Monday 11 April 2016

Shanghai Preview: Mysteries of China

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.

The vast, inimitable, Shanghai facility
CC BY-SA 2.0,
Many of the characteristics will be familiar, particularly when compared with the previous round in Bahrain and with the one that follows in Russia. A Government-backed Grand Prix in a country that might be termed a coming economy; a round that appears more motivated by national promotion than of making a successful event per se; a squeaky-clean and towering Hermann Tilke-designed facility that at its first visit felt like a distinct stride on from what had been seen before. Even now indeed no other venue rivals the Chinese 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 China's is reckoned to be the longest in the sport - and a big stop at the end created with overtaking in mind, as well as a trademark Tilke fast esses part elsewhere. Like the Bahrain venue we've just been to as well this one arrived on the calendar in 2004, and a little like that one it's thought even with its bit-of-everything quality as among Tilke's less free-flowing, being more tight and technical.

Not everything about the debut race in China was new though, as being hosted by a Communist state but one tempted by market capitalism and wanting to host a Grand Prix so to demonstrate to the world that it was outward-looking, there was a resemblance with the sport stepping beyond the Iron Curtain to visit then-Eastern Bloc Hungary for the first time in 1986 (which itself was probably the first politically-motivated built-from-nothing for F1 event in a country without much motorsport previous, that now are so familiar). Like that event too in its first race all the present locals gave the impression of having no idea what to expect, an impression that was shared in kind apparently by the sport's fraternity.

Even after two rounds, the state of play at the front isn't clear
Photo: Octane Photography
Also as in Hungary this event in China 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, it doesn't merely linger, it shows some signs that it might even be building something.

Some mystery redolent of 2004 is around this time though. It says something about how the 2016 season has gone so far that we enter round three still without a clear sense of where the land lies in the year's two big on-track battles: Mercedes vs. Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg.

From what we have been able to discern Mercedes retains its pace advantage over the Scuderia in qualifying, though one that perhaps on the basis of Melbourne at least is a little smaller than before. But both rounds have suggested also that the gap narrows come the race, perhaps to almost nothing - a combined consequence probably of Ferrari not warming its tyres up as quickly for a single lap plus not running as aggressive an engine mode as the Merc in qualifying. And given everything else that went on in those two races to muddy the waters Rosberg was correct to warn after the last round that Ferrari "haven't shown what they are capable of yet".

The cooler temperatures in China than in Bahrain may be a relief to Ferrari which has of course lost a car to unreliability in both races this year (though it insists Sebastian Vettel's engine failure in Bahrain was peculiar), as well as reportedly had to open up its cooling in pre-season testing. It's also thought that the Scuderia's been running its engines conservatively for spells during race weekends and perhaps even during the races themselves. The track layout here however may be a relief to Mercedes as it's not especially tough on the brakes like Bahrain's is, and the Merc's brakes were marginal in Melbourne at least.

Lewis Hamilton has a good record at this track
By David Hernandez -
131071462@N05/17161360172/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https:
Then there is the similarly obfuscated intra-Merc drivers' battle. Lewis has qualified ahead both times in 2016, but Nico has won out in both races, thanks in part to Lewis's poor starts and bad luck in turn one in both events. In Bahrain though Nico did look the faster for much of the weekend, aside from the final lap of qualifying where Lewis pulled something out. Admittedly though, Lewis's damaged car in the race made comparisons therein impossible.

Even so however there has been the inevitable extrapolating to conclusions from this meagre evidence, and with the equally inevitable alacrity if it involves concluding something nefarious about Lewis Hamilton. Kevin Eason for one has suggested that Nico's two victories from two this year indicates that Lewis "has taken his eye off the ball". Yet the problem with this is that uses only the outcomes, and of only two rounds, as its base. After all had Lewis not got two poor race starts this year (perhaps his fault) then not got baulked or hit at turn one both times too (not his fault) then the likelihood is that he'd be the one sitting atop the pile with maximum points, and everything in his garden would be rosy.

