Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
Shanghai International Circuit will host round three of the FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) 2012 Formula One World Championship: the Chinese Grand Prix. The 5.4451 km long circuit has two long straights, but DRS will only be set up for the 1175 meter long backstretch, the FIA announced.
The circuit has 16 corners, seven left and nine right handed, and the end of the long straights are excellent overtaking opportunities. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton is the only driver who won the Chinese Grand Prix twice; he won the race in 2008 and in 2011. It is also the circuit where Red Bull scored their maiden Formula One victory in 2009 courtesy to Sebastian Vettel.
After two races Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso is thanks to his unexpected victory in Malaysia leading the Drivers’ Championship with 35 points, followed by Hamilton with 30 points and his team mate Jenson Button is third with 25 points. The Constructors’ Championship is led by McLaren with 55 points, Red Bull is second with 42 points, and Ferrari third with 35 points.
One thing that has become very clear this season is that Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel are no longer able to dominate; Vettel is only sixth in the Drivers’ Championship.
Red Bull aim to beat McLaren
According to current World Champion Vettel, McLaren is their main rival. “McLaren seems very strong right now. They are the team to beat,” he said ahead of the race. About the circuit he said, “The track in China is unique due to its size. The broad track leaves enough space for overtaking moves and there are very big run off areas – even the usually tight pit areas in Shanghai have a lot of space.”
About the start of the season he was clear, “I admit, the first two races weren't exactly perfect but they weren't that bad either. We proved we can able to compete with the strongest teams and that's very important.” But the young German is confident he will bounce back, “We now have 18 more races ahead of us and we will do all we can to defend our titles. I have total faith in the team, the car and myself. There's still much for us to do, but together as a team we can accomplish anything.”
And to ensure progress is possible, Red Bull will bring several updates to Shanghai. Adrian Newey, designer and Chief Technical Officer, “We have shown good race pace, but we know we need to make a step in qualifying. In order to evaluate our most recent upgrades, we will run two different specifications of the RB8 in China on Friday.”
And he added, “Based on feedback and preference shown by both drivers, Mark [Webber] will test an updated evolution of the set-up used for the Malaysian GP, while Sebastian [Vettel] will run a pre-season specification. We will then compare the results.”
Thus Red Bull will run a split strategy this weekend, which could also be the case for McLaren, as they already have encountered their first setback before the race has even started.
Mixed fortunes for McLaren
Beating McLaren this weekend has become a bit easier as Hamilton has incurred a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox, so he will certainly not leave from pole position this weekend. A major setback for the 2009 World Champion and he commented to the UK Telegraph, “Luck just hasn't been on my side, but it will swing my way sooner or later.”
About McLaren being forced into the favorites role he said, “I don't think the pecking order has settled down yet, it's important to get some good results in the bag while we can. It will be very interesting to see how the order has shaken itself out over the last three weeks - it's going to be an interesting weekend.” So far Hamilton has been consistent; his two third places are enough for second place in the championship.
Button won the season opener in Australia, but a somewhat clumsy overtaking maneuver on the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan during the Malaysian Grand Prix did cost him dearly as he finished in 14th place outside the points. “It makes you a little keener to get back in the cockpit as you’re always a bit more determined to be looking ahead rather than looking back,” Button said about his Malaysian misfortune.
But it is time to look forward and the 2009 Champion was philosophical about this weekend, “The three-week break has been extremely relaxing -- I was able to get away, relax and keep training. It’s still the start of a very long season, so it’s good to keep fit and refreshed. I’ve usually gone well in Shanghai, it’s a circuit I really enjoy and I’m looking forward to the race weekend.”
A good car setup is of paramount importance Button thinks, “There will be the usual set-up compromises: setting the car up to offer good downforce through some of the faster corners, but without sacrificing too much speed along the straights. We saw different teams address that balance in different ways over the first two races, so it will be interesting to see if things start to converge this weekend.”
Did Mercedes get a grip on their tyre problems?
Whether ‘things will converge’ is also the question for the Mercedes team, as they have had problems with the Pirellis, the Mercedes seems to wear out the tyres very quickly, and tyre usage during the race has now become their main concern.
