Bull should be somewhere in the considerations if it can ever catch a break. Its potential was cloaked by traffic, penalties and mistakes in Australia, and by unreliability and mistakes in Bahrain. The smart money was on it having the fastest car of all in the Sakhir race.
Despite the many variables we can pick out some specific clues for this weekend. If the heat of Bahrain was Merc’s problem then it can be encouraged that as noted Shanghai will be much cooler. And if the abrasive surface in Bahrain was a problem for Merc then Shanghai’s is much smoother. And even with all its problems Mercedes probably should still have won in Bahrain; it probably would have without Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty.
Local history is encouraging for Lewis this weekend too, as he’s won here five times including three of the last four. Vettel meanwhile, oddly, has only won here once and that was pushing a decade ago, in 2009’s severe rain (his first Red Bull win).
Just as it did with the front-running picture, Bahrain dashed our certainties about the midfield too. Melbourne running had, as with the front-runners, borne out testing’s expectations – in this case that Haas, Renault and McLaren was fighting to be best of the rest. Yet in Bahrain Toro Rosso vaulted forward to lead that trio by a distance, in a way that even the Faenza squad couldn’t explain. Force India looked more potent, and Marcus Ericsson got points for Sauber via a one-stopper. Certainly a blanket can be thrown over several teams, and their order is a tough call.
But up front the questions this time will be even bigger.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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