The third race of the season brings us further east to China. Now that the teams have agreed to abandon the unpopular new elimination qualifying and return to the 2015 qualifying format, hopefully the attention will once again return to the spectacle on track.
With any luck we will be in for a treat this weekend with a close battle at the front of the grid. With Nico Rosberg taking the spoils from the first two races of the season, extending his victory run to five in a row, will his good form continue or will Lewis be able to overcome his grid gremlins and take the fight to Nico?
Last year we arrived in Shanghai off the back of a surprise victory for the Scuderia, with Sebastian Vettel winning in the heat of Malaysia. The world looked on to see if Ferrari could sustain the pressure in the lower temperatures in China, but in the end a controlled performance from Lewis Hamilton saw him take the victory ahead of his team-mate. His pace was so ‘controlled’ in fact that Rosberg was very unhappy, accusing Lewis of “unnecessarily… compromising my race” by driving too slowly and purposefully backing him into the Ferraris. Lewis responded with “It’s not my job to look after Nico’s race… If Nico wanted to get by he could try, but he didn’t”.
Many onlookers thought that Ferrari were uninspiring in their tactical choices, unlike like they were in Malaysia. An alternative strategy of a three stop race, with the much faster soft tyres bolted on at the end would put the Mercedes under real pressure. The Italian team was never going to beat them on the same strategy and the way they played it on the day was too conservative to give the Silver Arrows anything to seriously worry about. Let’s hope the same cannot be said after this year’s event.
China has had a slightly tempestuous history in F1, with the original circuit in Zhuhai intended for the top flight failing the lofty FIA standards. Determined to host a race, the Chinese government started afresh and constructed a new circuit on the reclaimed marshlands around Shanghai, with some sources estimating a total cost of $240 million dollars (which was later eclipsed by Abu Dhabi’s reported $8.5 billion expenditure on their circuit). The track was designed under the watchful eye of designer Hermann Tilke and has many hallmarks of his early work.
Shanghai has hosted a race since 2004 but has drawn criticism for only attracting a relatively small local crowd. The inaugural event attracted nearly 260,000 visitors, but this fell to nearly half that in a matter of years. Despite this F1’s Asian fanbase has slowly increased, but the arrival of a successful local driver has not yet materialised. The man closest to this achievement so far is Ma Qinghua, who was the HRT and then the Caterham team’s test driver between 2012 and 2013, becoming the first Chinese driver to participate in an official session at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix. With no offers of employment in F1, he moved on and has since become a race winning driver for Citroen in the highly competitive World Touring Car Championship instead.
The circuit was inspected in 2011 after it was found that the track was subsiding back into the swamp from which it was elevated. After some expensive foundation work to the stone pillars supporting the ground underneath the circuit the race was able to continue as planned. There have also been problems with air quality due to pollution from the nearby Shanghai city center with it’s 24 million people. The smog was so bad in 2014 that the race was nearly cancelled.
The layout of the circuit as seen from above is inspired by the Chinese character Shang (上) which forms the first part of the city’s name. It boasts the longest straight currently in F1 (at 1170m, or 11 football pitches) and a technically challenging infield section that requires a well balanced car to achieve a decent laptime.
The cars barrel under the two wing shaped bridges across the circuit (that house the media center) past the main grandstand that towers overhead. The first corner is a real challenge for the driver and the car, putting massive strain on the front left tyre as the cars start to turn in from just under 200 mph, scrubbing speed through the seemingly endless right hander that loops 270 degrees around on itself before turning sharply left. The acceleration zone out of here is slightly curved to the left, making it hard to find traction which is so important for the coming straight. Although not particularly long, a small differential in speed here can set up an overtaking move into the next tight right at Turn 6.
Any cars that remain side by side out of turn 6 have to sort themselves out through 7 and 8 as there is only one quick line through these long flowing high speed corners that rely on good downforce and once again punish the tyres. The first part is taken at 170 mph with just a slight feather of the throttle, before a short sharp dab of the brakes and smoothly transitioning right.
No time to breathe just yet as the next double left (turns 9 and 10) are critical to get good speed down the back straight. Turn 10 is another curved acceleration zone that requires a delicate right foot and good traction from the rear tyres. The heavy braking zone at the end of the DRS zone offers up another chance at an overtake, but the most sensible drivers will resist the temptation, follow their rival through here and set themselves up for a pass down the long back straight. Tilke clearly wanted emphasis on traction around this circuit, as the run onto the straight is around the tricky turns 12 and 13, which form an opening angle slightly banked curve to help pull the cars round. The cars will often squirrel here, especially if the rear tyres are starting to wear or the driver is too eager to floor the throttle.
The 1170 meter back straight is the longest in F1 and takes around 12 seconds to traverse, easily enough time for the mind to wander. The harsh braking point for the tight hairpin is critical here, it is easy to miss by a few meters when travelling at over 207 mph and sail on past the apex, losing time. Such a massive braking force is applied, remarkably demonstrated by the catastrophic failure of Sebastian Buemi’s front suspension in 2010.
Let the car run left, wide over the rumble strip while the car accelerates once again, before returning to the right side of the circuit again in preparation for the tricky final corner. The vast expanse of concrete on the exit seems to draw the cars wide like the Greek Sirens luring sailors onto the rocks. A measured approach is warranted, as attacking too much here can upset the car’s balance through the apex and easily end up losing more time than you stand to gain.
BRAKING WITH BREMBO
Despite the 14 (major) turns the circuit is not very critical for brakes on the whole since the cars are normally quite aerodynamically charged. In fact, aerodynamic resistance contributes to the deceleration of the single-seaters, helping the braking action. However, the remaining braking sections are relatively light and free of any particular difficulties for braking systems.
