Friday, 15 April 2011

Shanghai Preview: Chinese year of the Red Bull

We're not even into Saturday and it already looks like Red Bull's race to lose in China. Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets in both Friday practice sessions, seemingly with plenty of fuel aboard in the second session and being upwards of two seconds clear of the first non-Red Bull in the first.

While the relative closeness in Malaysia a week ago gave some indication of a season wherein the Bulls (or more to the point, Seb's Bull) wouldn't have quite all of it their own way, it transpires that it may have been a mirage to some extent. Given their concerns about their tyre wear in a hot and tyre-taxing event and circuit, Red Bull deliberately engineered understeer into their cars to max out their tyre life. This cost them about 0.6 of their ultimate pace in qualifying, and yet Seb took the pole and won reasonably comfortably, leading almost all of the way (and his KERS stopped working part of the way through). Just stop and think about that for a moment.

The tyre degradation rate in Shanghai is around 30% down on the Malaysia level, and the long run pace of both Red Bulls looked ominously good. Short of unreliability or some other freak occurrence, it's difficult to see what can stop them on Sunday.

That does of course leave Webber in the picture. He ran close to, if not quite at, Seb's pace today, and the lower rates of tyre wear here will be a particular relief to him, given he's generally been more troubled by the issue than his team mate has. If he can avoid the difficult first lap he's experienced in the first two races he may yet put Seb off his demonstration run at the front. It's been a long time since he led him, let alone beat him, though.

As in the previous two rounds, McLaren look to be best of the rest, though perhaps not as close as in Malaysia. Lewis Hamilton seems to be having a struggle, both in and out of the car. He appears to be having a particular battle with tyre degradation, declaring his options tyres 'finished' after one quick lap on them, as well as sounding rather downbeat when faced with a microphone, saying he's struggling to find a balance with the new upgrades. Indeed, both McLaren pilots say they are struggling on the soft tyres, which will have implications for qualifying and the race.

Elsewhere, all at Ferrari now sound slightly more chipper. Alonso sounds confident that there has been progress on their tyre warm-up problems, which have held them back in qualifying so far this season. We were also treated to the curious sight of Alonso's car with luminous paint on its front wing in first practice, as his session was to a large extent given over to aero testing, as the team sought to get the the bottom of their wind tunnel correlation issues (i.e. finding out why the car this season hasn't been a quick on track as their wind tunnel suggests it should be). They may be about half a second down on the qualifying pace still, but they've been coming on stronger on race day and that level of deficit may make their Sunday interesting at least. Ferrari's tyre life was also strong in Malaysia, and this will further play into their hands. Two stoppers will probably be the norm in the race for most of the field, with Pirelli reckoning a one-stopper may be eked out (such as by Sauber).

And the Mercedes team have some reason to smile. Nico Rosberg was but a quarter of a second down on Vettel in second practice (and Schumi was not much further back), and the team are showing some sign of getting on top of their problems regaining the rear wing downforce after using DRS. Still, their tyre wear rates look high, so they may be stronger on Saturday than Sunday.

But whatever the case, they'll all be likely be fighting over the minor places behind Seb.

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