China in their hands


Round three of this year’s World Championship and we’re back on an eleven hour long haul to Shanghai and China – providing you’re on a direct flight. Most of us know the giant paddock in China pretty well now, and the crowds are increasing year on year, so it’s becoming a more attractive location even if the suburbs of Shanghai are scarcely alluring. Some clear air would be nice…


In fact the weather looks pretty interesting with 22 degrees or so on Friday and Sunday, but showers on Saturday. The qualifying hoo-ha is now over, thank heavens, with the aggregate being ditched in favour of a return to last year’s qualifying. When the changes were first announced, most of us journos’ and close observers’ reaction to the qualifying change was ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and so we’re quite happy for the return to the status quo.


I still haven’t heard of anyone else’s opinion as to how to spice it up being asked apart from the team owners, FIA and FOM. This was meant to be an attraction to pull the punters through the gates, according to Bernie Ecclestone – at least, that’s what he claimed he was being asked by the promoters. We haven’t heard from one promoter either. Maybe we should be looking further…


There were various ideas that were being punted around. One was that drivers should be on the hardest tyres with a high fuel load, and that they would have to be out there for a long time to burn off fuel and then set quick lap times at the end of the session. Another was that it would be down to teams, so if one driver set fastest time, his teammate would start 12th, for instance. Then there’s the idea of a qualifying race – but how do you qualify for the qualifying race? No one seems to mind how complicated it’s going to be… I wonder who’s going to explain it all?


But we’re back to regular qualifying and at an interesting circuit, which is very much front limited thanks to the 270 degree first right handed corner, and the long long right hander – think of the left front tyre – leading onto the straight, the longest straight, incidentally, in the calendar, followed by very hard braking. So you need the downforce in some of those corners – 80 percent of the lap is corners – plus the straightline speed down that long straight. We saw 344kph/213mph there last year, incidentally.


Teams and drivers don’t have that much idea of their rivals’ performance at this stage, however, although the same combination of Pirelli’s tyres will be in evidence at Shanghai as have been used in the races so far: medium, soft and supersoft. But Shanghai is a very different circuit to the two we’ve already been to.


One thing we have to do is take a look at teams’ and drivers’ tyre choices. For instance, having had what some felt were too many mediums and not enough softs in Bahrain, Felipe Massa has just one set of mediums in Shanghai, as does  Romain Grosjean. The Sauber pair have five sets of mediums each, and Lewis Hamilton has four sets.


Most teams have four or five sets of soft compound Pirellis, but Sainz has gone for six sets. When it comes to the supersofts, Williams, McLaren and Haas have all gone for seven sets, most teams have five or six sets but Sauber and Manor have just four. Remember, they made these choices quite some time ago, even before testing,, an where they thought would qualify has a bearing on their choice.


That is one thing that the tyre process has mixed up: strategy. The great thing is that there are so many different tactics; so often in Formula One all those bright young engineers and tacticians eventually come up with the same solutions. I guess it’s inevitable, but so far it hasn’t happened and we still have a wide variety of tactics, which is what the offer of three different tyre compounds was designed to throw up, with the front runners inevitably having to run the supersofts in the first stint. We’ve seen all three compounds being used at the once in the second stint on some occasions already.


One question is still to be answered: is Lewis going to get up on the top step? He’s been a winner four times here, and arguably should have won a fifth. It’s his 170th Grand Prix, he’s been on pole for both the first two races, is Mercedes really in that much trouble with the single paddle clutch? Both Williams and Ferrari have been quicker off the line in one of the first two races; it has to be a priority for Mercedes now.


A quick word about Kimi Raikkonen here; you just wouldn’t believe how popular he is. I think the Chinese believe that Kimi is a Chinese name. They love him. Now Bahrain was more of a Kimi circuit than China, but he won’t be lacking any support. And would you believe that neither McLaren driver has ever retired from a Chinese Grand Prix? This will be the 13th, and the McLaren boys have a hundred per cent record, including wins. (But the last time I pointed out that out was in Melbourne where Fernando had never retired, and look what happened, so keep it quiet!)


I’m not making any predictions; I’m also hoping that the politicians of the sport stay away and let the sportsmen get on with it. Here’s a chance for someone to score some good points and make a breakaway. It’s that time of the season, before we get to Europe and the introduction of the first tranche of development parts…


By Bob Constanduros