After the lacklustre Australian Grand Prix which opened the 2015 season, the Malaysian round proved F1 is still capable of producing enthralling on-track competition on race day.
Sebastian Vettel’s emphatic race-winning performance and Kimi Raikkonen’s strong recovery to fourth demonstrated that Ferrari are more than capable of taking the challenge to Mercedes at the front this season.
But while Sepang may have left some salivating over the prospect of a season-long duel between two of the most prestigious car manufacturers in the world for this year’s titles, this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix is still likely to be the Silver Arrows’ to lose.
Cooler ambient temperatures – around 15 degrees Celsius – are expected to play more into the hands of the Mercedes. But with Ferrari not playing down their chances for this weekend, we could be about to see a very revealing benchmark of how competitive the battle at the front of the field will be over the rest of the season.
Track data: Shanghai
|Lap length||5.451km (3.387 miles)|
|Distance||305.066km (189.559 miles)|
|Lap record*||1’32.238 (Michael Schumacher, 2004)|
|Fastest lap||1’32.238 (Michael Schumacher, 2004, race)|
|Tyres||Medium and Soft|
*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix
The Shanghai International Circuit plays host to a Grand Prix for the 12th time, having appeared on the calendar every year since 2004. The Hermann Tilke-designed circuit is characterised by long corners that put tremendous loads on front tyres – the uniquely long first right-hander being a prime example.
As last year, Pirelli have opted to bring the soft and medium tyres this weekend, meaning drivers will have to pay extra care to ensure they don’t take too much out of the softer compound during the race.
The circuit’s huge back straight, where the drivers have their foot to the flor for almost 1.4 kilometres, often helps to promote overtaking. The DRS zone only starts around halfway down the track, and it is debatable whether it’s even needed at all at this venue.
Despite many empty seats in the grandstands on Sundays, the Chinese fans that do flock to the circuit do have a reputation for being particularly enthusiastic. Drivers are regularly mobbed by supporters at Shanghai Airport and many home made banners adorn the enormous main grandstand during the event.
Chinese Grand Prix team-by-team preview
Despite enjoying a greater advantage in Melbourne than they had throughout the entirety of 2014, Mercedes seemed powerless to take back the lead from Vettel in Malaysia once the Ferrari driver found himself out front.
Lewis Hamilton’s ability to challenge Vettel in the final stint of the race was compromised by his lack of fresh medium tyres after Mercedes opted to use a set in Q1.
Rosberg has happy memories of Shanghai, where he took his maiden grand prix victory and Mercedes’ first of the modern era in 2012. And with Hamilton claiming the early advantage on his team mate this season, another win here could be vital for his own championship aspirations.
Both Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo struggled with soaring brake temperatures and lack of grip en route to ninth and tenth respectively – the first time since 2009 that both Red Bulls had been beaten to the line by both Toro Rossos.
It shows that the team have more than just power unit issues to sort out if they are going to be in contention for victories in 2015.
After an eventful race, Williams cemented their position as ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes and Ferrari in Malaysia, which saw Valtteri Bottas snatch fifth place from team mate Felipe Massa on the penultimate lap. But their was clear disappointment at how far they were from the podium, and how easily the recovering Raikkonen overhauled them.
With Williams under no immediate pressure from behind, the team can focus solely on working to bridging the gap to the four cars ahead. The FW37 shares the low-drag characteristics of its predecessor and that could go a long way to making the Williams a threat along Shanghai’s notoriously long back straight.
With Vettel’s victory in Malaysia, Ferrari are enjoying their best start to a season since 2012 with arguably their strongest package since 2010.
Vettel’s strong race pace was reinforced by the manner in which Raikkonen quickly recovered through the field following the early Safety Car. But after the excessive temperatures in Sepang and question over whether Mercedes were compromised by their tyre strategy, there are many questions about the true performance gap between Ferrari and Mercedes.
This weekend should hopefully provide a clearer picture and Raikkonen is confident that the team can challenge Mercedes once more. However a significant question remains whether a technical directive regarding fuel pressure which comes into effect this weekend, which is believed to be targeted at how Ferrari was using its engine, may affect their performance.
Malaysia was another difficult race for McLaren, but despite failing to finish and running well out of contention for points, the team are confident that they have made steps forward ahead of this weekend.
The team’s prospects of seeing both cars finish on Sunday may be helped by the cooler temperatures expected in Shanghai over the weekend, which should prove easier on the new Honda power unit.
