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F1 preview: Who will reign supreme at the 2017 Chinese GP?

2017-04-06 12:51

Braam Peens

CHIT CHAT: Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel (C), Red Bull's Max Verstappen (R) and Renault's Nico Hulkenberg attend a press conference in Shanghai. Image: AFP / Greg Baker

China - It’s off to the land of shockingly made cars and excellently made fake consumer goods for F1 but as the circus heads to Shanghai, whose race will be sweet and whose will be sour at the Chinese GP?

The only man who cracked-up at the season-opener in Melbourne was Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team boss.

His fists of fury would have made for even better TV had he actually been able to splinter the table he went medieval at the sight of Lewis Hamilton losing the lead to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel; when the team only had themselves to blame.

Did Vettel win it or Lewis lose it?

A bit of both. Lewis needed a minimum of two seconds in hand to safely emerge ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen when he pitted.

When he did stop on lap 17, the gap was only 1.75 seconds. The data was there for all the team to see, yet they did not ask Hamilton to stay out for one more circumstance-changing lap. Even though the Mercedes is arguably the faster car over a single lap, the golden rule in overtaking is that to get by, the onus is on the quicker car that does not have track position to obtain it. With the Ferrari being gentler on its tyres, this was easy as it was obvious for Vettel to do. 

Had Verstappen not been where he was, Mercedes would have gotten away with it. Except they didn’t; Ferrari made exactly the same mistake a year ago at the same track: gambling that its competitors would react after pitting too early on a track that’s renowned for its difficulty to overtake on. Lesson clearly not learnt.

Upon reflection, such has been their advantage over the rest of the field that Mercedes have had the luxury of becoming a little rusty in the strategy stakes. Considering that the biggest threat to their point-scoring ability over the past three years has been the risk of Lewis Hamilton running into Nico Rosberg (see lap 1 of last year’s race at Barcelona), a resurgent and clearly underestimated Ferrari has caught them napping. If you’re at the top, there’s only one direction to go. 

Is Ferrari’s pace real?

Yes. Just because Mercedes were wrong-footed in Australia, it doesn’t mean Ferrari lacked race-winning pace. It can’t be denied that Verstappen’s wrong-place-right-time added to Hamilton’s woes, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that Vettel never struggled to keep up with the Mercedes throughout the weekend. And its kindness to rubber should make up for what it lacks in top speed at the tyre-munching Shanghai circuit.

Is China a better place to race at than Australia?

At the risk of swinging from one extreme to another – yes. Thanks to Shanghai’s 1170 meter-long straight enabling laughably easy Drag Reduction System-assisted (DRS) overtakes, there were 181 position changes (as opposed to just 5 at Melbourne last Sunday) in last year’s race.

While the former number is unusually high, bear in mind that several drivers were out of position following a first-lap incident. In 2015 there was a somewhat more realistic 28 overtakes. The bad news is that because the cars are more aerodynamically sensitive than before in 2017 (wider, more drag, more wake), we’ll only see more dramatic (but ridiculously easy) pass-flap enabled overtakes, which, incidentally but also very obviously – highlights this quick-fix’s fundamental drawback. 

Red Bull targets F1 race wins by Austria

While the overtaking in the modern era of F1 has never been easy – and exacerbated by this year’s new technical regulations combined with near-zero tyre degradation – it cannot be denied that right now, DRS is being implemented wrongly. On-demand passing negates the skill and risk expected of the challenging driver and adds nothing to the show. DRS should stop at only creating the possibility of a pass, not guarantee it.

Who will need DRS the most?

Discounting McLaren-Honda for comic relief (their top speed is more than 20kph slower than the fastest cars), the wooden spoon must go to Red Bull. Apart from Ferrari, they’re the team that promised the most in pre-season testing, but disappointed the most in Australia, and are now very book-ending the wrong side of the top three. Expect Red Bull to bounce back, but with such a small window for significant upgrades between now and when the logistics-friendly European season starts (properly) in Barcelona, both Mercedes and Ferrari could have made quantum steps ahead in the same timeframe of the development race themselves. 

Mercedes on red alert for #ChineseGP as Wolff backs Hamilton

Should these top two teams find another 0.2 sec per lap between now and then, Red Bull will need 0.5 just to keep up. With the diminishing returns inherent to racecar development, that’s Max and Daniel’s shot at the driver’s championship already gone.

The unintended consequence of the new regulations is a gaping field spread, which itself is bad for a sport desperate to see competitive wheel-to-wheel racing and a diversity of winners. In Australia, the sixth-placed Filipe Massa finished 55 seconds behind Kimi Räikkönen – a gap so vast that not even Sergio Perez’s customary strategy of hypermiling his tyres (Singapore 2016) would leapfrog him into the leading pack.

So is F1 winning yet?

Partly, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s looking exceedingly unlikely that we’ll see any car other than a silver, red or dark blue one in parc fermé this year, and if that’s a problem, the Ferrari is already one more car that we didn’t see there last year.

If nothing else, Formula 1 won in that the expectation of the tired old narrative of a silver car topping the time sheets from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon was proven patently wrong. The deviation thereof and Ferrari’s return to winning form is a breath of fresh air already, no matter how annoying Sebastian Vettel’s pointy-post race index finger.

More promisingly, at the moment the performance differential between Ferrari and Mercedes seems so marginal that mere split-second pitwall decisions can decide the outcome of races, and by extension – the season. Of late, Ferrari have notoriously excellent at nuking their own limbs off, but again, Australia showed that even the mighty Mercedes isn’t infallible. It only takes two cars – from two different manufacturers, one might add – to make a great championship. First impressions in 2017 suggest we have just that.
Long may it continue.

Statistically speaking 

  • Going to China, Sebastian Vettel leads the world championship.
  • Ferrari was last able to do so in 2012.
  • 13 out of the 14 Chinese GPs held have been won from pole position.
  • Mercedes will start its 150th race on Sunday and aim for its 75th win.

Oddly, the lap record of 1min32.238 was set in 2004 by Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari during the race and not in qualifying – although this was when refuelling was still allowed, and a last-minute splash-and-dash on new tyres and minimal fuel on a rubbered-in track could easily net a fastest lap time 

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