Chinese Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Dâka-hô! Formula 1 returns to the Shanghai Circuit in 2014 for the fourth round of the championship season. The 5.451km runs clockwise is the first circuit on the calendar where tyre temperatures lower tyre deterioration. Despite the cooler temperatures, the Shanghai Circuit is still considerably aggressive in the second sector, a highlight of the track being turns 11 through 13, where drivers flick quickly left before doing an almost complete right hander. Qualifying was greeted with rain today, with teams opting for full wet tyres in the opening session. The wet track conditions were difficult for some drivers, though ultimately meant slippy white bits, and slippy black bits for that matter*. Slight but persistent rain throughout the rest of the sessions saw the field switch to intermediates as a slight drive line appeared. Mercedes unsurprisingly impressive, with Lewis Hamilton comfortably securing pole position. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo will line up along side the Mercedes in P2, more than half a second ahead of Sebastian Vettel in P3.

The Mercedes package continued to dominate throughout all three qualifying sessions, despite wet conditions. Both cars ventured out on wets for Q1, before swapping to intermediates in Q2 and Q3 with the rest of the field. Hamilton remained mostly on top of the timesheet, showing the rest of the field how to set a qualifying lap in the wet. Rosberg followed suit with a similar performance throughout the qualifying, right up until the final minutes of Q3. On his second to last flying lap, Rosberg locked left front tyre into the first corner, choosing to abandon lap for one last run. There was no luck for Rosberg on his final attempt, forgetting the golden rule of a wet track, keep off the white lines. The Mercedes driver sent his F1 W05 into a spin on the final corner on what would have been a perfect lap. Despite the difficulties in the final minutes of the session, Rosberg still lines up on the second row of the grid just behind the reigning world champion in P4.

Wet track conditions undoubtedly favoured both the Red Bulls, though not taking away from Daniel Ricciardo’s P2. The Australian was off to a difficult start, felt the grip from the extreme wet tyres wasn’t good enough during Q1 and Q2. This didn’t seem to interfere too much with his performance, going on to set a Q3 lap time of more than half a second ahead of his teammate. Vettel joined the list of drivers to run wide at the final turn, though on this particular lap in Q2 he remained second fastest. As the session wore on, the Red Bull looked strongest in the middle sector, as expected. Sebastian Vettel’s penultimate flying lap in Q3 was enough to briefly hold P1, until Hamilton snatched that away. Shortly after, Ricciardo would set his P2 lap time, leaving Vettel to beat Ricciardo’s 1:54.455. In the end, Vettel was left 0.505s short and settles for P3. 

Its been a rocky week for the Italian team, though Fernando Alonso gave the team some reason for celebration qualifying next in line from the Mercedes and Red Bulls in P5. The Spaniard was strong throughout all three qualifying and practice sessions, sitting second fastest with 1:57.030 for a stint in Q1. The F14 T’s package definitely favours the seasoned Ferrari driver compared to returning Raikkonen. We’re still waiting to see the team mate battle between two world champions unfold, at this point its all a bit of an anticlimax as Raikkonen continues to struggle with the set up of his car. The Finn had appeared to not to have any grip through the twisty second sector, and almost no control through turns 11 and 12. That being said, Raikkonen is still delivering exceptional drives in a car he clearly isn’t comfortable in. Unluckily, the Finn was pushed down to the drop zone at the end of Q2 as the Williams and Grosjean made their way through. The Finn put in a personal best for his final lap, though still more than a second behind his team mate, it wasn’t enough to get both the Ferraris through. Raikkonen will therefore start P11.

Both Williams made it through to Q3 with Massa out qualifying Bottas. Both the FW36s looked comfortable of the slippy and at times twisty Shanghai Circuit. Massa just pulled himself out of Q2, backing off in Q2 to create a clean track ahead, possibly backing off too much, with Raikkonen slipping passed so he could set his own lap. In Q3, like the rest of the field, Massa made a late dash back to the pits for fresh intermediates for his final Q3 laps. Despite cutting it rather fine, the Brazilian got the most out of his FW36 to line up P6. Bottas delivered a consistent performance throughout the sessions, lining up just behind his team mate in P7.

