By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
The Chinese Shanghai International Circuit will host round three of the FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) 2011 Formula One Championship. The Shanghai circuit has the longest straight, 1170 meters, of all 19 circuits on the 2011 calendar. The circuit is located 30 kilometers northwest of China's business capital Shanghai, Hermann Tilke designed the circuit with a layout that offers seven left turns and nine right turns, and a 330 km/h back straight leading into a hairpin that is good for overtaking because it is unusually wide.
During its seven years of history seven different drivers have won this event, the first Chinese Grand Prix was held in 2004, and was won by then Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello, last year Jenson Button won the race for McLaren. The circuit is also renown for it’s unpredictable weather, four out of the five last races have been affected by rain. The track has been resurfaced on the approaches of Turns 1, 8, 11 and 14, and a new debris fence has been installed at Turn 14.
Sauber’s Technical Director James Key about the circuit: “The track has some interesting challenges. It has a long straight at the back, some quite tricky slow speed corners in the middle of the lap and there are these unwinding and winding in profiles of corners, which are important for traction and braking stability, particularly under lateral load. It will be interesting to see how the tyres cope and the car copes with that, with much depending on how the weather conditions are.”
Vettel denies Red Bull dominance, Webber must improve
Sebastian Vettel could score his fifth win in succession in China, he won the last two races of 2010, and the first two races of 2011. He started from pole position during five of the last six Grands Prix, and from what we have seen so far this season, he has a very good chance to start the race on Sunday again from pole position. Vettel, who currently leads the championship with 50 points, rejects the idea he and his Red Bull Racing team will totally dominate the 2011 season.
At the moment things are looking good, but there is still a very long way to go
”Two out two is perfect, it couldn't be any better,' said Vettel. “At the moment things are looking good, but there is still a very long way to go,” the young German commented. He emphasized the season has just begun, and it is too early to speak of a Red Bull dominance, “The championship is far away and there are a lot of points still to get, so we have to keep our feet on the ground, Of course, we worked hard over the winter to get to this position, and we can be very proud of ourselves.” And added, “We have to keep our heads cool, keep working, keep pushing, but I am not worried to be honest. All the guys know this is the only way forward.”
Meanwhile his team colleague Mark Webber has a lot of catching up to do, the Australian was certainly not happy with the results of his last two races, and is currently a joined third in the championship, 28 points behind Vettel. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is convinced Webber will bounce back. “He is one of the strongest drivers and I know he will get back,” he said. “I have no doubts his time will come this season, absolutely. In difficult weekends he has picked up a fifth and a fourth place, and they will all count at the end of the day,” the Briton commented.
Webber as always remains optimistic, “There’s no reason why the RB7 can’t be competitive at this race” he said. “I’m not underestimating our rivals because McLaren in particular have done a phenomenal job to turn around the performance of their car. But we have a great car as well; it’s already won a couple of races this year and it’ll win some more.”
Another race is on in China
There is another race going on within the championship: the race to quickly design and build new parts to improve the car. Formula One has changed over the past few years, and like last year teams are frantically trying to keep up with the leader of the pack, Red Bull Racing. In 2009 teams were in a race to copy the famous Brawn GP double diffuser, in 2010 it was the clever McLaren F-Duct system, this year engineers are concentrating on the blown diffuser and the by Red Bull used exhaust system which is also designed to extract the maximum performance from the blown diffuser.
How the Red Bull exhaust system exactly works is a closely guarded secret, a few teams have tried to copy the exhaust lay-out, but were not able to get the same results as Red Bull. Although teams are pushing hard, with the back-to-back races in Malaysia and China, there is very little time to improve the car, and most teams will only have minor aerodynamical upgrades.
The struggling Williams team is aiming for a top ten position and Barrichello will have a complete new exhaust system on his car. Force India, will have a few minor upgrades, and even the financially plagued HRT team have a few upgrades with which the even hope to beat Marussia Virgin and Team Lotus. Team Principal Colin Kolles. “We will have small improvements regarding the rear wing and, overall, aerodynamic improvements. The track is quite impressive and we’ll be looking to make the most of our new parts on the car.”
For the teams who do not have the resources to quickly produce new car parts, there is little else to do than to race with same aero parts as they have used in Malaysia, and some teams have therefore no high expectations ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix. Marussia Virgin team principal John Booth said the team is working on updates for the Turkish Grand Prix, but have no updates for China, ”We’re in a bit of a holding pattern performance wise. The best job we can do right now is to keep pushing ourselves operationally and strategically, as we have done over the first two races, to ensure that when the car is improved we are in the strongest possible position to take advantage of every opportunity.”
