Tuesday 7 April 2015

Shanghai Preview: Similarities and differences

You'd be forgiven at this stage of the season for thinking that the F1 calendar is a little samey. And the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit that awaits us this weekend won't do a great deal to dispel the notion.

Many of the characteristics of the Shanghai International
Circuit are familiar
"2010 Chinese GP starting grid" by Drew - Starting Grid F1
Shanghai. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia
Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
Many of the characteristics will be familiar: a Government-backed Grand Prix in a country that might be termed a coming economy (China's economy is more coming than anyone's); a round that appears much more motivated by national promotion than of making a successful event per se; a glittering, a Hermann Tilke-create squeaky-clean facility with towering architecture built with the help of a blank chequebook, that at its first visit felt like a distinct stride ahead of what had been seen before. Indeed even now no other venue rivals this one for vastness - paddock occupants reckon they walk further in the Shanghai weekend than in any other.

And a bit-of-everything layout, with a long straight - underlining the theme of vastness it is reckoned to be the longest in the sport - and a big stop at the end created with overtaking in mind. Of the Tilke layouts before and since however this is among the least free-flowing, being more made up of the tight and technical. It does have the trademark Tilke fast esses section however.

Though upon the first arrival of F1 here in 2004 not everything about the debutant race was new, as being hosted by a Communist state but one that was being tempted by market capitalism and wanted to host a Grand Prix to demonstrate that it was an outward-looking country, it shared a lot with the freshman appearance of Hungary on the calendar in 1986. Like that event too in its first race all the locals that were present gave the impression of having no idea what to expect, an impression that was shared in kind apparently by many of the sport's fraternity.

Also as in Hungary the event has lived on, and although sadly the early years' healthy crowds - no fewer than 270,000 came through the gates in 2005 - were not sustained, the slide has been reversed a little in recent visits, helped by more reasonable ticket prices and improved transport links. Indeed unlike some other 'new' rounds (though, just to make you feel old, this will be F1's appearance number 12 here...), it doesn't merely linger, it gives some signs that it might even be building something.

To what extent was Ferrari beating Mercedes
in Malaysia typical?
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course while the venue typology for this weekend feels the same, following the last round in Malaysia on-track F1 in 2015 feels all of a sudden feels very different, in that the Mercedes we got accustomed to being invincible may actually be vincible after all. And by Ferrari. The major question emanating from it all was whether Sebastian Vettel's fine win in Sepang was a one-off, related to the race's many peculiarities, or whether it's the shape of things to come.

In the best tradition there's reason to think it was a bit of both. Malaysia's peculiarities did help the Scuderia, not least the extreme temperature greatly exposing the SF15-T's gentle touch on the tyres. But there are also clear indications that even the raw pace gap between Mercedes and Ferrari isn't that substantial anymore - Mark Hughes had it as low as 0.2 seconds over the Sepang lap - related to a vastly improved chassis and engine. And that with this the Ferrari's ability to nurse the rubber, especially in extremity, is far superior.

But it might not be on show here. In sharp contrast to Malaysia the temperatures in China will be cool, and that plus the low grip surface will award the ability to generate tyre temperature and avoid graining more than the ability to stretch out tyre life. This may put the advantage back with Mercedes for this weekend at least. Ferrari given everything should still keep the Mercs honest, particularly on Sunday, but its focus rather than on another victory may have to be limiting the points damage and saving its fire for Bahrain...

And what of the two Mercs? To listen to some of the chat so far in this campaign you'd think that Nico Rosberg had been humiliated by his team mate. As ever the reality is not quite as straightforward, as while he has indeed been beaten in both rounds he's finished but a handful of seconds behind the guy across the garage in Lewis Hamilton in either. But the accumulative impact of his defeats are undeniable - he has toppled Lewis but once since Spa and all that at the end of last summer, and there - in Brazil - he probably wouldn't have done had Lewis not spun that day. It doesn't help either that their respective form suits various narratives constructed by us observers, not least that last year was Nico's big chance and that Lewis was due to step up a gear - and with it take himself out of his team mate's reach - this time.

Nico at least could do with a nice normal qualifying session in China so to see if he can start ahead of Lewis as he did so often in 2014 and as often formed the basis of his challenge. The conditions of both quali sessions of 2015 - falling track temperatures and gusty wins in Australia, the rain in Malaysia - have allowed Lewis to play his trump card of improvisation.

Lewis Hamilton won the Chinese Grand Prix in fine
style last season
"Lewis Hamilton 2014 China Race" by emperornie - Flickr:
Mercedes, Lewis. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via
Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org
Yet one thing that cannot be denied by Nico or anyone else is that Lewis Hamilton has been somewhere near the top of his considerable game in 2015 thus far, and once again he starts an F1 weekend as clear favourite for the pole and win. Indeed he's taken pole on his last two visits here, as well as won three times at Shanghai. Nico can point to this being the scene of his debut pole and win in 2012, both won in fine style. But last year here he was left behind by Lewis.

The track also is 'front-limited' - as in unusually on the calendar it puts more stress on the front tyres than the rears, mainly due to the lengthy turn 1/2/3 complex as well as that in turn 11/12/13, both of which double back on themselves. This combined with the cool ambient can make set-up choices tricky as well as throw up odd results if it all so happens to suit your car, such as in addition to Nico's glory weekend in 2012 Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's not seen before or since competitiveness to take a podium finish here last season.

On the subject of Alonso, he and McLaren will be worth a look in China. The step-up in the two weeks between Melbourne and Sepang actually was considerable, from hanging off the back to displaying genuine midfield race pace. Alonso's comments that at the rate of improvement they'll be on the pole come Spain was rather tongue in cheek, but he's right in the sense that the team's learning curve remains steep. Where it ends up this time will be fascinating, and getting out of Q1, perhaps getting a point or two, doesn't seem an entirely outlandish target.

Red Bull (and in particular its Renault power unit) as well as Williams are two more looking for improvements after slightly sticky starts to the season. And another factor to be taken into account in Shanghai is the weather. Rain has been a frequent feature, indeed it fell in the 2006, 2007, 2009 (especially) and 2010 races. There has been none since but perhaps we're therefore due some. The forecasts however are that it will be dry and bright this time.

But then again following the Sepang round we can be more hopeful that the sport no longer needs the elements intervening to deliver us something diverting.

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