Issue 51: 2015 Chinese Grand Prix Forecast

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 9 April 2015 

The question on everyone’s minds is can Ferrari conquer Mercedes at the Shanghai International Circuit? The track layout bears some similarities to Sepang in Malaysia, however, the circuit and atmospheric conditions are set to be very different. 

Like Sepang, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the Shanghai circuit. Other than the gigantic grandstand on the start/finish straight, the circuit’s main feature is the 0.7-mile long back straight in Sector 3. Good straight-line speed is required, 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. Out-dragging another car or out-braking it in the big stop for Turn 14 where the cars decelerate from over 200 mph to around 50 mph offers the best overtaking place on the track. The hard braking zone at the end of the start/finish straight provides similar passing opportunities. However, 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. Expect good wheel-to-wheel racing here, especially in the early laps!

Sector 1 is notable for the interminable complex of Turns 1-4 that progressively tightens on entry before opening out again on the exit of Turn 3. The front tyres suffer most of all through these opening corners, especially the front left. A car with strong front downforce can help counteract any likely understeer through Turns 1-3. And cars that are lighter on tyre usage will be better placed to manage the high energy loads going through the front tyres. Good rear-end downforce is also needed to stop the rear tyres from sliding. 

Sector 2 of the lap is comprised of fast and flowing corners, especially between the exit of Turn 6 and the braking zone for Turn 9. However, the slow Turn 6 must first be negotiated on the entry to Sector 2. It is vital to get the nose of the car to the apex of this corner. Cars that have a responsive front end and minimal understeer will do this best. A car with good high-speed balance and overall downforce will perform more strongly through the faster corners of Sector 2. 

A good entry to Turn 11 at the start of Sector 3 is important for the fastest route through the looping Turns 12 and 13 in preparation for the blast down the back straight. 

Forza Mercedes 

The Chinese Grand Prix has a Mercedes win written all over it. Mind you, I said that about Malaysia two weeks ago! However, Round 3 will take place in much cooler conditions (a high of 20 degrees centigrade for the race is forecast) and on a front- rather than rear-tyre limited track. This means Mercedes will put less stress on their rear tyres compared to Malaysia. Therefore, Hamilton and Rosberg will be able to drive to the limit of the car rather than the limit of the tyre. One potential snag that cooler conditions bring is the risk of tyre graining (where the surface rubber is ripped away due to the tyre sliding rather than gripping the track surface). However, this is perhaps more of a danger for Ferrari than Mercedes given how resistant their tyres were to overheating in Malaysia. Can they get sufficient heat into their tyres to get them working? The Ferrari does, however, have good front-end downforce, which will lower their risk of tyre graining. Vettel and Raikkonen have been able to get their car to respond well on corner entry in 2015. So expect Ferrari to post competitive times through Turns 1-3 and Turns 11-13.

Other factors favour Mercedes aside from the weather. The Chinese Grand Prix is clearly a two-stop race, so Ferrari’s tyre degradation advantage is less likely to come into play as there isn’t a strategy decision to be made. Moreover, although Ferrari is clearly getting more power from its engine in 2015, Mercedes is still marginally quicker in a straight-line (Rosberg clocked 201 mph through the speed trap at Sepang compared to Raikkonen’s 199 mph). Mercedes, and Williams in particular, will own Sector 3. 

The other pointer to watch in China is the type and extent of Mercedes’ upgrades to its W06 Hybrid. These will have been in the pipeline pre-Malaysia, but the German marque announced it would deploy these updates earlier than planned in response to Ferrari’s challenge. 

The Silver Arrows’ one possible weak point in the conditions forecast in Shanghai is car setup. Both drivers complained in testing and during the season so far about the difficulty of finding a good balance with the W06 Hybrid. If Hamilton and Rosberg fail to find the car’s sweet spot then this might open the door for Ferrari a little. However, it’s a long shot.

Rosberg Rising? 

Can Rosberg steal back the advantage from Hamilton in Shanghai? The German won this event in 2012. However, Hamilton has won here three times and has declared Shanghai to be one of his favourite tracks. And so far this season, Rosberg has been on the ropes, figuratively speaking, as Hamilton has out-qualified and out-raced him. Rosberg’s extra mileage in testing and Hamilton’s off-track distractions appear to have been negated by the world champion reaching a higher plane of performance. I can’t see how Rosberg is going to turn it round in China. There is always the chance that he will find a better setup than Hamilton, but that has not been enough in the recent past to beat the Briton. My forecast is a win for Hamilton. 

Sitting ducks in Sector 3 

The targets, unfortunately for them, are Red Bull and McLaren. Renault claim that they have found more power from their engine since Malaysia, but like McLaren-Honda, they are roughly 100 bhp down on Mercedes. They will be very vulnerable to being overtaken in the race. Given the strong Red Bull chassis, Ricciardo and Kvyat are likely to earn some time back in Sector 1 and 2, but this will not help them defend their position on the straights. Red Bull might in fact have to remove downforce to keep up in a straight line unless Renault have found a lot more power.

@TheWheelspinner

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