Red Bull too aim for improvement
While other teams are wondering how to break Red Bull’s dominance, the Austrian team will also introduce a significant improvement for the RB7 according to Red Bull consultant Helmut Marko. Although the team is way ahead of the others, they are not sitting idle. “Yes, we are currently ahead of the others,” Marko said, “but they are moving quickly and things could be different very soon. That's what we have to avoid” And added, “We will introduce a significant improvement in China. I cannot say what it is, but it is necessary because standing still in Formula One is tantamount to stepping backwards.”
Standing still in Formula One is tantamount to stepping backwards
The Red Bull RB7 however does have an Achilles heel: the KERS system which was designed and developed in-house. Adrian Newey already indicated the system is still in its infancy and it will probably take a few races to improve an perfect the system. In Australia they didn’t have the system, and Malaysia both drivers were specifically told not to use it, as it still has reliability problems. KERS will play a major factor in China, and without it, it will be difficult for Vettel and Webber to defend their position on the long straight after Turn 13.
Last weekend Webber had a problem with KERS at the start that cost him a lot of places. Horner explains the problem: “The KERS went into safe mode, an electrical issue we haven't seen before. So he had the combination of a bad start and no KERS at the second-longest run to the first corner.” It will be interesting to see whether this time Red Bull has overcome the technical issues and is confident enough to use the system during the race, but the comments of Newey and Horner are not optimistic, and it is possible Red Bull is in for another race without KERS.
McLaren duo determined to fight back
Lewis Hamilton was disappointed after his penalty in Malaysia, but is now entirely focused on the Chinese Grand Prix. “It’s always best to put a disappointing weekend behind you, and, as always, I’ll make a positive of the experience in Malaysia and learn from it,” the 2008 champion said. And Hamilton added, ”With China only a few days away, it’s the best possible way to move on: I’m already throwing myself into my preparations -- I’ll spend a few days training and come back feeling fresh for Shanghai.”
Both drivers are encouraged by the race pace of the McLaren, and they think they will be able to battle with Red Bull this weekend. “In both races, we’ve seen that Red Bull hasn’t been able to achieve its full potential, and I think it’s important that we keep applying the pressure to make sure they can’t afford to make mistakes,” Hamilton said.
Button, who scored his first podium of the season in Malaysia, agrees McLaren should keep the pressure on, “We’ve made no secret of our desire to take the fight to Red Bull, and we’re fully aware that stronger opposition will make it harder for them to have a smooth and uninterrupted weekend.” And the Briton added, “Malaysia showed that the sharp-end of the grid is incredibly competitive, and that there are at least four teams that can expect to fight for the podium this weekend.”
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh is confident about the race, “We’ll be spending Friday evaluating a number of new components alongside our regular tyre and set-up programs. We have a number of new parts that we want to evaluate on Friday -- either for potential incorporation into our program for the Shanghai race, or as part of longer-term development strategy.” And Whitmarsh emphasized McLaren’s developing program could be the key to success, “The development race is where this year’s world championship will be won or lost.”
The development race is where this year’s world championship will be won or lost
Ferrari expecting difficult weekend
Ferrari are especially worried about their qualifying pace, and the Italian team is puzzled by the lack of performance they have displayed during previous qualification sessions. “The main problem we need to deal with is our performance the day before the race in qualifying which is not at the same level as the teams that are currently best,” team principal Stefano Domenicali said.
“It is vital for us to react immediately, because we have seen how rapidly things can change in Formula One. Back at the factory we have to have a big push to understand our lack of performance. We need to push a lot to upgrade our aero package because aerodynamics is the key to it all.” But he was not certain whether the upgrades would be available at Shanghai, “We will try and bring as quickly as possible the upgrades, maybe already in China.”
Alonso, who is currently sixth in the championship, 30 points behind Vettel, has downplayed his chances to catch up with the German champion, “Clearly, I would like to always be fighting for the win but, at the moment, one car, Vettel's Red Bull, seems to be out of reach.” Asked about what his goal is he replied: “Our aim in this Grand Prix will be similar to the one in Malaysia, which means to make the best of qualifying and try to exploit any opportunity that comes our way during the race. As we had already seen in Australia, and once again in Malaysia, our race pace was much better than that in qualifying.”
Despite the poor results, Felipe Massa is still in good spirits, “I hope that we see a further improvement from the second to the third race even if the improvements so far have not been enough for us to win a race.” There will be no major car upgrades for Ferrari in China though, but Massa hopes the car will nevertheless improve. “We have a few new components here but nothing major, although I hope that even small updates will bring us a little improvement compared to the last race, but it doesn’t mean we will have a different car, definitely not,” the Brazilian added.
