Chinese Grand Prix Preview: All aboard the Shanghai Express


SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17: Daniil Kvyat of Russia driving the (26) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2016 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images). Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

The Chinese Grand Prix has been part of the Formula 1 calendar since 2004, and at the time of its inception was the most expensive purpose built racing facility visited by the sport. Created by well-known German architect Hermann Tilke, the Shanghai International Circuit is shaped like the Chinese character ‘Shang’, which means ‘high’ or ‘above’,

The high-speed straights at Shanghai, as well as its myriad of sweeping corners and huge changes in acceleration and deceleration throughout the course, make this an extremely demanding race for the drivers, as well as for the power units. Tyre degradation has often been an issue here, but the new compounds introduced this year are hopefully set to alleviate that issue somewhat.

No Chinese driver has ever started a F1 race, but Ma Qinghua did take part in a practice session for HRT at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix, becoming the first Chinese driver to do so.

Rubens Barrichello won the inaugural race in Shanghai back in 2004, whilst driving for Scuderia Ferrari, beating the BAR-Honda of Jenson Button by just over a second.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team and Ferrari share the honours for most successful team to have competed at the Chinese Grand Prix, having taken four wins a piece. Whilst driver Lewis Hamilton has claimed most victories, four in total, ahead of Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg, who both have two.

2008 Chinese Grand Prix – setting the scene…

In 2008, Lewis Hamilton dominated the entire Chinese Grand Prix race weekend. Posting a lap one second faster than anyone else during the first practice session of the weekend on Friday, then securing pole position by three tenths of a second in the McLaren MP4-23 on Saturday, before going on to win the race in style by a massive fifteen seconds.

Back then, China was the penultimate round on the calendar, and the Brit’s win in Shanghai, set up the unforgettable season finale in Brazil that saw him win the first of his three world titles, by just one point, crushing the dreams of Felipe Massa in the process.

Lewis made the perfect get-away in the race on Sunday, and the rest of the drivers on the grid never really saw him for dust after that. Flat-out all the way, no one else got a look in, not even team-mate Heikki Kovalainen. It was a mature and faultless drive from a man under pressure going into the race.

2006 Chinese Grand Prix – one final flourish…

The 2006 Chinese Grand Prix was the stuff dreams are made of. Having announced his retirement after winning the 2006 Italian Grand Prix a round earlier, Michael Schumacher now sat just two points behind title rival Fernando Alonso in the standings.

However, the German did not get off to the best of starts, qualifying down in sixth as his Bridgestone tyres gave up the ghost on a damp track, whilst Alonso cruised to pole on his set of Michelin’s.

Conditions on race day started out as they had the day before, but quickly began to dry out, bringing the Bridgestone tyres back into their own, and allowing the German to carve his way through the field to second, his sights firmly set on the car of Giancarlo Fisichella ahead of him.

On lap 40 Schumacher switched onto the dry tyre, and although the Italian came back out ahead of the German, having made the same switch a lap later, an error at turn one saw Fisichella slide wide on the cold rubber.

With a chance to get by the Italian emerging, Schumacher needed little prompting to take action, and swiftly stormed through to take the lead, that he never let go of.

That was the final time Schumacher would stand on the top step of the podium, having taken ninety-one victories across his career in total.

2012 Chinese Grand Prix – the road to dominance…

Having not raced in motorsport, let alone F1, for fifty-five years, Mercedes returned to F1 as a full-time constructor in 2010.

It was a difficult beginning to start with, only managing to make it onto the bottom step of the podium on just three occasions, Malaysia, China and Great Britain, in 2010, and finishing fourth in the overall standings. In 2011, they once again ended the season in fourth place, but this time without a podium finish to their name.

In 2012, it began to come together for the German mark however, and they took their first victory of their return campaign in China, with Nico Rosberg taking the honours.

It was a perfect weekend for the German, who put in a sensational lap to take pole position in qualifying by half a second. A solid start in the race saw Rosberg lead into the first corner, with team-mate Schumacher not far behind.

Unfortunately for the seven time world champion, wheel problems would force him to retire from the race on lap 13, but Rosberg kept hold of the lead with a more efficient two-stop strategy to his closest rivals three.

