Monday 3 April 2017

Shanghai Preview: Big in China

Much about the Chinese Grand Prix visit feels big. Of all the typical Tilke venues to arrive in recent times this one still sets the standards for dimensions if nothing else. The gleaming futuristic architecture towers and stretches; the facilities' sparse siting makes you wonder if someone worried that the various buildings would have an argument with each other. Paddock occupants are sure they walk far further in the Shanghai weekend than in any other.

Much about the Chinese Grand Prix is big
By Drew - Starting Grid F1 Shanghai, CC BY 2.0, https://
Even the race's genesis is big. All geopolitics - it is a Government-backed Grand Prix in a country that might be termed a coming economy; a round that arrived in 2004 to a country while curious about the event also was almost completely uninitiated (to those more historically-minded, it shared a lot with Hungary's arrival in 1986). Then as now it appears more motivated by national promotion than of making a successful event per se.

Many of the typical Tilke track layout characteristics will be familiar too. A bit-of-everything layout; quick, medium and slow corners feature. A long straight - underlining the theme of vastness China's is reckoned to be about the longest in the sport - and a big stop at the end created with overtaking in mind. A trademark Tilke fast esses part elsewhere.

But even so not everything feels typical about this visit. Even though it does still feel big. This is because last time out in our 2017 Australian season-opener, for the first time since Adam was a lad Mercedes was faced down and beaten on pure pace, by Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari. And the big question that will ring around the entirety of the Chinese weekend is whether it can do so again.

The Melbourne round is for many reasons an inappropriate calling card; a few think too Ferrari historically been peculiarly good at that track. So perhaps it was an outlier. Or is it, as testing heavily hinted, that the Ferrari this season is the real deal in all sorts of conditions? 

The big question for China is whether Ferrari can stay on top
Photo: Octane Photography
Haas team principal Gunther Steiner claims the Ferrari power unit cedes nothing to Mercedes now; perhaps even is better. Helpful on a track with a 1.17km straight. Even last year Ferrari showed up quite well on pace here and Kimi Raikkonen reckoned he could have got pole without a mistake on his best run.

Adding to the confusion though is that if Albert Park isn't a standard test then neither is the Shanghai International Circuit, and for different reasons. It is, in the parlance, 'front limited', meaning it puts more strain on the front of the car than the rear (which is unusual), particularly via the long and doubling-back-on-itself opening complex and that later in the lap that heralds the vast main straight.

Despite everything we can start to pick out some specific clues. Melbourne suggested that Mercedes still has an advantage over Ferrari in qualifying, perhaps due to being able to crank up its engine more, and if Valtteri Bottas can join his team mate Lewis Hamilton on the front row it'll do a lot to diminish Ferrari’s options. The Finn only just missed out on doing this in Australia and he improved conspicuously as his Merc debut weekend went on. The run to the first turn here is short too meaning it'll be hard to make places off the line, and the run-all-day Pirellis witnessed in Melbourne indicate only one strategy chance per race to make places.

Overtaking will be easier here than in Australia though, thanks in large part to the extended straight mentioned. Given what went on in Melbourne more generally we can expect the DRS zone to be generous too. Then again, even in previous years a large offset in pace was required to pass at this track (remember Nico Rosberg's 'tell Lewis to speed up' complaints?). Whatever is the case, Mercedes needs to brush up its strategy act after being rather panicked into an own goal by Ferrari in Australia.

Rain is a frequent feature here
By Carl Nenzén Lovén - originally posted to Flickr as Spin,
CC BY 2.0,
And while it was a small factor, equally it was felt in Melbourne that the cloud cover of quali helped Merc, while the sunshine of race day helped Ferrari. This will give Mercedes encouragement this time as forecasts at the time of writing suggest it'll mainly be cloudy and cool in Shanghai this weekend. Such conditions and the track's low abrasiveness may make Ferrari's apparent tyre life advantage in Australia less acute in China. Getting tyres into the 'window', and avoiding graining, are particular challenges here.

Adding to the fun rain is a fairly common presence in China visits (aptly, Shanghai translates as ‘above water’) and the forecast is that it could hit qualifying this time, as it did to an extent last year, as well as perhaps Friday practice.

Local history is encouraging for Lewis Hamilton, as he's won here four times including two of the last three. Vettel meanwhile, oddly, has only won here once and that was eight years ago, in 2009's severe rain (his very first F1 win).

Can Red Bull bounce back after a difficult Melbourne?
Photo: Octane Photography
And what of Red Bull, who while attention was elsewhere was a desperate disappointment in Melbourne? If it provides encouragement it was here last year that it started to bounce back after another disappointing season start, Daniel Ricciardo performed a prodigy by qualifying on the front row then leading the race early. He punctured on debris, but then recovered to finish fourth.

We'll probably be able to throw a blanket over the midfield, though Williams is likely to be leading that pack; Sergio Perez for one admitted that the car is out of reach right now and the Grove machine, and Felipe Massa, showed up well here last year too.

The track can be the scene of unusual outcomes though, partly due to the circuit characteristics mentioned but also that the coiling opening complex can result in much early-race grief, removing or delaying some and shuffling the order (this also was the case last year).

Even so the weekend for McLaren will likely be something to be got through for the team. Word on the street is that the Woking squad's simulations have its pariah Honda unit running out of deployment two-thirds down the Shanghai main straight, while in Australia Fernando Alonso was ceding 27km/h on the straights to the Force India that was pursuing him most of the way. Unlike in Melbourne, not even Alonso's talents are likely to be able to overcome all of that.

Whither Honda is a big enough question. But up front the questions this time will be even bigger

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