Chinese Grand Prix 2011: Preview


A cynic might argue that writing a typical race preview of over 800 words for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix is a bit of a waste of time, and that the event can be summed up in just four: 'Vettel pole; Vettel victory'.

And that cynic would probably be right with their prediction. Watching from the stands in Malaysia last weekend, without the technical trickery of the television graphics and constant glances at the timing screens, victory for Sebastian Vettel seemed far too straightforward. Once he had beaten Nick Heidfeld into the first corner, securing his second win of the season was a formality.

Then, to later find out that the German was without KERS for much of the race, it is hard for anyone to argue against the prospect of a Schumacher-esque season-long dominance for Vettel, and an unchallenged march to his second world title.

Indeed, after just two races, Vettel already has a 24-point lead over Jenson Button in the world championship – he is almost a race win clear already. The Red Bull is, for the third season in a row, the best car on the grid, and Vettel has got off to a much better start this year than he did in 2009 or 2010, making the most of his performance advantage.

So, will it be more of the same in China? BBC Sport's Andrew Benson reasons that it may not. He notes that McLaren and Ferrari were a lot closer to Red Bull in Malaysia (Lewis Hamilton was just one tenth off Vettel in qualifying) and will be narrowing that gap as the season progresses.

Furthermore, Vettel had the advantage of Heidfeld in second place during the early stages of the race, preventing Hamilton or anyone else mounting a challenging to his lead – not something he can rely on in every race. And KERS reliability is clearly an issue for Red Bull, which could become a crucial factor at particular tracks.

In fact, China could be one such track. It has the longest straight of any track on the F1 calendar, requiring 17 seconds of continuous full throttle, and 62% of the lap is run at full throttle. A dodgy KERS and a Renault engine that apparently lacks grunt when compared to the Mercedes model in the McLaren, all coupled together with the new-for-2011 DRS, means that Vettel, even if he comes out on top in qualifying, may not have everything his own way on race day.

The results from previous Chinese Grand Prix are also against Vettel in that nobody is yet to win this race more than once. If this record is to be upheld on Sunday, then Vettel's 2009 victory prevents him from standing on the top step of the podium. However, by the same logic, that means that Rubens Barrichello (who won the inaugural race in 2004), Fernando Alonso (2005), Michael Schumacher (2006), Lewis Hamilton (2008) or Jenson Button (2010) will not win either. (Kimi Raikkonen won the 2007 race, but sadly Narain Karthikeyan has more chance of winning the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday than the Finn).

But even if the statistics break-down, and Vettel does take an apparently simplistic victory on Sunday, the Chinese Grand Prix still promises to be a good race. Remember last year, when Button and Hamilton stood on the top two steps of the podium, providing Britain with its first one-two finish since 1999? The race was one of the most exciting of the epic 2010 season, with the frequently changing weather making the teams uncertain as to whether dry or intermediate tyres were the correct choice at any given moment.

Thanks to these inclement conditions, last year's Chinese Grand Prix had 67 pit stops. For those that enjoyed the multiple pit stops last weekend in Malaysia – of which there were a mere 59 – then this could be another classic race for strategy-minded F1 aficionados

Even if the rain stays away, like it did at Sepang, there could still be a plethora of pit stops. Pirelli have identified the Shanghai International Circuit as a track that could cause stress and degradation on the tyres, thanks to its heavy braking and traction requirements. However, they expect that the lower track temperatures may mediate the rate of tyre wear.

Of course, even if the race does stay dry, and tyre wear is not a significant factor in the race, and Vettel streaks into an unassailable lead off the start line, there are still plenty of other stories elsewhere on the grid to provide some intrigue.

Mark Webber has only a fifth place and a fourth place to his name so far this season, having been comprehensively outshone by his team-mate in the first two races. Will he be able to get back on to the same level as Vettel, or was last season, as many expected, his one and only chance at the F1 title?

Will Renault, who has started the season so well, continue to provide a challenge to the top teams, allowing either Heidfeld or Vitaly Petrov to score the team's third consecutive podium finish?

Both Mercedes drivers are looking forward to the race in Shanghai despite their team's shocking start to the season. Can Michael Schumacher do anything at the scene of his last grand prix victory?

And Paul di Resta is fast emerging as the best new driver of the season, securing two tenth place finishes already. He out-qualified his Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil in both Australia and Malaysia and has not made any significant mistakes. Can he continue this impressive start?

Will Williams get a car to the end of a race for the first time in 2011? Will Hispania beat the 107% rule again? There are so many questions to be answered, both at the front and back of the grid.

But most importantly, China should give us an indication as to who is best placed to provide a consistent challenge to Sebastian Vettel this season. If nobody emerges, the four-word race previews will be a step closer to publication.

  • Qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix begins at 07:00 BST on Saturday with the race beginning at 08:00 BST on Sunday. For UK viewers, coverage of both sessions is on BBC One.
  • There will be reports and reaction throughout the weekend here on thecheckeredflag.co.uk