If McLaren continue to make the strides forward that they claim they are, their qualifying performance will be the strongest indicator with the team having fallen in the first session in both of the opening rounds.
Force India have faced a challenging start to the season and their chances to moving rapidly up the field appear to have lessened. The team is planning a major upgrade for its conservative VJM08, but they will have to make do with their original chassis for at least the first seven races.
With that in mind, Nico Hulkenberg is keeping a modest target for China. “I’m not going there with any big expectations, but we’ve got to believe we can fight for some points,” says Hulkenberg. “It wasn’t possible in Malaysia, but we certainly put up a good fight and will keep working hard. I think our performance level will be similar this weekend.”
Formula One’s youngest ever points scorer, Max Verstappen demonstrated impressively mature race craft on his way to seventh in Sepang while Carlos Sainz Jnr demonstrated great skill to pull off a two stop strategy and make it two top ten finishes in his first two starts.
This weekend will prove a brand new challenge for the youngest driver pairing in F1 history, with both Verstappen and Sainz having never visited the Shanghai Circuit before.
It’s been a frustrating start to the season for Lotus, with misfortune and reliability issues preventing them from exploiting the potential of a car that is clearly superior to their 2014 challenger.
In China, Lotus will be looking for a trouble-free weekend to help them secure their first points of the season.
“I think we should be in a similar position to that we’ve been in for the first and second race, so fighting for the top ten in qualifying and then in the race,” says Pastor Maldonado. “I’m confident we should be fighting for good places.”
Last year’s GP2 champion Joylon Palmer will participate in a grand prix weekend for the first time on Friday, taking over first practice duties from Romain Grosjean.
After a double points finish in Melbourne, Malaysia was a weekend to forget for Sauber. Marcus Ericsson threw away his chance of his best ever finish just a few laps into the race by spinning in retirement into Turn One, while Felpe Nasr lost his front wing after contact with Raikkonen on the opening lap, which compromised his whole afternoon.
If both drivers learn from their Malaysian mistakes, there’s no reason why either cannot be in contention for solid points finishes again this weekend.
For Manor to have successfully finished the Malaysian Grand Prix with Roberto Merhi was perhaps the most impressive result of the weekend. With a race under their belt, Manor’s main aim for this weekend is to see both cars start and finish on Sunday.
After Will Stevens has been denied an opportunity to race in either of the first two races through no fault of his own, he said the data the team gleaned from Merhi’s car during the race has at least been beneficial.
Manor’s 11th-hour return to F1 has not been without it critics, and following Malaysia some suggested the team were not able to run both cars at the same time. The team dismissed the claim as “complete nonsense”, but all eyes will be on whether both MR04s appear together during practice.
2015 driver form
|Driver||G avg||R avg||R best||R worst||Classified||Form guide|
|Lewis Hamilton||1.00||1.50||1||2||2/2||Form guide|
|Nico Rosberg||2.50||2.50||2||3||2/2||Form guide|
|Daniel Ricciardo||5.00||8.00||6||10||2/2||Form guide|
|Daniil Kvyat||8.50||9.00||9||9||1/1||Form guide|
|Felipe Massa||5.00||5.00||4||6||2/2||Form guide|
|Valtteri Bottas||7.00||5.00||5||5||1/2||Form guide|
|Sebastian Vettel||3.00||2.00||1||3||2/2||Form guide|
|Kimi Raikkonen||8.00||4.00||4||4||1/2||Form guide|
|Fernando Alonso||18.00||0/1||Form guide|
|Jenson Button||16.50||11.00||11||11||1/2||Form guide|
|Nico Hulkenberg||13.00||10.50||7||14||2/2||Form guide|
|Sergio Perez||14.00||11.50||10||13||2/2||Form guide|
|Max Verstappen||8.50||7.00||7||7||1/2||Form guide|
|Carlos Sainz Jnr||11.00||8.50||8||9||2/2||Form guide|
|Romain Grosjean||9.00||11.00||11||11||1/2||Form guide|
|Pastor Maldonado||10.50||0/2||Form guide|
|Marcus Ericsson||12.00||8.00||8||8||1/2||Form guide|
|Felipe Nasr||13.00||8.50||5||12||2/2||Form guide|
|Will Stevens||20.00||0/0||Form guide|
|Roberto Merhi||19.00||15.00||15||15||1/1||Form guide|
|Kevin Magnussen||17.00||0/0||Form guide|
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