TYRES WITH PIRELLI
The imposing Shanghai circuit is wide, fast and flowing, with plenty of overtaking opportunities that frequently make for entertaining races. For the third time this year, the P Zero White medium, P Zero Yellow soft, and P Zero Red supersoft compounds have been nominated.
THE CIRCUIT FROM A TYRE POINT OF VIEW: Weather conditions are nearly always unpredictable, which have a big effect on tyre behaviour. As a result, graining is sometimes an issue when it’s cool: especially in the early sessions. Around 80% of the lap is spent cornering, meaning that lateral loads are a crucial factor. The track is front limited, because of all the turns and high-energy corners. The crucial corners are Turn 1, which is almost a full circle, and Turn 13, which is banked. Drivers also have to avoid wheelspin out of the corners, in order to minimise rear degradation.
THE THREE NOMINATED COMPOUNDS: White medium: a low working range compound that is one of the most versatile in the range. Yellow soft: a high working range compound with the accent on performance. Red supersoft: a low working range compound that is rapid but with a limited overall life.
HOW IT WAS A YEAR AGO: Winner: Hamilton (two stops: started on soft, changed to soft on lap 14, medium on lap 33). Best-placed alternative strategy: Massa, fifth (also stopping twice, but starting on soft, changing to medium on lap 13, then medium again on lap 34). Most drivers stopped twice, but a few drivers also tried a three-stopper. The race strategy was affected by a late safety car, which extended tyre life.
PAUL HEMBERY, PIRELLI MOTORSPORT DIRECTOR: “China is a very different type of circuit to the two that we’ve visited up to now this year, yet the tyre nomination is the same, which underlines the adaptability of our product under a wide range of circumstances. Shanghai is also likely to be quite a cool race, although the nature of the place means that anything is possible, so teams will have to keep an open mind on strategy and carefully correlate the data captured in practice to the eventual race conditions. The three compounds selected have led to a number of different tactical permutations up to now, and we expect an ample variety of strategies once more in China.”
TJ13 analysis – there are some differences between team mates choices, but don’t expect the supersoft tyres to be much use in the race due to their limited lifespan and high tyre wear nature of the circuit. Some are predicting the front runners to shed these between 4-6 laps into the race, which may put those starting in 9th or lower in a commanding position if they choose to start with the soft or medium tyres and gain track position when the leaders have to pit early. The life of the medium tyre compared to the soft in Bahrain was disappointingly poor, so going long on the medium tyre here may not provide a significant advantage here. Work done on long runs during practice on Friday will help the teams to determine the optimum tyre strategy for the race.
MEMORABLE MOMENTS FROM SHANGHAI
2006 – Michael Schumacher took his final Formula One victory in China after being able to shake off a late charge from Fernando Alonso in the Renault. He famously returned with Mercedes after a brief retirement, but never hit the heights of his first career.
2007 – Hosting the penultimate race, 2007 saw One of the most dramatic races of the season. Lewis Hamilton led the World Championship by twelve points coming into the event, but the weather was to play havoc with the order. The track was drying up and the team chose to keep him out on intermediate tyres. This proved costly, as his pace suffered and Raikkonen passed him for the lead. Lewis was still in position to win the title, but as he entered the pitlane to change his tyes (which had now worn down to the canvas), he slid off into the gravel becoming beached. He went on to lose the title by a single point in the final round in Brazil to Raikkonen.
2010 – Jenson Button led home Lewis Hamilton, the first one-two finish for British drivers in a World Championship race since the 1999 Austrian Grand Prix (where Eddie Irvine took victory ahead of David Coulthard). This race was also notable for the spectacular practice crash for Sebastian Buemi, where both of his front wheels flew off the car under heavy braking at the end of the long straight. He valiantly tried to steer the car away from the barriers, despite having no wheels left to turn!
2014 – Lewis Hamilton took a comfortable victory, but the race was memorable in that it was actually shorter than it should have been. The chequered flag was shown before the end of the race, which meant that officially the race was 54 laps rather than 56. There was no effect on the front runners, but Kamui Kobayashi had passed Jules Bianchi on the final lap, but this was not classified.
Lewis Hamilton is by far the most successful driver in China, with four race wins at the Shanghai circuit, so if he is going to break Nico’s run of form it is likely to be here. That being said, one of his early career defining moments came at the entrance to the pit-lane here in 2007, where his rookie mistake arguably cost him the World Championship in his debut season. Nico also took his first win here and feels confident about his prowess around the Shanghai circuit.
Haas kept up their impressive form in Bahrain, with one car at least. Romain Grosjean has been taking the spoils for the new American team, but Esteban Gutierrez needs to improve his pace to start to challenge Romain. He was taken out of the running in Australia and retired with a braking system issue in Bahrain, but he has not been able to match his team mate so far when the car has been running well.
Daniel Ricciardo has been producing some impressive performances in the Red Bull to pull the car to higher positions than in theory it should be, eclipsing his teammate. There are claims that the chassis performs at least as well at the Mercedes in the corners and would be a challenger if it had the power unit to match. His overtake on Marcus Ericsson here last year was a complete masterclass.
There is a relative lack of non-F1 on track action compared to most other race weekends here in China, the only other action to be found comes from the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia series.
This is the first race of 2016 for the Asia Cup, which features many local and some international drivers. The stand out talents are Mitchell Gilbert, former GP3 racer, Paul-Loup Chatin, a former European Le Mans Series LMP2 champion and Bao Jin Long who is returning to compete in his third season of Carrera Cup Asia.
|2009||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|