The most packed Grand Prix season ever finally draws to a close in Shanghai this weekend. After a successful inaugural race in 2004 the Hermann Tilke-designed venue gets the coveted end-of-season slot – but the jury’s still out on the circuit.
Yes, it’s a colossal venue. Yes, the facilities are outrageously good. Yes, the Â£200m thrown at the circuit dwarfs the sums all other tracks have received. But is the Shanghai International Circuit actually any good? That’s a difficult question to answer.
The first ever Chinese Grand Prix last year was more than a little oddball. Having dominated the season Michael Schumacher spun off in qualifying and spun again in the race, leaving team mate Rubens Barrichello to win.
The race was unusual, if not thrilling, just as the track is unusual, but not challenging. The first corner tightens and tightens before doubling back on itself – this is where Schumacher went off in qualifying.
Then there’s a couple of hairpins and anonymous sweeps. Then the Club complex from Silverstone has apparently been imported, from which the drivers blast down an staggeringly long straight into an impossibly tight hairpin – this is classic Tilke, trying to provoke overtaking. A fiddly half-corner returns the cars to the main straight.
As big and expensive the place is, there’s barely a dozen corners, and not a Eau Rouge / Becketts / 130R / Pouhon among them. In the FIA F1 survey earlier this year, the Â£200m Shanghai International Circuit was in the bottom half.
Coming off the back of a scintillating Japanese Grand Prix, Shanghai has a lot to live up to. At least with Kimi Raikkonen, Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso all qualifying together we should get a close race and a final glimpse of the state of play between them. But Juan Pablo Montoya’s first-lap retirement at the hands of Jacques Villeneuve has once again ruined his race before he’s even got there, and may have handed Renault the constructor’s crown.
With Alonso comfortably the World Driver’s Champion, the Constructor’s Championship is the only title left, and it’s damn close with Renault ahead by two points. Assuming Raikkonen wins with the two Renaults chasing him, Montoya needs to rise to at least third to salvage some Woking pride – which would mean picking off one of the Renaults. Game on!
A victory for anyone not driving a McLaren or Renault looks extremely unlikely. BAR and Toyota both lacked race pace in Japan – Toyota embarrasingly so after their low-fuel glory run in qualifying. Michael Schumacher would be forgiven for being chronically depressed after his slow Ferrari made him look like a backmarker in Suzuka.
This being the last race of the season, several drivers are having their swan song performances for their teams. Rubens Barrichello leaves Ferrari after six years and nine wins, not all of which were gifts from Schumacher. Takuma Sato’s last race for BAR will have to be much better than his appalling home outing last weekend, after which he is lucky to be allowed back behind the wheel at all.
Antonio Pizzonia gets yet another outing for Williams despite having DNF’ed in three of his four so far – two of which were most definitely his fault. Felipe Massa is (still inexplicably) Ferrari-bound from Sauber, and team mate Villeneuve may not cling to his seat in the team that will become BMW in ’05.
Neither Jordan nor Minardi will exist in their present form next year, so who knows what will become of their drivers?