Chinese Grand Prix 2012: Preview


Photo Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

 

The Chinese Grand Prix, it is fair to say, is not universally loved in F1 circles. The expensive Shanghai International Circuit is not exactly known for its bumper crowds, the Chinese themselves seem distinctly uninterested in our sport, and some would claim that the race is purely a vanity project for the Chinese government.

But there have been some excellent races in Shanghai during the short history of this event, and it is quite likely that there will be more drama in China this weekend at round three of the 2012 championship.

Given Ferrari's difficult winter-testing period, woeful qualifying performances, and a couple of disastrous races from Felipe Massa in Australia and Malaysia, it is somewhat bizarre that Fernando Alonso should be sitting pretty at the top of the drivers' championship as we head to Shanghai.

Most would agree that the Spaniard's victory in Malaysia was only possible thanks to the rain that disrupted proceedings in Japan, as was the impressive second place claimed by Sergio Perez, but it just goes to show that Formula 1 can be unpredictable – a useful reminder given the dominant performances of Sebastian Vettel last season.

Teams will be hoping for a nice straightforward weekend in China, but this is far from guaranteed. Last years' race was characterised by swathes of overtaking throughout the field. DRS was partly responsible for the unusually high frequency of moves in 2011, but more significant was the heavy tyre wear and the fact that drivers adopted a variety of pit stop strategies.

In a season of fantastically exciting races, the Chinese Grand Prix of last season was up there with the best of them. However, it is largely forgotten thanks to the dramatic events in Canada later in the season, which remain etched on the memories of many fans overshadowing many of the other brilliant races.

For those who are struggling to remember 2012, the climax of the race saw Lewis Hamilton to overtake Sebastian Vettel for the lead just four laps from the end. The well-earned victory for Hamilton suggested – wrongly as it turned out – that Vettel would not have a clear ride to the championship after victory in the opening two races.

This year no such dominant driver has emerged from the opening two races. McLaren may well still have the fastest car, but they are yet to get everything aligned on race day. The team have taken three of the last four victories in Shanghai, including in the last two seasons when Red Bull was perceived to have the fastest car. One of Hamilton or Jenson Button will be favourite to take the win on Sunday.

Button won a fantastic race in 2010 (in fact, the Chinese Grand Prix was my race of the season in our end-of-year round-up that year), but Hamilton is the only driver to have ever won this race more than once. He took a decisive victory in 2008, and that win last season. However, Shanghai also holds some less joyful memories from Hamilton – one could argue that his 2007 title chances evaporated as he tamely beached himself in the gravel track at the pit lane entrance.

For Red Bull, qualifying has been their main downfall so far in 2012. Gone are the Saturdays of Vettel and Mark Webber muscling their way onto the front row of the grid. Vettel's second place in Australia suggested that the team have the wherewithal to push up the field, but if they want to have a crack at victory it seems they will either need to qualify higher up the grid or pray for more rain. McLaren seem to have a slight edge over Red Bull when it comes to race performance too.

Alonso showed in Malaysia that he cannot be ignored, especially if conditions are a little inclement. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa, who looks unlikely to last the season given that he is so far off the pace of Alonso.

Ever present in qualifying this season is Mercedes, and yet the team's good work over the winter has yielded only one point so far. Interestingly, Michael Schumacher clearly has the measure of Nico Rosberg so far in 2012 – a stark contrast to the last two seasons – and looks more likely to get the first win for the latest incarnation of the Silver Arrows.

However, the seven-time world champion has never had much luck in China, even though it was the scene of his 91st and most recent F1 victory in 2006. He is hoping to be more fortunate this weekend.

Some steady points finishes for Kimi Raikkonen – P7 in Australia and P5 in Malaysia – have demonstrated that Lotus are there or thereabouts this season, and it may only be a matter of time before the Finn appears on the podium. Team-mate Romain Grosjean, on the other hand, has completed only four laps in two races this season, but the Frenchman showed his promise by qualifying third in Melbourne.

The rain in Sepang may have flattered Sauber and Perez slightly, but the C31, particularly in the hands of the Mexican, has been performing well in the dry as well. It appears to be easier on its tyres than the other cars, and this could be a huge benefit in Shanghai this weekend.

The above musings show that, after two races, it is still impossible to rank the teams from fastest to slowest this season, and that the field is much more closely matched than it was last season. China could give us all a much better indication – or they could just confuse us more.

Whatever happens, China should provide us with another great race. It is just a shame that the grandstands will be half empty and the locals will not be there to enjoy it.

  • Qualifying in China begins at 07:00 BST this Saturday morning, and the race will start at 08:00 BST on Sunday.
  • Live coverage in the UK is available on Sky Sports F1 HD, BBC One and BBC Radio 5 Live.
  • There will be reports and reaction throughout the weekend here on thecheckeredflag.co.uk