Chinese GP Preview: Unanswered questions

Shanghai International Circuit track map

Shanghai International Circuit track map (Click to enlarge)

Apr.16 (Daniel Chalmers) This weekend the F1 circus heads to China for the fourth round of the world championship.

The podium (L to R): Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing, second; Adrian Newey (GBR) Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer; race winner Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing and third placed Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP.

Malaysian Grand Prix podium

So far 2010 has been an extremely competitive season as was predicted. At the moment we have a seven way battle in the drivers’ championship.

The first three races have yielded three different race winners from three different teams. Furthermore we have already seen eight different drivers make an appearance on the podium. Out of those Felipe Massa is the only driver to have two podiums to his name.

Could we see a fourth team winning this weekend? It’s possible but at the moment Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren are clearly a step ahead of the rest. Renault and Mercedes would be the most likely of the teams behind to challenge for victory.

The podium (L to R): Robert Kubica (POL) Renault, second; Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren, race winner; Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari, third. Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park,

Australian Grand Prix podium

Although a shock result is never out of the cards. In recent times the Chinese GP has been the wettest race on the calendar. Three of the last four races have been wet affairs, and there is a chance of more this weekend.

This rain has certainly provided some dramatic past races such as Fernando Alonso letting a comfortable win slip away in 2006, allowing Michael Schumacher to win on his bogey track. In 2007 Hamilton threw away his 12 point championship lead when he slid into the pitlane’s gravel trap.

Certainly the buildings make the track look futuristic. But without the rain Shanghai isn’t the most inspiring of race tracks. On the flipside the long back straight does offer a good overtaking opportunity, and there is a wide variety of corners.

Bahrain Grand Prix podium

Bahrain Grand Prix podium

Whatever the weather it should be an intriguing race weekend. Even after three races we are still left with big questions regarding F1 2010.

One of the most potent questions is just how fast are Red Bull?

We have certainly seen some great pace from them, particularly over a single lap. However there is no real concrete evidence, to suggest that Red Bull are going to grab the season by the horns, and obliterate the opposition just yet (contrary to popular belief).

A wide opinion from many F1 experts is that Sebastian Vettel should have 75 points by now but is that really true? Yes, Vettel was leading both the Bahrain and Australian GPs before mechanical gremlins struck, but it’s no foregone conclusion that he would have won both those races.

Fernando Alonso and Ferrari were strong in Bahrain

Race winner Fernando Alonso and Ferrari were strong in Bahrain

In Bahrain Ferrari were looking stronger in the closing laps, and Fernando Alonso was preparing to launch an attack but then didn’t need to. Then in Australia we won’t know whether Vettel’s tyres would have held up or not. Remember that the sister Red Bull pitted for a second set of soft tyres. Even Jenson Button’s tyres were nearly trashed by the end of the race, despite him being one of the kindest drivers to tyres.

In Malaysia Red Bull dominated, but that race was handed to them on a plate after McLaren and Ferrari relied too heavily on technology to predict the weather.

With the McLarens and Ferraris having to negotiate their way through traffic there wasn’t the opportunity to compare their pace to Red Bull. We never got to see whether McLaren’s step forward in practise would have carried over to the race.

Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Red Bull Racing celebrates in parc ferme after winning the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull racing should be 3-0 up but are not

This weekend we hope to see just how Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren really stack up against each other.

Amazingly we haven’t actually seen Ferrari and Red Bull have a race long victory battle yet. In Bahrain and Australia the battle ended prematurely before we saw the conclusion. In Malaysia the battle never even started.

Red Bull may well have the raw pace to get them pole position, but Ferrari are still regarded as being the car that is easiest on it’s tyres. This will be important again in this race as Shanghai is another of those tracks that punishes the tyres heavily.

The McLaren has shown strong race pace so far this season. However they need to be able to qualify better in order to make the most of that race speed. In Sepang they were confident that they had closed the gap in qualifying trim. Of course we never got to see that.

