Chinese GP: thoughts on the start

Posted on Author Keith Collantine

The top four started in the same order at last year\'s Chinese Grand Prix
The top four started in the same order at last year's Chinese Grand Prix

With a very similar top five on the grid, will we see a repeat of the Fuji chaos at the first corner at Shanghai?

Lewis Hamilton is on pole position but he has title rival Felipe Massa starting in his wheeltracks and the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen alongside him. The presence of Fernando Alonso in fourth on the grid serves to ratchet the tension up another notch.

On top of that, there is an increasing chance of a drizzle of rain in the run-up to the start.

The start

Hamilton has the benefit of the cleaner side of the grid, but how much of a difference that makes at Shanghai is a little hard to tell: the last two races here started in wet conditions. The top four lined up in the same order here last year, and Hamilton shot off into the lead, but that is not necessarily a strong indication of how things will go tomorrow.

The Ferraris have been getting away from the line especially well recently which the Fuji scenario typified: Raikkonen was easily able to pick off Hamilton from second on the grid. Hamilton knows he must not be flustered by a repeat of such a move. Whether he can sufficiently master his competitive instincts to put that caution into action is the big-money question.

What is very different at Shanghai compared to Fuji is the first corner: no ultra-slow hairpin here, instead the tracks curves right and tightens progressively, before screwing back in the opposite direction. It’s like a longer version of the first turn at Sepang, another of Herman Tilke’s track.

The lack of a sudden, sharp braking point tends to lessen the opportunity for first-corner lunges and passes. That said, GP2 Asia racer Earl Bamber managed to pick off a couple of his rivals by taking an unorthodox outside line in the right hander, and benefiting from the track turning left.

If Ferrari expect Raikkonen to beat Hamilton away from the line, perhaps he has been briefed to hug that inside line and back off in an attempt to delay Hamilton, giving Massa the chance to get by. Think back to how well Raikkonen’s little lift on the throttle in front of Hamilton worked out at the first corner at Interlagos last year.

The strategy

Hamilton has been very quick all weekend, so even a situation where he ends the first lap behind both Ferraris isn’t necessarily a disaster for him. It’s doubtful McLaren put him on an aggressively light strategy to take pole position: even though he claimed it by the fairly comfortable margin of 0.3s, he’s had roughly that amount in hand over the Ferraris all weekend.

For Ferrari they simply must get Raikkonen ahead of Hamilton at the start and then either hope Hamilton’s impulsiveness or the stewards’ randomness does the hard work for them. Otherwise they may find themselves having to contain a rapid McLaren.

If Massa pulls off a Hungaroring-style demon start and leads Raikkonen and Hamilton at the end of lap one, Ferrari will surely use Raikkonen to delay Hamilton.

The weather

Early forecasts suggested Sunday would see a sprinkling of rain and as we get closer to the start of the race that still seems likely. We’re not looking at a Silverstone-style downpour, more a light sprinkling.

Autosport has a good projection of the likely rainfall here.

So far this year we’ve seen McLaren stronger as rain falls on a track and when conditions are very wet. But Raikkonen has been the man to watch as the track moves from damp to dry – seemingly able to conjure up more grip using his F2008 than team mate Massa can.

More on the weather in the forum: 2008 Chinese Grand Prix weather watch

How do you think tomorrow’s race will unfold?