By Bob Constanduros
Hard on the heels of last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix comes round three in China, a very different race in character and style. After the warmth and four long straights in Bahrain, we have the relative cool of China and two long straights – including the longest of the season.
Not many team personnel have been home between the two events, so people, equipment and material will have been shipped straight to Shanghai for round three, with teams eager to either build on promise last weekend or erase the memories.
Ferrari, you have to admit, will be doing a bit of both. Too painful – physically, for one – is the bungled pit stop that left one of their number with a badly broken leg, although it has been heartening how Formula One has come together to sympathise with both the team and its unfortunate team member.
But Ferrari do now have two wins under their belt, and Sebastian Vettel now has a 17 point lead in the World Championship over Lewis Hamilton. The pressure is already on for Vettel and the team to build on that. They will be constantly reminded of this excellent start to the season and that such a chance of season success should not be squandered.
But how will they fare in China? Bahrain was a good circuit for them, and the team has always performed well in warmer conditions. Sebastian Vettel has good form in China – I loved his radio call in Bahrain where he said everything was under control, purely to mislead the opposition – but the team less so. Kimi Raikkonen showed that even when they are dominant, the team still has the ability to shoot itself in the foot. He will also be rueing that his promise in the early races hasn’t really borne fruit. He’ll be eager to turn that around, but will the team allow him to?
It has to be said that Mercedes have been a little off the ball so far this year. There was the wrong strategy call in Australia, the gearbox penalty for Hamilton in Bahrain where there were also communication problems, and a faulty analysis of how rival Vettel was managing his tyres, resulting in too late a charge by Valtteri Bottas at the end of the last round.
But they do have tremendous form in China, as does Lewis Hamilton. Gone is the memory of sliding off the pit lane which resulted in his only retirement there; since then, it has just been one front row or podium – often both – after another. He has a remarkable run of point scores which could be record-breaking this weekend, overtaking Raikkonen’s current record of 27. Mercedes is the most successful team in China, and all in all, it points to a Mercedes win. But in this case, they have to beat their own shortcomings to achieve that. They have obviously done it in the past and they can do so again.
Red Bull Racing should really be up there too, shouldn’t they? What an extraordinary Bahrain Grand Prix for the Milton Keynes team. Who could have imagined that they would be out after just a couple of laps? Max Verstappen, after his spin in Australia, had his accident in qualifying – which wouldn’t appear to be his fault – and therefore, like Hamilton, was starting out of position. But his early race charge was just a little too optimistic. Hamilton was pretty scathing about the young Dutchman, but some would say that that’s what one would expect from him. He saw a gap and charged for it. An inch or two more of space and he would have made it through, and everyone would have had a different view. As it was, a puncture ended his race and earned opprobrium from the World Champion. Adrian Newey’s head in hand said it all.
Best of the rest – in championship terms – is now McLaren, but what remarkable performances we saw from others in Bahrain. No one would resent Toro Rosso’s amazingly competitive outing from Pierre Gasly, although Brendon Hartley might be wondering how to up his game to match his young teammate. And the same would be said of Marcus Ericsson’s effort to score points for Sauber. Force India scored a point too; only Williams have yet to do so which is certainly disappointing.
But McLaren is right up there and Renault too, and this could well be the battle for best of the rest for the year. There are several spoilers wanting to do the same as Toro Rosso and it’s a sub-plot of this year’s championship to see who can do what in the second half of the pack. This is another battle to savour, similar to that at the front of the field.
Off the track, there has been movement in terms of the future of Formula One as Liberty Media outlined their plans for 2021. Amazingly, Formula One closed ranks and kept the detail secret, even under questioning. There is talk of a budget cap, substantial reduction of Ferrari’s ‘historical’ payment and more money for the lower teams but details are scarce. Even communication experts such as McLaren’s new CEO Zak Brown have become remarkably uncommunicative on the subject!
One other aspect of Formula One this weekend will be an in-town promotion of Formula One in downtown Shanghai. For a Grand Prix in such a populated area, the Chinese Grand Prix has been remarkably badly attended. OK, it’s been improving, but the Shanghai International Circuit can accommodate many thousands of people, but such as been the poor attendance that grandstands have been covered up by banners for many years.
Now the sport is being televised in China again, and Liberty are taking the sport downtown to encourage spectators in the future; I’m going to be intrigued to see the effect of this worthy initiative in a major market; it could well lead to more than the four or so more city centre promotions planned for later this year. Shock horror: promotion finally hits Formula One!