Grosjean delivered for Lotus today, in difficult track conditions getting the E22 through to Q3. In a slight off moment in Q2, Grosjean touched the white lines in the second sector, flicking the back on the exit of the corner. In a skilled recovery, the Frenchman kept control and continued with his lap. Eventually qualifying in P10 with 1:57.079 on the intermediate tyres. Maldonado didn’t run in qualifying today. With the Lotus failing to set a time, he automatically fails to qualify within the 107% rule and will therefore race at the steward’s discretion. Let him race I think, whats the worst that can happen?

Force India had a rather quiet qualifying, with Hulkenberg once again delivering a strong performance, qualifying in P8. The only real incidents for the German driver came when Hulkenberg out braked himself at turn 11, and then ran wide on the final corner of his final lap in Q2. Despite this little off moment for P10 in Q2, Hulkenberg secured  a spot in the final qualifying session. After 10 minutes on intermediate tyres, the Force India driver delivered a lap time in the 1:56s, good enough for P8. Team mate Sergio Perez had a less impressive qualifying. Though not appearing to suffer from any major incident, the Mexican couldn’t deliver the same pace from the VJM07 as Hulkenberg, eventually qualifying P16. 

The MP4-29 isn’t that much better than the MP4-28, with the McLaren’s still not living up to their season opening performance. Jensen Button’s qualifying wasn’t anything extraordinary, leaving him scraping to get out of Q2. However failing to make it through, forcing the veteran to settle for P12. Magnussen’s drive however should be noted as a positive performance. The Dane didn’t run much in P3,  and being his first visit to Shanghai Circuit, ran reasonably well in the wet conditions. The lap times coming from the rookie driver were strong, and Magnussen scrapped a good timed lap to come in for fresh intermediate tyres for his final flying lap. He got what he could from the Mp4-29, though still only enough for P15 with 1:57.675.

The Toro Rossos both made it through to Q2, with Vergne making an appearance in Q3, opting for the same strategy as the back half of the field. Both Vergne and Kvyat ventured out in Q1 on the intermediate tyres, despite rain still present. Along with Sauber, Toro Rosso were the only team to benefit, with Vergne qualifying in P9, ahead of Kvyat back in P13.

Sauber only made it as far as Q2 in todays session as both ventured out late on intermediate tyres as well in an attempt to leapfrog out of the drop out zone of Q1. Adrian Sutil made it through, though noticeably lacked downforce. In a scrap at the end of Q1, Gutierrez just missed out on going through to the next session, pushing a little too hard on the last lap and losing it on the inters, qualifying P17. 

Caterham were the first team to run on intermediates in Q1, setting the trend to take advantage on any dry line that may have developed on the circuit. Kobayashi set personal bests on the strategy, though it wasn’t enough once the rest of the back markers caught on, eventually qualifying P15. Ericsson also ran on intermediates to line up P20.

Marussia’s Jules Bianchi looked twitchy through the middle sector on the intermediate tyres, while improving his time, he ran wide on the final corner to spoil his final flying lap, qualifying P19. Chilton qualified behind his team mate in P21, no surprises there.

A wet qualifying usually acts as an equaliser between teams, and can shake up the grid a little. It’s reasonably clear that the Shanghai International Circuit really favours high downforce package for the middle sector, one that Red Bull seem to have down pact. With tomorrow’s race still forecast to be dry, Mercedes may again walk away with a win. However, if conditions dampen it will most likely be a Red Bull versus Mercedes race. It would be refreshing, despite only four races in, if someone could challenge Hamilton for the lead. Personally, I’d like to see Rosberg leap frog his team mate early on in the race. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

– Alex

* Not a euphasmism

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