RENCKEN: China F1 preview
WORKING OUT THE KINKS Sebastian Vettel says he'll "be back in China", though the Red Bull ace will have his work cut out for him as the team fixes the "twitchiness" of the RB8.
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
Formula 1 heads to China, from Malaysia, for Round three (of 20) with uncertainty swirling around its 500 tons of airfreight as organisers will also be planning for the following weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
As the F1 folk pack up their kit after the race in Shanghai the decision will be taken whether to proceed to the protest-hit desert island or regroup in Europe ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix on May 13.
Either way F1 looks pretty stupid for having included Bahrain on its 2012 calendar – particularly given that the strife has not abated since th 2011 race was canned for the same reason.
GREAT CIRCUIT, POOR FOLLOWING
However, on to more pressing matters...
The scale of Shanghai International Circuit is simply breath taking. Built on polystyrene-filled marshland in 2003, the track itself was constructed on top of 40000 stabilising concrete pillars, with the overall infrastructure being bigger and bolder than at any other circuit on the Formula 1 calendar.
Still, eight years on the locals have not "gotten into" F1, to the point that its massive stands are empty (or partially filled by soldiers on rest-and-recreation) as the echoes of 24 V8s resound through a 600-seater Media Centre seldom holding more than a quarter capacity.
Two of Bernie Ecclestone’s brainchild races in two weeks, two veritable flops…
With its 16 corners (7L/9R) and straights totalling 2880m (53% of each lap), the 5415km SIC track, built in the shape of Chinese characters Shang and Hai, poses a tough technical challenge for teams and drivers. It's the team which dials in the least compromised set-up and computes the best strategy on race day that will have the strongest chance for victory.
Tellingly the race has been won from pole on four occasions, the 300m blast to Turn 1 no doubt consolidating the advantage, although, in 2006 Michael Schumacher scored his final victory for Ferrari before heading into (short-lived) retirement from P6 on the grid.
Sole tyre supplier Pirelli will provide the same tyre combination as in Australia, namely its Medium (white sidewall) and Soft (yellow) compounds, althoug they face very different challenges as China’s circuit layout is substantially more demanding than Albert Park.
For example, deceleration under braking for the tortuous Turn 1, a tightening snail-like right-hander entered at 320km/h on a flying lap before the cars slow to 70km/h within 130m, hits 6g – the heaviest of the year – despite aerodynamic grip bleeding off as speed reduces.
In the flowing mid-section of the lap the lateral forces on tyres are the equivalent of 3G, while the banking in Turn 13 increases the strain on the tyre’s contact patch, which grows to three times normal size, while numerous high-speed changes of direction and an over-one kilometre back straight on which speeds of 300km/h are topped add to the conundrum.
The varied challenges of Shanghai are underlined by the fact that the race has feted a single multiple winner - McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, 2008 and 2011 - with all other races since the inaugural 2004 event having been won by a different driver. That list is illustrious, featuring six world champions (Fernando Alonso, Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen, Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button), with Rubens Barrichello being the only interloper by winning the inaugural race.
Although F1’s governing body, the FIA, had still to announce the DRS zones at time of closing for press, one detection zones is expected - ahead of the long back straight.
Dry (18° - 20°C) skies are forecast for Friday through Sunday (April 13 - 15), suggesting two-stop strategies for all but the smoothest, namely 2010 winner Jenson Button (McLaren) and Sauber’s Malaysia sensation Sergio Perez.
Surprise leader of the 2012 world championship after two races is Ferrari’s Alonso, who shook his red car by the scruff of its airbox in Malaysia to score a win against the odds, after a hard-fought fifth in Melbourne.
A major update for the F2012 is planned for Alonso's home race as the car he races in Barcelona will effectively be a B version but on April 15 he will be forced to rely on his skills mixed with a touch of fortune.
The 2005/6 champion has 35 points to the 30 and 25 of McLaren’s pace-setting duo of Hamilton and Button respectively, who locked out the front row in the opening two races in that order, with Button winning the first round.
There is no doubt the MP4-27 is the fastest and prettiest car about at present, but McLaren all too often suffers strategic bunders and will need to guard itself against these on Sunday, particularly if a Safety Car intervenes, as it has on six previous occasions spread over three races.
'TWITCHY' RED BULL
Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber is fourth on 24, while team mate and reigning double champion Sebastian Vettel has 18 points - four adrift of Perez in fifth - after making nonsense of Malaysia in the disappointing RB8.
Red Bull has thrown massive resources at curing the car’s twitchiness and China should see a major step forward for the reigning (double) champions. It is remarkable that champion (and pre-season favourite) Vettel, who scored Red Bull’s maiden victory in Malaysia back in 2009, has been out-qualified by Webber in both races to date.
Then there are question marks hanging over Mercedes. The W03 has proven fearsomely fast on straights due to a trick rear wing which rides on the back of its DRS system, but neither Schumacher nor Nico Rosberg have fared well when it counts, so will China’s long straights be their salvation?
Three big questions loom over the 56-lap race, which starts at 09:00am: Has Mercedes unlocked the potential many believe lurks in W03? Has Red Bull sorted the RB8’s unpredictability? Can Sauber’s Perez repeat his marvellous Malaysia drive? Qualifying is an hour earlier on Saturday, April 14.
There is, though, a fourth question, one more burning (literally and figuratively) than this trio: What happens afterwards – Middle East or Bahrain?