“Since the last race in Malaysia, the team has conducted analysis of our tyre usage during the first two rounds, and how we can improve. The Chinese Grand Prix will provide an answer on our progress, although weather conditions and circuit characteristics will be different to either Melbourne or Malaysia,” Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug said.
Team Principal Ross Brawn about the tyre issues, “In both races, our problems have been related to getting the tyres into the correct working window.” And he explained, “However, at each race it was at different ends of the scale: in Melbourne, we overheated the tyres. In Malaysia, having done a lot of work in practice to make sure we didn't suffer from the same problem, the cooler conditions on Sunday dropped us out of the window again.”
Asked about the prospects for China Brawn replied: “Our analysis since Malaysia has given us an even better understanding, and we have plans and actions in place to improve our tyre management. We clearly have a reasonably quick car -- we have shown that in qualifying -- and now we have to convert our speed into race performance.”
Both drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg are optimistic, Rosberg commented about the Shanghai circuit, “The track is quite different to the first two, as it demands more from the front tyres than the rears -- in other words, what is termed a front-limited circuit. We know that we have a quick car, but we are looking to improve our long run pace in China and to have a better race performance.”
Schumacher is also confident Mercedes has worked hard on the race-pace, “ I've never had much luck in Shanghai, apart from my win in 2006; however that could change this year. In the first two races of 2012, we didn't manage to maintain our qualifying pace in race conditions. We've been working intensively on this, so that we can offer our fans a strong performance in China.”
FIA rejects Lotus protest against Mercedes DRS F-Duct
And there is of course the F-Duct Mercedes has designed, a very clever device that uses the DRS wing flap and a hole in the rear wing endplates to stall the front and rear wing, other teams have tried to copy it but so far had no luck. The F-Duct is incorporated into the design of the Mercedes chassis, and rival teams have found it is very difficult to lead the air from the rear wing through channels in the car all the way to the front wing.
Other teams are already working on their own version, but McLaren’s Paddy Lowe has admitted his team was reluctant to copy the design until they are absolutely sure it is legal. The same goes for Red Bull, Team Principal Christian Horner said.
Horner explained, “Before we pursue constructing parts and expense to it, for us it's quite important to know that, yes, it's going to be permissible for the rest of the year. And quite often we see technical clarifications come out that deem things to be not in compliance with the regulations.”
Today Lotus had lodged a formal protest against the Super DRS system as it now has been nicknamed, previously the FIA had ruled the design was legal. An official statement said, “A protest has been lodged by Lotus F1 team concerning the Technical Delegate's scrutineering report (Document 5) of today's date regarding cars 7 & 8 relating to their conformity with Article 3.15 of the FIA F1 Technical Regulations. Accordingly a hearing of the parties concerned (namely Lotus F1 Team and Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team) is convened for 17.15 today Thursday April 12th 2012.”
Article 3.15 of the FIA Technical Regulations states: “With the exception of the parts necessary for the adjustment described in Article 3.18 (which describes the DRS wing flap), any car system, device or procedure which uses driver movement as a means of altering the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is prohibited.”
This article refers to the old McLaren 2010 F-Duct, which was operated by the driver closing a hole in the cockpit with his arm or leg, Lotus claimed pressing the DRS button in the cockpit is also a ‘driver movement’ and therefore the device is illegal, but it was a far-fetched argument.
That was also what the FIA thought and they rejected the Lotus protest, and in a statement they said, “The stewards decided unanimously that the protest is dismissed.”
No changes for Ferrari
Despite the unexpected victory in Malaysia, Ferrari is still adamant they have a lot of work to do on their 2012 car, and star driver Fernando Alonso believes ‘nothing has changed’ and he therefore expects a very difficult Chinese Grand Prix. “I'm not expecting any surprises in this race, compared to what we saw in Australia and Malaysia,” the Spaniard said. And he added, “We will have a few small updates, but nothing particularly significant and on top of that, we can expect that the other teams will also bring some new parts.”
Not only that, Alonso even expects Ferrari will struggle to get into Q3 on Saturday, “I feel the general picture will be the same as at the last two races. This means we will struggle to get through into Q3 on Saturday and then on Sunday, we will be hoping to get a good start and then do a good job of tyre management.”