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||Hard [Prime - Silver] / Soft [Option - Red]|
|Brake wear||Low to Medium|
|Downforce level||Medium to high|
|Lap record||1:32.238 M. Schumacher – Ferrari 2004|
|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, thunderstorms and heavy showers||12C||26C|
|Saturday||Cloudy, but dry and cold weather||6C||13C|
|Sunday||Sunny, no clouds and warmer||9C||19C|
Pirelli Shanghai Notes
Pirelli brings again the Soft (Options) and Hard (Primes} tyre compounds to China for the third race of the season. It is expected the temperatures will be lower than in Malaysia, and Pirelli expects tyre wear will be less severe, as the Chinese circuit has a smooth surface. The circuit is demanding for the brakes, which according to Pirelli ‘tends to put more stress on the front tyres than the rears.’ In severe braking zones, the car and tyres are subjected to deceleration forces equivalent to 5G.
Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery is this time very reluctant to predict how many pit stops will be made in China. “So far we have accurately predicted two pit stops in Australia and three in Malaysia but we’ll have to wait until we see the data after Friday free practice before having a completely clear idea of what to expect in China,” he said.
Again teams will have one extra set of hard tyres available for Friday’s first free practice session, the extra set has to be returned before the second free practice session commences. “In Australia we saw then that it worked well, allowing the teams to maximize their track time and prepare as thoroughly as possible for the race, so we’d like to give them the same opportunity again, Hemberey said.
Webber is optimistic about the expected tyre wear, “I’m expecting tyre degradation to be somewhere between what we saw in Melbourne and Malaysia,” says Mark. “The track temperature isn’t going to be as high in China as it was in Malaysia, but there are more fast corners here than in Melbourne. Wear rates will be somewhere between the two tracks.”
Drivers and the FIA will be interested to see if the ‘marbles’ will again pose problems, several drivers have complained about the enormous amount of chunks of rubber that accumulate outside the racing line. Most notably, Alonso has voiced his concerns about the tricky conditions the marbles create for drivers. “There is some concern that you catch a lapped car, they let you past, you go inside, you take some marbles and then on the next corner you miss the braking point and you go straight,” the double world champion said.
Others like Vettel and Paul di Resta were worried about the chunks of rubber that are fired from the cars ahead, and referred to them as ‘flying bullets’. Hembery already said the quantity of marbles is the result of the fast degradation of the tyres, and said ‘the marbles have to go somewhere’. In his opinion, the only alternative would be to go back to the more durable tyres, which is certainly not likely to happen in the near future. On average each tyre will lose about 1500 gram of weight in the form of marbles, but as the Shanghai circuit is less abrasive, it is expected there will be less rubber on the circuit than in Malaysia.
The FIA has set up the DRS or Drag Reduction System for the Chinese Shanghai circuit, the detection zone will be between Turns 11 and 13, and the activation zone, the zone where a drivers is allowed to use his DRS if he was closer than one second behind a driver in the detection zone, starts at the exit of Turn 13 at the start of the long straight, giving drivers ample opportunity to use the device. The distance from the first part of the activation zone until the entrance of the following Turn 14, a sharp hairpin bend, is according to the FIA exactly 920 meters.
The long straight will again test the effectiveness of KERS and DRS, Force India drivers di Resta about his expectations of the adjustable wing, “It will be interesting to see how the DRS activation works with the rear wing in Shanghai because if its going to work anywhere that's where it will be because it has a very long straight.”
Beating Red Bull and Vettel remains the prime target
There will be a few interesting things to watch in China. Will McLaren, Ferrari, or perhaps even Lotus Renault be able to break Red Bull’s winning streak? Ferrari doesn’t have high hopes ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix, and they could settle for a strategy to just limit the damage, McLaren is optimistic and expect the new upgrades will again enhance the performance of the MP4-26. Lotus Renault have proven the R30 has a great potential, and they remain a dangerous outsider who can score a podium position when others fail to do so.
Pit stop strategy will be again the most important factor, as is the management of the tyres. Finally, the weather could play a major role, as it has done in the past. McLaren is the only team that so far has managed to close in on Red Bull, Button is second in the championship with 26 points, and Lewis Hamilton on a joined third place with 22 points. Therefore Button is theoretically the only driver who could take over Vettel’s leading position, but he will need all the luck he can get to achieve just that; follow all the news about the Chinese Grand Prix here on Motorsport.com this weekend.