Issue 11: Chinese Grand Prix Preview

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16 April 2014

The grandeur of the Shanghai International Circuit, which will host Round 4 of the F1 world championship, hasn’t been accompanied by any grand local interest in F1 in the last few years. The grandstands at Shanghai are usually characterised by swathes of empty seats, which makes the event feel somewhat sterile. Perhaps there would be a better turnout if a Chinese driver lined up on the grid.

Like Sepang and Sakhir, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the Shanghai circuit. Other than the gigantic grandstand on the start/finish straight, Shanghai’s main feature is the 0.7-mile long straight in Sector 3. This requires a car with good top speed, especially in the second phase of the straight when overtaking moves come to fruition. However, to be in a position to challenge the car in front, it is crucial to have good traction to launch off Turn 13. The driver must also get a clean exit to maximise his chances of passing vulnerable competitors. Out-dragging another car here or out-braking it in the big stop for Turn 14 where the cars decelerate from over 200 miles per hour to around 50 miles per hour certainly offers the best overtaking spot. The braking zone at the end of the start/finish straight provides similar passing opportunities. The rest of the lap is characterised by plenty of slow and medium-fast corners that reward cars with good downforce and driveability. Sector 1 is notable for its  interminable complex of Turns 1-4 that tightens on entry before opening out again on the exit of Turn 3. A car with strong rear-end downforce is needed to stop the rear tyres from sliding and overheating. Cars that are kinder on their tyres will also be better placed to manage the high energy loads going through the front tyres in this series of corners. A strong front-end can also help counteract any likely understeer here or in Turn 6. Anyone diving up the inside of Turn 1 for an overtake might find themselves defending hard into Turn 2 if they’ve not made a clean pass. Sector 2 of the lap is composed of fast and flowing corners, especially between the exit of Turn 6 and the braking zone for Turn 9.

Thinking back to previous years, I’m not overwhelmed by a flood of memorable races at Shanghai. The 2006 running was notable for the mid-race lead battle between Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari and the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella. The 2009 event was severely rain-affected, but it gave Red Bull their first win in F1 and hinted at the period of dominance to come, with Vettel finishing over 40 seconds in front of the first non-Red Bull car. 2010 was also rain-affected and caused some big names, including Hamilton and Vettel, to put in some frantic drives through the field after being caught out by the weather.

Hamilton v Rosberg – Round 4

Dry weather permitting, it almost goes without saying that Mercedes will secure another front row lockout and a 1-2 finish in the race. However, long-range weather forecasts indicate that a wet qualifying session is on the cards, likely negating the Mercedes runners’ power advantage and giving Red Bull and Ferrari the chance to start further up the grid. A dry race is forecast, so the real question is which Mercedes driver will come out on top on Sunday. It’s a close call as both Hamilton and Rosberg have scored points in the unfolding psychological battle. In the Bahrain Grand Prix, for example, Rosberg showed that he had the will and capability to respond strongly to being outdriven in Malaysia while Hamilton demonstrated that he can still triumph even when the car is not fully to his liking. Both are important qualities, but the ability to win in a car that’s not 100% to their liking is what marks out the very best drivers from the best, in my view. In 2014, Hamilton appears to have a found a way to use slightly less fuel than Rosberg, but go slightly faster. Both Mercedes drivers have won at Shanghai before, Hamilton in 2008 and 2011 and Rosberg in 2012, but I get the feeling that Hamilton relishes this place more. My money is on Hamilton to edge out his team-mate again.

Watch out for Daniel Ricciardo!

Behind the Mercedes, I expect it to be battle rejoined between Red Bull and the Mercedes customer teams. The RB10 is likely to perform strongly in Turns 1-4 and Sector 2 of the lap where downforce is required for best mid-corner performance and to minimise the tyres sliding. Furthermore, Red Bull has apparently switched to shorter gear ratios, which will give Vettel and Ricciardo better acceleration in the initial phase of the straights. However, if a Mercedes-powered car gets anywhere near the back of an RB10, it will probably be a sitting duck. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to another feisty drive from Daniel Riccardo. Of the Mercedes-powered teams, Force India has proven that it is kind on its tyres, which will no doubt help Perez and Hulkenberg deal with some of the high front tyre loadings and offer them more flexibility on pit stop strategy. Expect them to be up there with Red Bull. The comparatively lower temperatures at Shanghai should help Mclaren, who’s race appeared to suffer in Sepang in part due to the extreme cooling demands. Williams are likely to start further back on the grid if qualifying is wet, unless they’ve managed to add some rear-end downforce to their car since Bahrain. It will be exciting to watch Bottas and Massa come through the field again as the FW36 is quick. Given that Shanghai is not too tough on fuel consumption, some of the Mercedes runners might opt to start with less than 100kg of fuel, such is the efficiency of their turbo and ERS.

Finally, Ferrari will have to hope that their experience in Sakhir is not repeated in Shanghai. The F-14 T is clearly down on maximum power and driveability, which will make Alonso and Raikkonen vulnerable on the straights. It’s likely to be another painful Sunday afternoon for the Scuderia unless they’ve improved their car.

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