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Rencken: All eyes on Red Bull

2013-04-11 07:56

ALL EYES ON RED BULL: recent team orders controversy means much media focus will be on Sebastian Vettel in China this weekend. Image: AFP


SHANGHAI, China - Round 3 (of 19) in the 2013 FIA Formula 1 World championship on Sunday and all eyes are sure to be on Red Bull Racing after Sebastian Vettel’s Sepang Shuffle in Malaysia in which the triple champion stole victory from team mate Mark Webber.

Their history began in 2010 in Turkey, and has yet to abate…


The 200 000-seater 5.451km Shanghai International Circuit is built in the shape of the Chinese symbol Shang (“ascend”)* on reclaimed land and is perched on more than 40 000 concrete pilings. The marsh below runs to more than 100m deep so, rather than drain it, F1 architect Herman Tilke specified 80m pilings to carry the foundation – concrete topped by a 16m polystyrene layer.


Still, the local populace appreciates neither such civil engineering feats nor the most advanced cars on the planet so the state-funded Chinese GP – this year will be the 10th - invariably plays to empty stands, so much so that many grandstands are closed and used as giant billboards while parking areas are filled with buses of a clearly military persuasion…
For all that this is an extremely technical circuit, having 16 turns (split 7L/9R), with a fearsomely fast back straight on which cars top 320 km/h depending on gearing and aero settings. The first corner complex, popularly known as “the snail” on account of its triple apex, shell-like layout, tightens on itself before opening out, and is rated as four turns in one.
At the other extreme, the T14 hairpin at the end of the 1400m straight, on which cars run at the max (18 000rpm) for almost 13 seconds, provides perfect proof of the stresses modern F1 cars undergo as they brake from 320 to 60 km/h:
Stopping distance - 119m
Braking time - 2.98sec
Maximum deceleration - 6.41g
Pedal load - 174kg
Braking energy - 2870kW
Data: Brembo

The (banked) T13 corner leading into the straight provides the DRS detection point, with one of two overtaking zones starting about halfway down the 1400m straight. The detection point of the second zone – on the main start/finish/straight – is just before the final turn, although strangely this zone is not included on the FIA’s official circuit map.


With two zones in close proximity a lot of flip-flopping can be expected, with drivers sailing past on the back straight, only to be taken by their prey a two corners later…

Although perceived as a “low” overtaking circuit, the record proves otherwise, with last year’s race, won by Nico Rosberg for Mercedes, featuring almost 80 passes, split almost 50/50 between DRS-assisted and skill.
With the turns well spread across the lap and the surface being non-abrasive (if bumpy in parts due to its unconventional foundations) brakes and tyres are given a relatively easy ride despite there being three heavy braking events. Thus wear of both is rated “medium”, as are aero settings and engine/transmission/cooling severity ratings.

The nine races so far have featured six pace-car sessions over three races. Five times the winner has come from pole.

The lowest winning grid position is sixth – 2006, courtesy of the twice-retired Michael Schumacher, who also holds the lap record (2004), proving how much slower contemporary cars are with control tyres and gawky aerodynamics.


F1’s sole tyre supplier Pirelli has specified its Soft (yellow sidewall) and Medium (white) compounds, estimating the lap delta between them to be between 0.5 and 0.6sec per lap, with two or three stops required according to chosen strategy – as per past years.
However, much will depend on the weather, which can be variable at this time of the year. The long-term forecast, however, predicts 22-24°C afternoons on each of the three days - warm enough to “switch” the tyres on fully without destroying them within a few laps.

Much criticism has been hurled at Pirelli’s 2013 range; however in both previous races conditions were abnormal, with qualifying in Australia delayed to (an unseasonally cool) Sunday morning, while Malaysia started on a drying track, which forced the grid onto Intermediates (Green) for the opening laps.

If the weather holds, Sunday’s race will be the first run in conditions for which the tyres were designed so likely to provide a pointer to the balance of the season.

2012 saw Rosberg become the first (and so far only) son of a living World champion (fKeke) to win a GP after dominating  qualifying and the race. However, Nico’s win, his team’s first victory in its own right during the modern era, proved a false dawn as Mercedes thereafter battled to reach the podium.

Although Mercedes, one of two teams – the other Lotus – to use interconnected front/rear suspension (FRIS – 2013’s must-have gizmo) is dearly hoping for a good race after Lewis Hamilton and Rosberg respectively finished third/fourth in Sepang, the team admits it still has some catching up to do.

Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn said before departing for Shangha: "Our season started well, perhaps better than expected; however, we're fully aware there’s still a gap to close, and that we must keep up the pace of development."

Which means line honours are likely to go elsewhere: Red Bull, Lotus and Ferrari in contention in that order, with Mercedes and McLaren likely to be next up but as always much depends on tyre degradation and strategies.
Following their driver spat in Malaysia, Red Bull’s efforts will be on peace-making, which is likely to force drivers and management on to the back foot, playing into the hands of Lotus/Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the latter once again doing wonders with a car still lacking a few tenths.
The Spaniard needs to make up for the points lost in Sepang after his front wing sheared after a first-lap incident. However, on the other side of the red garage, Felipe Massa will again be aiming to out-qualify him to make it five in a row - a feat no other team mate of the 2005/6 champion has managed. Watch out for scintillating qualifying laps from Alonso…

McLaren has been hard at work after fielding a car well over a second a lap off the pace in the opening races, but can, at best, hope to hang in there as it develops its new car. Although it has pin-pointed the flaws in its MP4/28, drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez have been warned to be patient as the team sets about turning its season around. Testing a raft of development parts will be very much on Friday’s agenda for the Turnaround Kings – a title McLaren would rather not have earned over the years…

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “Clearly our performance in Australia/Malaysia fell below the standards we expect, but the three-week break between rounds two and three has been useful: we’ve been fully engaged in further developing our [new car].”
Sunday’s 56-lap race will start at 9am SA time, qualifying on Saturday at 8am. The Bahrain GP will follow a week later.

Wheels24 staffers think the track looks like a fat skier pointing down the slope. Any other suggestions - go for it in the Readers' Comments section below.

Stay with Wheels24 for the 2013 Formula 1 season – fresh reports every day.

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