McLaren’s F-Duct should be very useful in Shanghai. They can stall the wing down the long back straight, and down the long pit straight, and then be able to apply more downforce in the quick corners.

If McLaren can show proof of their qualifying performance in Shanghai then they have a strong chance of doing well in the race.

Grid girls. Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Chinese Grand Prix, Race Day, Shanghai, China,

Shanghai is a unique place

Ultimately Shanghai is a Red Bull circuit. The track has fast corners which are very much loved by the RB6. An even bigger influential factor for Red Bull this weekend is the Chinese weather. Unlike the sauna like weather in Malaysia, China is set to be a much cooler affair with considerably lower track temperatures.

This means that for all the teams this weekend getting heat into the tyres is going to be a pretty tough challenge. For Red Bull this is one of their ultimate trump cards. The fact that the RB6 is very aggressive on its tyres means it can get heat into them quicker.

Sebastian Vettel won in the rain last year in China

Sebastian Vettel won in the rain last year in China

If McLaren and Ferrari can compete with Red Bull on one of their best tracks then it bodes very well for the rest of the season, and it means that we are set for this remarkably open championship to continue into Europe.

On the other hand if Red Bull manage to stamp their authority then their opposition will have good reason to be worried.

Even if that scenario does play out Red Bull will have to work round the clock to stay ahead. Particularly as the next round in Spain is the traditional round where all the teams bring huge upgrades. Let’s not forget McLaren’s incredible upgrade pace last season, and the rate in which Brawn GP lost their early season advantage.

2010 Malaysian Grand Prix - Sunday Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 4th April 2010 The car of Robert Kubica, Renault R30 in Parc Ferme.

Renault and Robert Kubica in particular have been the revelation of the early season

One thing we definitely did establish in Malaysia is that Red Bull are a long way ahead of Mercedes. It will be interesting to see if Mercedes can close the gap this weekend. Although it’s likely we won’t really see their true hand till Spain.

It seems more probable that they will be looking over their shoulder at Renault and Force India who have both enjoyed strong starts to the season. After two strong results Kubica is in the championship hunt with Renault. Force India have scored in all three of their outings so far, which demonstrates exceptional progress for a team marooned at the back just a couple of seasons ago.

We haven’t been able to gauge yet how close to the front these two teams are, after two rain affected weekends. That’s yet another question we want an answer to this weekend.

Williams FW32 nose cone in the rain. Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday 1 April 2010.

Williams have been disappointing so far this year

Williams and Sauber have been the biggest disappointments of 2010 so far, after both promised so much after strong form during winter testing.

Even Toro Rosso appear to have the measure of them after we saw Jaime Alguersuari overtake both teams on the track in Sepang. In fact Toro could be one of the teams most likely to cause a bit of a surprise this weekend. Alguersuari finished 9th in Sepang and Sebastien Buemi chalked up the third fastest lap of the race.

Prediction Time

Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Red Bull Racing

Daniel plays it safe and backs Sebastian Vettel for a win in China

Overall it looks set to be another fascinating weekend of racing. Hopefully we will get some answers regarding F1 2010’s pecking order.

There is no doubt that naturally Red Bull are the firm favourites going into the event. However I think it’s going to be much closer than people anticipate.

Although Red Bull are the quickest car I don’t think they are at the same level as previous dominant cars  such as the 1988 McLaren, the 1992 Williams or the Ferraris of the early 2000s.

I suspect McLaren will be Red Bull’s challengers and we will see their full potential which we didn’t see in Malaysia due to that bizarre qualifying session.

Ferrari will be strong in the race but it could well be that their challenge may be spoiled as they may struggle a bit in qualifying whilst trying to get heat into their tyres.

My top 10 prediction

1. Sebastien Vettel
2. Lewis Hamilton
3. Mark Webber
4. Fernando Alonso
5. Jenson Button
6. Robert Kubica
7. Jaime Alguersuari
8. Felipe Massa
9. Michael Schumacher
10.Adrian Sutil

  • Kinkas

    Your predictions are starting to prove wrong. Never disregard Rosberg.