It may seem odd to the casual reader, but at this time of the year all the preview blogs from journalists will probably start with horror stories regarding the picking up of visas for the Chinese and Russian Grands Prix. (That is, apart from our colleague James Allen who has a pass-out from his family to miss China and maybe Russia and one or two others later in the year).
So the stories start at or after the Australian GP. I have one wise colleague who goes to Oz early and applies for his visa from the Chinese visa office in Melbourne, which just happens to be doors away from where we pick up our season-long accreditation from the FIA. Even he had problems last year because if you’re non-Australian, you have to prove that you have a right to be in Australia and he didn’t have a print-out of his visa. No such problems this year.
The rest of us, however, have to squeeze in the Chinese and Russian visa applications post-Oz, so I was up to London on the Thursday after Australia, having filled out the extensive forms which include the names of both parents(deceased or not), education, previous jobs, names of editors of magazines long-gone (and the editors might be long-gone too) etc. The Russians even wanted a print-out of three months of bank statements – which they then completely ignored.
You have to make an appointment for the Chinese visa application and you have to do this two weeks in advance at least to get your chosen day and then preferably in the morning so as to get a three day express service, meaning it’s ready at the start of the following week. In spite of the appointment, I waited close to 90 minutes before I was seen. Your name has to be on a list of those invited by the organisers – and every year, my name is not on the list – apparently! So it was again this year, until the lady looked harder and lo and behold, there I was, as usual. At least she apologised and admitted that the list was a mess.
So the passport and forms duly go off to the embassy and were available just three days later for express pick-up – which took all of 90 seconds after a wait of, oooh, sixty seconds. That’s all very lovely but then comes the bill: £85 for visa fee, £15 for express visa fee, £55 for service fee and ten pounds for express service fee which comes out at £178 inc VAT. It was £93 two years ago. Plus two rail fares from the shires, parking at the station, refreshment etc etc.
The Russian process is a bit better once you’ve got past the forms and the photocopies etc. It’s a 25 minute walk from China to Russia (as it were). The waiting time to be seen was under ten minutes at the Russian visa centre and the service very rapid; it will be sent by post to me and only cost £118, a snip! And the reason these people have a Grand Prix is to attract publicity to their countries, apparently.
Right, on to more relevant matters. Doing my research for the Chinese Grand Prix, I was reminded just how competitive Ferrari was at the beginning of last year but how much they then faded. OK, they never won a race but they were quick in sessions and Vettel was second in China, qualified second in Russia and had seconds in the Canadian and European Grands Prix. Raikkonen was second in Bahrain and second in Spain but was then more likely to be fourth and then later sixth.
So the promise was there early on but it didn’t continue. Ferrari now already have that first win under their belt this year and have Mercedes searching for answers regarding tyres. One is already tempted to ask if 2016 is the way it’s going to go again or is it going to be better this year and more consistent? Vettel is already complimentary about the team that’s behind him, although you surely can’t suggest that James Allison was in any way at fault with Ferrari last year but something caused them to go backwards.
The battle between Ferrari and Mercedes is surely one to watch. Hamilton has three wins from pole and an additional pole and win in other races. Vettel has three poles but only a win in 2009; Raikkonen has qualified second four times, following up second with a win in 2007.
We know some of Vettel’s performances came with Red Bull Racing and frankly we would have expected more from them in Australia, so they can only do better, but is the pace there? Remember that we have the longest straight in F1 in Shanghai, so the hierarchy of straightline speeds in Melbourne is of interest. Williams were quickest from Force India, then Renault, Mercedes, Ferrari, Toro Rosso and then Red Bull – which isn’t exactly encouraging for the guys from Milton Keynes.
Of the rest, Force India redeemed themselves in the race in Melbourne but were scarcely challenging the 2016 foe, Williams, for whom Felipe Massa did a pretty good job, even if he was nearly a minute behind the winners. Toro Rosso also did well, but we really want to see a good performance from Renault. Giovinazzi is back subbing for Wehrlein who may not do Bahrain either.
McLaren, sadly, fear that this race might be even worse than the last. There was a flurry of press releases about partners and new publicity programmes last week which maybe the team hoped would divert attention from the current performance, but instead the newshounds have been suggesting all kinds of scenarios about Honda/Mercedes/McLaren.
I haven’t yet read this story, however. My younger son, who used to work for Williams, closely monitors the world of triathlon and iron man in which he competes (triathlon, he’s done a half iron man), and he says that Jenson Button is trying hard to qualify for the iron man World Championships which are usually held the same weekend as Monza, so he can do them this year.
He was in Florida recently for a 70.3 (whatever that is) and qualified for the World Championships having finished third in his age group, that was in spite of not charging his electric gearbox (see how useless they are without a team of mechanics?) which made life particularly tough. But he still finished third only to be disqualified for speeding in a designated go-slow zone. This, apparently, was a cue for lots of jokes about how he may be the only McLaren driver to be quick enough to be penalised for speeding this year…
Now, finally, a word about conditions in Shanghai. First of all, there have been warnings of poor air quality but that shouldn’t be too crucial. However, Friday and Sunday may also be wet, so there could be a twist in the weather which might liven things up. And remember, a week after China comes Bahrain – but more about that in my Chinese Grand Prix summary.