Technical Director Pat Fry is even more pessimistic and stated Ferrari is still some 0.8 seconds slower than their rivals and still has a lot of problems to solve. “We are constantly working on improving the issues we have. New parts are coming through and we are trying to get them to the race track as quickly as possible -- We will have five updates for China, some are quite visible others less so,” said Fry. And he admitted, “The car is quite difficult to drive and Fernando [Alonso] has managed to get the most out of it, while with Felipe [Massa], we have struggled to find the right balance to keep him happy.”
Felipe Massa, who is still very much aware his seat at Ferrari is at stake, is hoping for a problem-free Chinese Grand Prix. “I really hope I can have a normal Grand Prix without problems, right from Friday: that is fundamental to being able to finally get a good result,” he said.
And he added, “We will have to try and squeeze every last drop out of what we have. It's a tricky time for me and it cannot go on and I really don't want it to that's for sure. I know there is plenty of criticism of me from the outside, but I'm used to that, as it's certainly not the first time it has happened. I feel the team has faith in me and that's what matters.”
Grand Prix China, Shanghai International Circuit
|Shanghai International Circuit||Shanghai, China|
|Circuit length||5.451 km|
|Corners||16 turns – 7 left, 9 right|
|Longest straight||1175 m|
|Total number of race laps||56|
|Total race distance||305.066 km|
|Top speed||330 km/h|
|Average speed||205 km/h|
|Tyre compounds||Medium [Prime - White] / Soft [Option - Yellow]|
|Brake wear||Low to Medium|
|Downforce level||Medium to high|
|Lap record||1:32.238 M. Schumacher – Ferrari 2004|
|2011 Pole Position||Sebastian Vettel - Red Bull Racing - 1m33.706|
|2011 Race Winner||Lewis Hamilton - McLaren - 1h36m58.226|
|Speed limits in the pit lane||60 km/h during practice sessions - 100 km/h during qualifying and race|
|FIA Stewards||Emanuele Pirro (I), Gary Connelly (AUS) and Vincenzo Spano (VEN)|
Shanghai three-day weather forecast
|Day||Forecast||Min Temperature||Max Temperature|
|Friday||Cloudy, possible rain showers, cool weather||10C||14C|
|Saturday||Cloudy, but dry, cool weather||12C||15C|
|Sunday||Cloudy, possible rain showers, cool weather||13C||15C|
Pirelli tyre report
According to Pirelli, the Chinese Grand Prix will be technically the most demanding race of the season, and tyre strategies will play an important role. The Italian manufacturer will bring the medium (white marked) and soft (yellow marked) tyres to Shanghai. The circuit has two long straights with heavy braking areas and long fast sweeping corners that will be very demanding for the tyres. Pirelli expects a three-stop strategy in dry race conditions.
Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery commented, “China proved to be one of the most fascinating races in our first year, with tyre strategy at the heart of it, so we have a tough act to follow. However, the philosophy we have adopted this year actually extends the window of peak performance on the slick tyres, which means that the drivers should be able to race harder and closer. Although ambient temperatures can be quite low in China, tyre degradation is traditionally high due to the unique track layout.”
Raikkonen still happy with Lotus
The Finn, now seventh in the championship thanks to a seventh place in Australia and a fifth place in Malaysia is still happy with his Lotus team, but more importantly is also happy with his car. “The E20 certainly feels good. We’re working to get the steering exactly right for me -- and we’re almost there. The speed in the car is good -- and this applies to qualifying and race pace,” an optimistic Raikkonen said.
About qualifying the Iceman stated, “At Sepang it could have been better. I made a couple of mistakes in the final run in Q3. I lost some time there, so it could have been better than fifth, fourth or even third. I felt the speed was there in the car. Obviously, it was a good car to qualify.”
And what about the Shanghai circuit, will it suit the Lotus? “It’s quite similar to Albert Park and Sepang in what it requires from the car so that should be good for us. We have some new parts for the E20 so that should also be good,” Raikkonen said. And he added, “It’s a proper race track and there are good opportunities for overtaking. Our car looks good so let’s see what happens when we get out on track.”