For what it's worth too Lewis has a good record at this circuit, with four wins in total as well as pole position in each of the last three visits. Nico though bagged his debut pole and win here in 2012. It may come as a surprise to hear that Vettel has won here only once, in the first ever win for the Red Bull big team in the sodden 2009 race.

In other good news for Mercedes in its fight with Ferrari track position remains important, even here at a circuit long since thought to make overtaking relatively straightforward. We found out last year - what with Nico's "he's going too slowly" barbs at Lewis - that without a large tyre 'offset' you'll likely fall victim to the dirty air of the car ahead.

Sebastian Vettel's 2009 triumph is his only win here
By Derrick Noh from NYC - 2009 Formula 1 Grand Prix
of China - Shanghai Circuit, CC BY 2.0, https://
Race starts are another thing with a fog around them in 2016 thus far. The Ferraris' lightening launches in Australia made some of us think they had something over the Merc, but come Bahrain not only did Nico get much the better start than Lewis the one Ferrari to launch (in Kimi Raikkonen's hands) had the worst launch of any of them. In China though the run to turn one is relatively short, as well as doesn't have a sudden stop when you get there, which will give some comfort to Lewis in advance.

Strategy also has an air of mystery, particularly with the new third compound option for this year which does not yet appear to be near settling down. In cool Australia the medium compound ended up being the tyre to be on in the race; in warm Bahrain it definitely was not. With China expected to be cool, are the mediums again the way to go? Perhaps not, as last year here there was a clear pace advantage in favour of the soft over the medium, plus warming up the mediums was not easy - with this Vettel found out that an undercut on the medium was near enough impossible. This is one way at least in which China varies from Bahrain, in addition to the temperature difference while the Sakhir track surface is notoriously abrasive this one in Shanghai is notoriously smooth. Last year the Mercs therefore chose to bolt on softs and eke them out rather than go full pelt on the medium for their middle stints (which led indirectly to the Merc driver spat mentioned). It should also send the Mercedes even further ahead than normal in qualifying.

Whatever is the case though both Merc and Ferrari have selected plenty of sets of mediums for this weekend (Lewis for example is taking four sets compared with only one in Bahrain). Ferrari though, perhaps minded of its warm-up issues 12 months ago, has stacked slightly higher than its rival on supersofts.

This circuit can also shuffle the usual competitive order, as the track is 'front-limited' - as in unusually it puts more stress on the front tyres than the rears. This is 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 happens to suit your car. One thinks of Rosberg's never seen before or again in 2012 dominant weekend here plus two years ago Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's similarly isolated competitiveness to end up on the podium. The coiling, tightening opening complex also often is the scene of lap one contact.

The coiling first complex often claims a few victims
By Ilia Tsmykal from Blagoveschensk, Russia - Shanghai
Grand Prix, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Another thing taken from the opening two rounds is that the midfield is likely to be far back from the big two teams - best of the rest in Bahrain Daniel Ricciardo finished over a minute after the victorious Rosberg. But we also know from the races so far that there's likely to be an absorbing battle among them.

Ricciardo and Red Bull has won out in this fight in both rounds, while of course we have the sport's good news story of Haas in there, with a swift car and a usually aggressive strategy. Williams and Force India have been disappointing so far this year but at least they have Mercedes power and a long back straight to help them this time. Toro Rosso has shown up well, but by contrast may struggle on China's lengthy straight given Mercedes's Paddy Lowe has revealed that the Faenza squad's 2015 Ferrari unit has the least grunt out there.

The weather has been known to shuffle things here too. Indeed rain fell in the 2006, 2007, 2009 (especially) and 2010 races. There has been none since in races at least but currently forecasts suggest that there could be some around this time for qualifying. There will be even more relief than usual therefore among those at the front that the 'countdown' qualifying has at last been canned, as it was predicted to be manic on days that the rain fell.

And other than quali and all that, F1 in 2016 hasn't been all that bad on-track. There are reasons to think that in China things will continue in that vein.

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