Lewis Hamilton has raised his game but whether the Mercedes driver can deny Ferrari a second successive win of the season at the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend remains to be seen.
On paper, the triple Formula 1 world champion is still the man to beat – the most successful driver by far in Shanghai with four wins to date.
“He has become a pillar of this team and he proved that in Melbourne,” said team boss Toto Wolff after the Briton started on pole and finished second to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the Australian season-opener.
But Vettel is leading the championship, the first time a non-Mercedes driver has done that since he took his fourth title with Red Bull in 2013, and once-dominant Mercedes have a fight on their hands.
Mercedes, who have taken both the drivers and constructors’ titles for the last three years, have won four of the last five races in China.
As Melbourne showed, however, past form may count for little in a season of sweeping rule change.
“If you think you are going to cruise to victory in the future, based on a track record of success, you’ll be proven wrong very quickly,” said Wolff. “Australia was a weekend full of lessons, now we go to China ready and excited for another battle.”
Ferrari have not started a season with consecutive wins since 2004 at the peak of the Michael Schumacher era, the Italian team taking 15 victories from 18 races that season.
Vettel’s win in Australia ended a victory drought for Ferrari stretching back to September 2015, and drew rare praise from company chairman Sergio Marchionne, but they must now prove they can be genuine contenders.
“You really have to go step by step,” said Vettel. “It’s good to know that we have a great car but it’s just the beginning: new regulations, new generations of cars so there will be a lot of progress.”
The cars this year are longer and wider, sporting fatter tyres and more swept-back bodywork as part of a rules shake-up aimed at making them faster, more spectacular to watch and harder to drive.
But overtaking has also become more difficult, with Australia raising concern about the lack of real moves.
The long straights and wide sweeps of the Shanghai circuit saw 128 passes last year, more than at any other track, and should provide a more definitive verdict.
Once-great McLaren can expect to be on the receiving end, with engine partners Honda under intense pressure after a slow start to the season.
“The characteristics of the Shanghai International Circuit are very different from Melbourne, and its long, fast straights will likely expose the weaknesses in our package more than Albert Park did,” said McLaren Racing Director Eric Boullier.
Italian rookie Antonio Giovinazzi makes his second start for Sauber as a replacement for Pascal Wehrlein, with the Swiss team concerned the German still needs time to get race fit.
Chinese Grand Prix Facts & Statistics by Reuters:
- Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai International Circuit, Round of the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship
- Lap distance: 5.451km. Total distance: 307.574km (58 laps)
- Race lap record: One minute 32.238 seconds. Michael Schumacher (Germany) Ferrari, 2004.
- 2016 pole: Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes 1:35.402
- 2016 winner: Nico Rosberg
- Start time: 06:00 GMT/14:00 local.
- Sebastian Vettel’s victory for Ferrari in the Australian season-opener was the Italian team’s first since 2015.
- Champions Mercedes have won 51 of 60 races since the introduction of the 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrid power units in 2014.
- Red Bull, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, were the only non-Mercedes winners last season.
- Triple world champion Lewis Hamilton has 53 career victories, putting him second in the all-time list behind Michael Schumacher (91). Vettel has 43, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso is on 32 and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen 20.
- Ferrari have won 225 races, McLaren 182, Williams 114, Mercedes 64 and Red Bull 52. McLaren and Williams have not won a race since 2012.
- Ferrari last won the opening race of the season in 2010, in Bahrain with Fernando Alonso, and last led the championship in 2012.
- The Italian team last won the first two races of a championship in 2004, with Michael Schumacher.
- Hamilton now has 62 career poles after taking the top slot in Australia. He is three short of the late Ayrton Senna’s career total and six behind Schumacher’s record 68.
- Mercedes have been on pole in 57 of the last 60 races.
- Hamilton’s second place in Melbourne was his 105th podium finish. One more and the Briton joins Alain Prost in second place on the all-time list. Schumacher has a record 155.
- The race made its debut on the calendar in 2004 and eight of the 13 Chinese Grands Prix have been won from pole.
- Hamilton is the most successful there with four wins (2008, 2011, 2014, 2015), and is the only driver to win two years in a row, while Alonso has two (2005, 2013). Vettel and team mate Kimi Raikkonen have both won once.
- Ferrari and Mercedes have won four times, McLaren three. Alonso is the only driver on the grid to have finished every race in China.
- The circuit saw Red Bull’s first F1 win in 2009.
- Last year’s race saw more overtaking than any other, according to Pirelli statistics, with 128 moves. Hamilton alone made 18 of them after starting at the back of the field.
- There were no retirements in last year’s race.
- Mercedes are making their 150th start as a constructor. They can also take their 75th pole position.
- Vettel is the first non-Mercedes driver to lead the championship in the V6 turbo hybrid era (since 2014).
Last year’s race covered by GPI Magazine: