Grid of surprises promises another China thriller

2012 Chinese Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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It’s not often that a dry qualifying session produces a grid quite as surprising as this one.

We have a pair of Mercedes on the front row – though recent form suggests they may struggle to sustain their advantage in the race.

That could open the way for row two starters Kamui Kobayashi and Kimi Raikkonen to seize the intiative.

Lined up behind them are a host of quick drivers looking to break through and score a win, including Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton.

Last year’s Chinese Grand Prix was rated the most exciting of the year, and this grid promises another gripping Grand Prix in Shanghai.

The start

Nico Rosberg will no doubt be very pleased with his maiden pole position but he should beware – the pole sitter at this race has been third at the end of lap one in the last two years.

Granted, on one occasion that was because Fernando Alonso had jumped the start.

But even so Rosberg should be prepared to fend off Michael Schumacher and Kamui Kobayashi, who tend to make good starts.

As the racing line crosses the start/finish area, neither side has a particularly strong advantage over the other. The expected overnight rain will also have washed away the surface deposits of rubber and evened out the differences between the two.


Tomorrow’s race is set to be dry and all nine of the drivers who set times in Q3 will start on the soft tyres.

Pole sitter Rosberg saved a set of new soft tyres by only doing a single lap in Q3. This should help him in the race, but even so Mercedes are concerned over their car’s performance over a race distance.

They had excess tyre degradation in Australia, and exhibited signs of the same in practice yesterday. However in Malaysia they had the opposite problem – failing to heat the tyres sufficiently, which meant they couldn’t get them into the operating window.

If Mercedes have cracked that problem – and it’s a big ‘if’ – they’re in a good position for the race.

Sauber have one of the kindest cars to its tyres, which should play into Kobayashi’s hands – especially if he can get away with making one fewer pit stop than his rivals.

Lotus’s form this weekend has been much harder to read. They binned several of their planned upgrades and their performance has varied as the temperature has risen and fallen. But the team came into this weekend hoping for a “normal” race in which they could show off their potential and so far they look likely to get it.

Lewis Hamilton was quick throughout practice and is optimistic about his chances despite being relegated to seventh on the grid: “I’ve set my car up to be at its strongest in the race.

“So, although Jenson and I are a little bit further back than we’d like, and we’ve got a bit of work to do, we can still make it. There’s a good group of drivers ahead of us on the grid, but we’re right with them in terms of race pace.

“This is a track where you can overtake, and we’ve got DRS too – so I’m massively excited about tomorrow.”

He’s not the only one. This has the makings of a humdinger of a race.

Qualifying times in full


Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Nico RosbergMercedes1’36.8751’35.725 (-1.150)1’35.121 (-0.604)
2Lewis HamiltonMcLaren1’36.7631’35.902 (-0.861)1’35.626 (-0.276)
3Michael SchumacherMercedes1’36.7971’35.794 (-1.003)1’35.691 (-0.103)
4Kamui KobayashiSauber1’36.8631’35.853 (-1.010)1’35.784 (-0.069)
5Kimi RaikkonenLotus1’36.8501’35.921 (-0.929)1’35.898 (-0.023)
6Jenson ButtonMcLaren1’36.7461’35.942 (-0.804)1’36.191 (+0.249)
7Mark WebberRed Bull1’36.6821’35.700 (-0.982)1’36.290 (+0.590)
8Sergio PerezSauber1’36.1981’35.831 (-0.367)1’36.524 (+0.693)
9Fernando AlonsoFerrari1’36.2921’35.982 (-0.310)1’36.622 (+0.640)
10Romain GrosjeanLotus1’36.3431’35.903 (-0.440)
11Sebastian VettelRed Bull1’36.9111’36.031 (-0.880)
12Felipe MassaFerrari1’36.5561’36.255 (-0.301)
13Pastor MaldonadoWilliams1’36.5281’36.283 (-0.245)
14Bruno SennaWilliams1’36.6741’36.289 (-0.385)
15Paul di RestaForce India1’36.6391’36.317 (-0.322)
16Nico HulkenbergForce India1’36.9211’36.745 (-0.176)
17Daniel RicciardoToro Rosso1’36.9331’36.956 (+0.023)
18Jean-Eric VergneToro Rosso1’37.714
19Heikki KovalainenCaterham1’38.463
20Vitaly PetrovCaterham1’38.677
21Timo GlockMarussia1’39.282
22Charles PicMarussia1’39.717
23Pedro de la RosaHRT1’40.411
24Narain KarthikeyanHRT1’41.000

A change in track temperature in Q3 caught several drivers out. The temperature fell during the session which meant that those who set a lap early on enjoyed the best conditions.

Those who waited until later in the session generally improved very little on their Q2 times, or were slower. Sergio Perez was once such case: “After the previous runs had been very promising, on the final lap in Q3, when I was on a fresh set of soft tyres, I suddenly had understeer. I don’t know where this came from.”

The wind also changed direction between the two sessions, which goes some way towards explaining how we went from having the top 11 cars covered by three-tenths of a second in Q2, to the first two separated by twice as much in Q3.

Romain Grosjean did not set a time in Q3 as his mistake in Q2 meant he has already used all his fresh sets of soft tyres.

Having been 18th in final practice, Felipe Massa was relieved to qualify 12th, even if he didn’t understand why: “In the afternoon, the situation improved, the car had much more grip and I managed to be more competitive, but I couldn’t say exactly why. Probably the track conditions changed in a way that suited us.”

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Nico Rosberg25.087 (2)28.397 (1)41.637 (1)
Lewis Hamilton25.187 (8)28.542 (4)41.845 (2)
Michael Schumacher25.148 (4)28.474 (2)41.959 (4)
Kamui Kobayashi25.287 (11)28.565 (5)41.904 (3)
Kimi Raikkonen25.029 (1)28.613 (11)42.192 (13)
Jenson Button25.164 (5)28.680 (13)42.018 (6)
Mark Webber25.125 (3)28.539 (3)42.036 (7)
Sergio Perez25.194 (9)28.605 (10)41.987 (5)
Fernando Alonso25.256 (10)28.590 (7)42.136 (10)
Romain Grosjean25.183 (6)28.595 (8)42.125 (9)
Sebastian Vettel25.184 (7)28.572 (6)42.136 (10)
Felipe Massa25.400 (16)28.614 (12)42.228 (14)
Pastor Maldonado25.346 (13)28.690 (14)42.162 (12)
Bruno Senna25.363 (15)28.603 (9)42.248 (15)
Paul di Resta25.347 (14)28.927 (15)42.043 (8)
Nico Hulkenberg25.327 (12)28.955 (17)42.316 (16)
Daniel Ricciardo25.527 (17)28.929 (16)42.406 (17)
Jean-Eric Vergne25.608 (18)29.294 (18)42.812 (18)
Heikki Kovalainen25.911 (19)29.614 (19)42.938 (19)
Vitaly Petrov25.991 (20)29.681 (21)43.005 (20)
Timo Glock26.190 (22)29.670 (20)43.351 (21)
Charles Pic26.168 (21)29.852 (22)43.628 (22)
Pedro de la Rosa26.231 (23)30.176 (23)43.821 (23)
Narain Karthikeyan26.619 (24)30.339 (24)43.985 (24)

Sebastian Vettel had the pace to reach Q3: had he set his three fastest sector times on the same lap in Q2 he would have made it into the final ten by nine-hundredths of a second.

Speed trap

PosDriverCarSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Sergio PerezSauber322.4 (200.3)
2Kamui KobayashiSauber319.6 (198.6)-2.8
3Jean-Eric VergneToro Rosso319.4 (198.5)-3.0
4Romain GrosjeanLotus318.4 (197.8)-4.0
5Daniel RicciardoToro Rosso316.8 (196.9)-5.6
6Vitaly PetrovCaterham315.9 (196.3)-6.5
7Heikki KovalainenCaterham315.8 (196.2)-6.6
8Kimi RaikkonenLotus314.9 (195.7)-7.5
9Bruno SennaWilliams314.5 (195.4)-7.9
10Michael SchumacherMercedes314.1 (195.2)-8.3
11Pastor MaldonadoWilliams313.9 (195.0)-8.5
12Nico HulkenbergForce India313.8 (195.0)-8.6
13Nico RosbergMercedes313.8 (195.0)-8.6
14Paul di RestaForce India313.5 (194.8)-8.9
15Jenson ButtonMcLaren313.4 (194.7)-9.0
16Lewis HamiltonMcLaren313.2 (194.6)-9.2
17Fernando AlonsoFerrari312.7 (194.3)-9.7
18Felipe MassaFerrari312.6 (194.2)-9.8
19Sebastian VettelRed Bull311.5 (193.6)-10.9
20Mark WebberRed Bull311.3 (193.4)-11.1
21Narain KarthikeyanHRT311.0 (193.2)-11.4
22Pedro de la RosaHRT310.3 (192.8)-12.1
23Timo GlockMarussia307.8 (191.3)-14.6
24Charles PicMarussia307.7 (191.2)-14.7

Mercedes were the fastest cars through the speed trap on Friday, but now appear in the middle of the list. Most likely they have added downforce which may ease their tyre degradation problems.

Significantly, when Hamilton asked during Q3 where he needed to find time to Rosberg, he was told the Mercedes was around 0.15s quicker in all three sectors, whereas before its advantage had been concentrated in sector three with its long straight.

Sauber appear to have gone in the opposite direction to Mercedes. Before the weekend began Perez voiced concers about the car’s straight-line speed.

2012 Chinese Grand Prix – Your view

Who do you think will win the Chinese Grand Prix?

Can the Mercedes drivers look after their tyres and finish on the podium – or even win?

Have your say in the comments.

2012 Chinese Grand Prix

Browse all 2012 Chinese Grand Prix articles

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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50 comments on “Grid of surprises promises another China thriller”

  1. This is just so hard to call. I do think it will bring up one of the guys in places 5-7, but I would hope that Kimi can have a good shot of winning it, and Kobayashi should be able to get a podium home as well.

    The most important thing is, that we have a nice race with a lot of changes of fortune during the race to make it another thriller.

    1. Sauber are really on it this year. Taking aside the Malaysian lottery, that car’s working beautifully!

  2. I so hope Kimi’s going to snatch the win.

    1. me too… did you see all those Finnish flags on the stands in quilifying? everyone is happy to see Kii back, and in a competitive car.

        1. Just got to hope that Lotus don’t drop away on the development again like last year. Otherwise Kimi’s chances could dissappear :(

      1. Or Heikki? :D

    2. Him, or Kamui both I think would be popular wins. Or even Rosberg. It would be nice if Mercedes could manage, especially after the race he had in China last year it would be nice for him to get the result he deserved then.

      1. Agree :)

      2. Even Schumi would be a popular win. A lot of people hated him in the Fezza years but I guess we’d all be happy if he wins again considering how hard it was for him.

        I think the moment I couldn’t find a clear polesitter for my predictions yesterday I realized this could be a cracking race. And with the mixed grid, this is even better!

  3. Vettel will be determined to come through the field, but I think Raikkonen, if he gets a good start, is in a good position.
    As much as I’d like to see Schumacher add to his truly massive tally of wins, I think the Mercedes is not fast enough in the races (although they may have fixed it).
    Red Bull and Mclaren will obviously be quick, and if Sauber can maintain their form they are in a fantastic position to get another podium

    1. The Genius Ross will tells his drivers that whoever is first by first corner is to win it while the other MUST use all his /her power to keep the rest of the pack behind.

      I hope to see a Michael or Briteny train :)

  4. ShaneB457 (@shaneb12345678910)
    14th April 2012, 19:10

    Mercedes nowhere near the top of the speed traps..bit of a surprise cause I tought they would be quicker there..

    Look at Perez! 322.4 KM/H is amazing..

    I think that Mercedes are not just quick at straight line speed..they seemed to have really good traction especially on the exit of the hairpin..and Rosberg was flat going through one of the corners in the 2nd sector (not sure which one) which is really impressive..

    I predict Rosberg to get a bad start off the line just like Grosjean in Australia..after good qualifying for young-ish or inexpierienced enough drivers it always goes to their heads at the start for some Schumacher to lead after turn one I think..

    As for who to win the race? No idea..thats what makes this season so exciting..

    1. They probably add more wing because they have their super drs. On the race I would expect them to be slower compared to their nearest competitor (McLaren, Lotus, or even RB). The added traction probably because they can open drs earlier. By reducing the drag on the fw + rw means that the car would be more stable compared to just opening the rw which would upset the balance of the car (suddenly less grip on the rear vs the front). Thus combination of the ability to open the drs earlier (don’t quote me on this though… it’s just a theory. don’t know whether they can really activate drs earlier) + the fact that they reduced more drag thus having better acceleration means that they could reach their top speed earlier… which it won’t be available for the race all the time.

      As for Sauber, I don’t really know. I do hope that they do well here. I would be very happy to see Kobayashi win it. I just hope they didn’t sacrifice their race pace to achieve p4 (but looking at their top speed, they probably did).

      1. I think the chances of any driver being able to open DRS significantly early out of 13 are slim.

  5. If there are even half the number of lead changes in this race as there were in the recent Moto2 race in Qatar, we’re in for a real treat.

  6. “has the makings of a humdinger of a race” i’ll say! very interesting that mercedes has added so much wing. gives some hope for thier race pace.

  7. I’d guess Hamilton or Webber will win, they’ve both been pretty racy this weekend.

    1. They sure looked good for race pace in practice but Ross B is a wily old B and obviously in the race configuration they are going to have excellent pace if they can keep the tyres working. I have my fingers crossed for Mark, with so many different cars likely to win he could end up leading the WDC with another steady drive and good finish, of course Lewis and Jenson are thinking the same.

  8. So delightfully hard to call — there are at least four drivers with a very real shot at victory and that can only be a good thing. Can the McLarens win from 5th and 7th? Absolutely. Can Kobayashi and Raikkonen take advantage of their grid positions? For sure. Can the Mercedes buck form and run a competitive race distance? Perhaps.

    I am so ready for tomorrow. See you all at 6:30 tomorrow!

    1. I Webber keeps out of trouble ( and usually he does ) he has as good a chance as the Mc’s I’d say but anything could happen before we even get to turn 2.

  9. I have to say that Perez is looking good for a repeat of podium and he might even go for the win. If the car keeps up with the fastest guys he will have the usual advantage of one less pit-stop. We have seen so many races where Perez comes to the front of the pack from way behind and it seems that the Sauber has enough race pace to really be a contender. I know Kobayashi starts further up but I’m not so sure that he can keep up or even move forward as good as Perez seems to manage.
    Kimi is in an excellent position too, although the updates didn’t worked as expected, the car in Malaysia seemed to have a real good pace (he got the fastest lap) so I think that he may take advantage if the Mercedes do go backwards (as I somehow expect).
    Of course we have the usual suspects, the 3 guys that start behind the top 4 are contenders no doubt but I would love to see Kimi, the Saubers and even the Mercs taking the honours from MacLaren and Red Bull. Is it just a dream?

    1. I need to add a note to my previous comment:
      Mercedes has changed something for sure since they are now only average in the top speed, as Keith said it should be more downforce and that should allow them not to suffer as much as in the 2 previous races. Still the longer stints on Friday suggested a drop in pace but that was also when they were faster on top-speed so for me, regarding the Mercs anything can happen!
      A am so excited about tomorrow’s race, that I hope I don’t get as frustrated (due to the stoppage and the anti-climax end of the race) as I got 3 weeks ago…

    2. @bakano One less pitstop does not mean instant 20 sec advantage. Few weeks earlier in Australia Perez braved the one less, and it got him nowhere in the end, cuz his tyres were shot at the last 5-8 laps, and he started on the harder compound there, giving him more freedom at the strategy.

    3. I think Perez has a very slim chance of being on the Podium. Just because the chances of him being able to outrace Webber and the Mclaren cars is very slim.

  10. If Lewis can’t get past Mark at the start, he will have his race ruined by that red bull. I would therefore tip KOB, WEB or BUT for the win in that order.

    I think KOB has a great chance of defending his position in that DRS zone because of the Sauber top speed. We also know that the Sauber is kind on its tires and has good race pace as Perez showed 3 weeks ago.

    I think the race will be great no matter who ends up winning. The Merc tire wear variable, the newness of KOB in that position, the rust of RAI, the slightly uncomfortable BUT, the reinvigorated WEB and the out of sequence HAM present us with so many focus points. Just great!!!

    1. I think a lot depends also on how well the teams handle their pit routines. With Button ahead of Lewis on the grid, I’ll stick my neck out and predict another shambolic pit for Lewis – and a Button win.

  11. even if saubers manage one less stop, they might not have a significant advantage! same happened with Vettle last year when Hamilton with 3 stops won.
    It’s gonna be so interesting!

  12. Rosberg and Mercedes dominated this quilifying session… one run in Q1, one run in Q2, one run in Q3. And to think the likes of Alonso had to make a second run in Q1!!.

    maybe the extra tyres saved will help Mercedes in the race, especially considering the high tire wear the car suffers. but i dunno, just cant see them winning. Id still have to go withy either of the McLarens, or maybe even Kimi!! (wouldnt that be great :))

  13. Qualifying was crazy, but i think the race will be more “normal”. It will probably be the mclarens and redbulls on top, followed by mercedes and sauber. From there on, it will be a mix.

    Grid places don’t mean alot in China. Last year was a pretty solid example of that. Even from the back, people can reach the podium if it all turns their way. Much will depand on overnight weather, track temps and tip strategi i recon.

  14. I really hope we get a clean start for this race to be exciting. All the front runners have good a history of not running into each other. I am massive fan of Kimi, but I don’t see him winning this. Lotus is slower than McLaren and it looks like it is closer to RedBull in terms of pace. That said, this is a great opportunity for Sauber and Kobayashi as they have great straight line speed and look after their tires better than all the teams on the grid.

    I am still not convinced that Mercedes has good race pace when compared to Lotus and Sauber.

  15. As I understand DRS can be used anytime in qualifying. The Mercs have used this advantage, but I don’t think we will see them anywhere the first 3 places at the end of the first lap. Kob is going to go for it, but it can be a high risk and end up with a contact. I am clueless about the Lotus, so my guess is Hamilton in the top 3 positions and either Kob or Perez with a Red Bull giving the fight. Not even the best racetrack betting lord can figure this out. I think this race will be the tightest for 2012. Can’t wait!!

    1. @speedyG, did you look at the segment and speedtrap times, they look typical of redbull last year ie. fastest through the twisties but slow on the straight, they will looking to break away in sectors one and two to survive in sector 3, just like a typical Vettel-Webber of yesteryear. Can they do it ?

  16. Very exciting quali session, especially Q2. I have a new prediction for tomorrow. Grosjean will either ruin Alonso or Vettels race in turn 1 tomorrow, depending on if he gets off the line slowly or not. A bit harsh maybe, but it seemed to me he had many moments when he misjudges the breaking points so far this weekend. Or am I just judgemental and overly critical basing it on previous weekends?

    Anyway, I have really high hopes for the race! :)

  17. I cannot wait for Canada!

  18. I think that Hamilton or Button will win, Mclaren seems so strong in race pace. And it is a shame, because I would love to see anyone in the first two rows winning.

  19. 1 Button
    2 Kobayashi
    3 Alonso.
    I’M I Crazy??? Just Maybe…but that would a be a Great Race.
    I can’t wait to:
    1) Get up around 4 am (i”M in Florida)
    2) Watch the race and scream waking up kids and wife
    3) Go back to bed when is getting daylight out side and wife is already bitching at me.
    4) have kids waking me up just after 2 hrs of sleep and STILL have the wife bitching because by now I”M CRANKY because “you didn’t get to sleep because of the stupid F1”
    5) going thru the day waiting to see the highlight of the race in the evening.

    1. @ducatiusa Race starts at 3:00 AM EST.

      1. thanks man :-)

    2. I’m in TX, not even bothering to sleep cuz I decided to spend extra hours in bed this afternoon just to stay awake for the race :D

      1. Took a special saturday gp nap too and watching live from VA. Not risking another tragic dvr snafu as for Malaysia. This will be worth it.

      2. Same here in NJ, slept all afternoon and now ready to follow it on
        I have Verizon TV cable so which channel has it?
        I am rooting for Michael Schumacher or any of the Sauber guys.
        An out of the blue Alonso podium would be the icing on the cake.

        I hope Mercedes tells their drivers whoever is first by first corner is allowed to win and the other MUST use all his /her power to keep the rest of the pack behind. I hope to see a Michael or Briteny train :)

    3. Enjoy the race guys.

      :D You said it!

  20. Weird that Mercedes is so slow on straight with their drs-duct and all but still can take the pole with such a cap. I really dont get it. Do they have a such a massive amount of downforce that even with the drs-duct they dont have best top speeds?.

    1. Well, the DRS trick allows then to go faster down the straights. However they have decided to pile on the down force to make them more competitive during the first two sectors. Which slows them down through the speed trap.

      The DRS-duct still is helping their top speed, it’s just they have put so much down force on the car that it cancels it out.

  21. Ben (@dirtyscarab)
    15th April 2012, 1:30


    F1 has been literally turned on it’s head and it’s brilliant! Red Bulls, a McLaren and both Ferrari’s outqualified by Mercs, Saubers and a Lotus. And this in DRY conditions.

    I watched quali today honestly thinking I was hallucinating. I’m a McLaren fan above all but it’s wonderful to see such tight times at the front, and equally wonderful to see Ross Brawn with a smile on his face again.

    We’re in for an epic race and season guys.

    1. @dirtyscarab Your first sentence nails it really. Fascinating stuff.

  22. They are starting the race too late and I think rain will def threaten if not even washing them out.

    1. If rain comes down, then I hope to see Michael and Alonso fighting it out.
      The rest led by a Sauber train would be nice :)

  23. Well put regarding the high speed of Sauber and low speed of Mercedes @keithcollantine It’s such polarising facts that will make for a great racer.

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