For Romain Grosjean the Chinese track is new, and after a very disappointing first two races of the season, he retired from both races, the Frenchman hopes his 2012 season will finally kick-off in China. Like Raikkonen, he is happy with the Lotus E20. “We can certainly say that we have good performance from the car. We’ve got through to Q3 at both races so the car is performing very well,” he remarked.
Team Principal Eric Boullier is satisfied with his drivers, “Considering that both have come back from two years away from Formula 1, their performances have been strong. Kimi has shown that he hasn’t lost any pace. He is both quick in qualifying, and very consistent in the race. His tyre management, also, is quite impressive, while his technical feedback is extremely precise.” And what about Grosjean? “Romain has shown a good pace also. He just needs to get some race laps completed -- his season starts in China,” the Frenchman said.
The young guns
Sauber’s Sergio Perez was without a doubt the surprise of the Malaysian Grand Prix, he almost grabbed his maiden victory but had to be satisfied with a well-deserved second place after he had made a mistake during the final few laps of the race. A great performance by the Mexican, but he is already completely focused on this weekend’s race. “I’m very much focused on thinking about further improvements and continued with my training programme. We all have to keep our heads down and work hard,” he said.
And he added, “Our car can be competitive and we have to make the most of it. Last year initially I had a good race in Shanghai, but then I had contact with some other cars towards the end of the Grand Prix and was penalised.”
Force India has two young guns, Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg. Both drivers are happy with the results so far this season, and di Resta commented, “I think the whole team is pleased to have nine points on the board after two races. We’ve seen how close all the teams are this year and getting points isn’t easy, so it feels good to start as we mean to continue.”
Hulkenberg agrees with di Resta, “Because the midfield is so compact nobody can afford to relax. We all need to push hard to improve performance and with 18 races still to go there’s plenty of time to do that.”
And then there is Williams with Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna. Sadly Williams hasn’t been able to repeat the same results they had during pre-season testing, but at least they have already scored more points in the previous two races than in the 2011 season altogether. Toro Rosso has a good car this season, but Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo will have to work hard to keep scoring some points.
The favorites for the podium in China
The number one favorite for a victory at the Shanghai circuit is Button who only needs to get a fourth place during qualifying to start the race ahead of his team mate Hamilton who has a five-place grid penalty. But of course he won’t be satisfied with a fourth qualifying place, pole position must be his goal, and as we have seen recently, Button’s qualifying pace is very good, the previous two races he left the start grid from second position.
And according to Hamilton, he still has a change for the victory. “We have still got a quick car and we will try and put ourselves in the best position possible to have the right strategy and to be quick enough that we can still fight for the lead,” he said when he arrived in Shanghai.
Vettel is no longer the King of Qualifying but the race pace of his Red Bull is good, although the car is not as fast as the McLarens. Neither Vettel nor Mark Webber will give up until the chequered flag is waved, Webber is actually leading Vettel in the championship and from his point of view it is important to keep that advantage as he is still poised to prove, also for his own peace of mind, he is not the second driver of the team.
Schumacher and Rosberg are still waiting for their first podium place for Mercedes, if they can solve the problems with the tyres they certainly will end up on the podium this season, the Mercedes is fast during qualifying where it can take full advantage of the DRS operated F-Duct.
Perez was close to his maiden victory in Malaysia, but that was during a wet race, on a dry track it will be more difficult to score a podium position. Raikkonen hasn’t lost his magic and is still as fast as in his Ferrari days, with less problems and a bit more luck he could be on the podium in Shanghai.
It was Alonso’s lucky day in Malaysia, but do not underestimate the double World Champion. He is a master in sprinting away at the start and very often manages to gain four to six places where others struggle to get a good start. Once ahead, the Spaniard is very hard to overtake, and it could very well be that he will be on the podium this weekend.
And last but not least there is the weather, there is some rain expected on Friday and Sunday. But rain showers of the magnitude as we have seen in Malaysia are not expected, a pity, because rain is the great equalizer and creates opportunities for those who normally do not stand much of a chance in Formula One …