Rosberg took the chequered flag twenty seconds ahead of the second placed McLaren Mercedes of Jenson Button, to take his maiden F1 victory and Mercedes first in a long time.

A second place for Rosberg in Monaco followed, and a further third for Schumacher at the European Grand Prix that year, after which the Brackley based squads performance faltered somewhat. However, that was just a taste of things to come, and in 2013, Mercedes began their rise to dominance.

2017 Race weekend – can Ferrari maintain the momentum?

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Podium. Vettel, Hamilton, Bottas. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Going into the 2017 Chinese Grand Prix this weekend, Ferrari and driver Sebastian Vettel, having secured their first victory since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix in Australia, lead the way in both the constructors and drivers championships.

The Italian squad’s form during winter testing looks to have been the real deal, and the SF70-H, which was much kinder on the tyres than its rivals, was easily able to stay ahead of the Mercedes of Hamilton to take victory on race day.

Coming in for a pit-stop too early is where Mercedes ultimately lost the race, but Hamilton felt he was unable to continue any longer, his tyres having gone off the boil, and so they had no other real option available to them.

Because of that, it is likely we will see another close fight in China, but that will be entirely dependent on what sort of weather conditions we encounter – with warmer temperatures favouring Ferrari. A battle at the front is what F1 wanted, and a fight at the top is what we have hopefully gained.

Rumours are abound that Mercedes are struggling to stay below the recommended car weight however, and this is what could be slowing them down. It is an area Mercedes Team Boss Toto Wolff has admitted the squad have been working on, but will they have resolved it ahead of Sunday’s race?

Red Bull Racing sit third in the standings after a disappointing race for the team and home boy Daniel Ricciardo, who was forced to retire from the 2017 Australian Grand Prix after initially coming to a halt on the warm up lap and starting the race from the pit lane, two laps down.

Team-mate Max Verstappen could only manage fifth place, in what was a below par weekend for the Milton Keynes based squad, who will be hoping they can find some more performance in China.

Williams Martini Racing have taken an early lead on their main rivals of last year, the Sahara Force India F1 Team, to go fourth, with driver Felipe Massa having a solid race to take the chequered flag in sixth place. A number of technical issues hampered the Grove based squads running in Australia, so expect more to come from the British team and Massa across the rest of the season.

Scuderia Toro Rosso picked up the remaining points on offer with their drivers Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat finishing in eighth and ninth place, and they too look set to feature more prominently this season, as long as the Renault engine they have signed up to this year, remains reliable.

The Haas F1 Team, the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team, the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team and the Sauber F1 Team, all sit at the bottom of the table with no points yet accumulated.

Haas had looked good in the hands of driver Romain Grosjean, who had qualified in sixth place on the grid ahead of the race, and remained around that position until his Ferrari engine gave way. If they can keep their brake issues at bay, the American squad will definitely be ones to watch this season.

Despite their woeful pre-season testing, McLaren fared much better than expected in Australia. Yes, Alonso retired from the race, but the Spaniard had been sat in tenth place for the majority of the grand prix, easily staying ahead of the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg.

Stoffel Vandoorne managed to finish the race, albeit in the final classified position, but progress definitely appears to have been made by Japanese manufacturer Honda, though definite weaknesses remain. It is therefore anyone’s guess what sort of performance we can really expect from the Woking based squad in China, though the high-speed straight at the Shanghai International Circuit will not favour them.

The Renault Sport Formula 1 Team finished just out of the points in eleventh place with driver Hulkenberg, whilst Kevin Magnussen retired from the race, after an early collision with Marcus Ericsson on the first lap of the grand prix. There is definite room for improvement for the French squad, but the early signs are promising.

With Ericsson having retired from the race after just a handful of laps, Antonio Giovinazzi, who was debuting for the still unfit Pascal Wehrlein, was Sauber’s only remaining driver. He put on a strong display for a debutant however, and ended the race in twelfth position, albeit two laps down. The Italian driver is set to continue in the seat in China too, whilst Wehrlein gets himself back to full fitness.

With just five days remaining until the Chinese Grand Prix, we are shortly about to find out if Ferrari’s strong Australia performance is here to stay.