Formula One has now said farewell to Europe and this coming weekend's Chinese Grand Prix leads the way to the title showdown in the last three races of the 2006 season. And it couldn't get much closer; with just two points between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher and three between Ferrari and Renault there's no clear-cut advantage in either championship fight.
The 5.5 km Shanghai International Circuit is an impressive, modern facility with a wide track and a mixture of high speed straights and tight, twisty corners. The width gives good opportunities for overtaking while the layout is challenging for drivers and teams alike -- especially the very long right-handed turn one.
"The main consequence is that it puts the emphasis on graining and wear on the front left tyre," said Toyota chassis chief Pascal Vasselon. "At turn one you see the highest loads on the steering system from the entire season because of the combination of very high cornering and braking accelerations all together."
For the tyre manufacturers Shanghai is unusual, as for each of the three races at the circuit, including this one, there have been different tyre rules in place. "Consequently we have had to work just as hard as we did in each of the two previous years to make sure we select appropriate products," said Michelin director Nick Shorrock.
"Shanghai is a very distinctive track, with a couple of slow corners that seem to go on forever and two very long straights. At some points cars reach speeds well in excess of 300kph (186mph). Good traction is imperative for the twisty parts of the circuit, although tyres are subjected to fewer mechanical/thermal demands here than they are at some other venues."
The circuit is generally popular with the drivers, especially Honda's Rubens Barrichello. "The Shanghai circuit is extremely impressive but more importantly it has a challenging track layout," he said. "The venue holds some pretty special memories for me as I won the very first Grand Prix there from pole position in 2004 which was a great weekend."
Renault won the constructors' title in China last year but this time drivers' standings leader Alonso knows it will be a tough race. "We have been saying all year that you cannot predict what will happen on track, with the competition being so close," he commented. "Instead, we are focused on our objectives, and that means qualifying at the front and winning the race. That will be the target."
Many think that Ferrari has the upper hand at the moment but, while that may be true, Schumacher hasn't had much luck at Shanghai. In 2004, after a spin in qualifying he started from the pit lane and finished 12th and last year he also started from the pit lane, after crashing with the Minardi of Christijan Albers on the way to the grid, then spun off in the race.
"I still have a point to prove at Shanghai," the German conceded. "Both races I have disputed here have not gone very well… however, we have a better all round set up and hope to improve the result. Our aim is clear: we have to focus on the title. I feel that our best chance lies in the constructors' championship. Obviously I would like to claim both crowns and we will be going all out."
Ferrari's two point lead in the constructors' has been in no small part due to Schumacher's teammate Felipe Massa. The Brazilian has proved his worth this season and is currently third in the drivers' standings, ahead of Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella. Behind Ferrari and Renault there have been disappointing performances from two teams that really should have been in the title fight as well.
Honda is the only outfit that has ascended to the top step aside from the above two, it and Jenson Button's maiden win in Hungary. It may have been as much circumstances as performance but with the likes of Alonso, Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen out of the way, Button came through. He and teammate Barrichello have been on the Shanghai podium before.
"We go to China encouraged by our recent race performances and our most recent test in Jerez which was our last opportunity to evaluate all the developments that we intend to use in the final three races," said Honda sporting director Gil de Ferran. "Hopefully we can maintain our steady progression in performance and be fighting at the front of the field yet again."
McLaren has yet to win a race this season, which presumably aided Raikkonen's decision to depart for Ferrari in 2007. The Finn will replace the retiring Schumacher but before his tenure with the Woking squad is over he aims to get that victory. "So far in China I have finished in third and second and my aim for this year is to take the top step of the podium with Team McLaren Mercedes," Raikkonen stated.
There's only three points between BMW Sauber and Toyota for fifth in the constructors' which is no doubt quite pleases the former but not the latter. In its first season as a team in its own right BMW has scored two podium finishes, third each for Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica, which is more than the team was actually expecting.
Kubica is making a favourable impression and hopes to continue to do so in is first race for the team outside Europe. "The layout of the Shanghai International Circuit looks very interesting and it is characterised by a couple of very original corners," he said. "When I drive it for the first time, I will be able to draw on the F1 race experience I've now built up. It will be my fourth grand prix and I hope it will be a successful one."
Red Bull has changes to its driver line-up for this weekend. Tester Robert Doornbos steps up to the second race seat to replace Christian Klien, while GP2 racer Michael Ammerm?ller takes Doornbos' Friday third driver role. Ammerm?ller, who tested for Red Bull at Jerez last week, will also be in the third cockpit for Japan.
"Working with the team at the test in Jerez it was obvious it has big ambitions, which is very motivating," the German commented. "I'm now completely focused on my task ahead. I'll be looking to learn as much as possible and I'm in the right place and with the right team to be able to do that."
With only three races left and the championships finely balanced, there's not going to be anything less than fighting talk from those involved. Both Ferrari and Renault and Alonso and Schumacher are capable of doing what's necessary so anything is possible. If I had to hazard a guess at the ultimate outcome I would say Alonso for the drivers' and Ferrari for the constructors' -- but ask me again after this weekend.