2012 Chinese Grand Prix preview
Last year’s Chinese Grand Prix was rated the best race of the season by F1 Fanatic readers.
In dry conditions the race showcased the best F1′s new tyres and rules changes had to offer, with the outcome in doubt until the end. Lewis Hamilton snatched victory from Sebastian Vettel late in the race while Mark Webber raced from 18th on the grid to finish third.
Will we see another race to remember this year?
The vast scale of the Shanghai International Circuit – built for the first Chinese Grand Prix in 2004 – dwarfs almost anything else on the F1 calendar.
But the track itself offers little to get excited about: “one of the pretty standard modern tracks,” says Heikki Kovalainen.
“It’s a mix of low and medium speed corners, a very long straight with a tight corner at the end that provides a natural point to overtake, and a couple of tight fiddly bits you never quite feel like you get completely right.”
He’s not the only driver left underwhelmed by the venue: “It’s not my favourite race of the year” admitted Nico Hulkenberg.
Shanghai circuit information
|Lap length||5.451km (3.387 miles)|
|Distance||56 laps (305.1km/189.6 miles)|
|Lap record*||1’32.238 (Michael Schumacher, 2004)|
|Fastest lap||1’32.238 (Michael Schumacher, 2004)|
|Tyres||Medium and Soft|
*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix
However the track, which holds its ninth F1 race this year, has begun to acquire some character with the passage of time. The high-speed entry to turn one features one of the fiercest bumps in F1 that can easily catch the unwary.
Exiting turn 13 the drivers are hard on the throttle for a whisker under 1.4km before arriving at one of the hardest braking zones of the year. Deceleration peaks at 6G as they shed over 250kph (155mph) for the 68kph hairpin at the end.
The DRS zone is situated here in the race and is unchanged from what was used last year, when it tended to make overtaking rather too easy. The race saw 77 overtakes, more than half of which were the new breed of ‘motorway-style’ DRS passes.
Rain is often a feature at the Chinese round. Since the race was moved from the end of the calendar to the beginning, two of the three races held have been in wet conditions.
But as last year’s race showed, you don’t necessarily need rain for a great race here. Pirelli are bringing their soft and medium tyres – the same compounds used in Melbourne – which will take a pounding around Shanghai’s many fast corners. Last year’s race saw drivers adopt a range of different strategic approaches.
The RB8 has looked quick over a race distance. But it doesn’t have the edge in qualifying the team enjoyed last year, which was the cornerstone of much of their success.
The same goes for Sebastian Vettel, who has been fractionally slower than his team mate in the two qualifying sessions so far.
After a solid damage-limiting drive to second in Australia, Vettel was on course for a similar result in Malaysia. Then came that needless tangle with Narain Karthikeyan.
However the car isn’t far off the McLarens and they could well be back on form in China.
McLaren won’t be disappointed with their start to the season but nor can they be entirely pleased at having turned a pair of qualifying one-twos into one win and a couple of third places.
China has been a happy hunting ground for them with three wins in the last four races.
Jenson Button, who won the 2010 race, expects to see teams converging on set-up after spending time analysing the data from the first two rounds: “There will be the usual set-up compromises: setting the car up to offer good downforce through some of the faster corners, but without sacrificing too much speed along the straights.
“We saw different teams address that balance in different ways over the first two races, so it will be interesting to see if things start to converge this weekend after a few weeks back in Europe.”
That Fernando Alonso is leading the drivers’ championship is a tribute to his superlative skills rather than the performance of the F2012. The team admit their car is the best part of a second off the front runners.
The team have brought forward some updates for this race but even so they expect a weekend of damage limitation while they ready their major upgrade for the start of the European season.
The intrigue around the W03, and its controversial ‘front wing F-duct’, is far in excess of what the car has actually achieved so far this year: a single point inherited by Michael Schumacher after Pastor Maldonado retired in Malaysia.
The car’s superior straight-line performance will be a boon on Shanghai’s long straight in qualifying. But more important is whether the team can get to the bottom of their poor tyre degradation which is hurting them in races.
Nico Rosberg led the last two races here and finished on the podium in 2010. He said: “The track is quite different to the first two, as it demands more from the front tyres than the rears – in other words, what is termed a front-limited circuit.
“We know that we have a quick car, but we are looking to improve our long run pace in China next weekend and to have a better race performance.”
The feeling at Lotus is that they have a car with considerable potential but have been unable to capitalise on it due to various setbacks in the opening races: particularly Kimi Raikkonen’s qualifying problems and Romain Grosjean’s inability to make it beyond lap three.
What they want in China is a “normal” weekend – no hiccups, no rain and no hospitality unit fires.
Raikkonen is also hoping to eradicated the power steering problems that have plagued him since the start of the year. “We’re almost there,” he said.
However they’re not in as comfortable a position as they were at the end of last year and will need to wring every last hundredth from the VJM05 to keep scoring.
The pair were closely matched in Malaysia – Paul di Resta finishing less than four seconds ahead of Hulkenberg. This weekend Jules Bianchi will drive di Resta’s car in first practice.
Sergio Perez was the star of the Malaysian Grand Prix. But he had already demonstrated the C31′s potential Australia where he briefly ran second despite having front wing damage.
Looking ahead to Shanghai Perez said: “The high speed corners of the track should suit our car. I especially like turn one – it is a long and pretty difficult bend. The long straight will not be the easiest part for us, but, again, we have to maximise our potential.”
The battle of the rookies at Toro Rosso is shaping up nicely, with both Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne getting their first points on the board in the opening two races.
The STR7 wasn’t quite as competitive in Malaysia as it had been in Australia, and both will be keen to avoid elimination in Q1.
The team already seem to have made a significant step forward compared to last year. Had it not been for piston failure on Pastor Maldonado’s car they would have had a double points finish in Malaysia.
Valtteri Bottas will drive Bruno Senna’s car in first practice.
Caterham appear to have fallen short of their goal of bringing the midfield in range but will continue to pursue them with some updates for the CT01 this weekend.
“We have bodywork updates targeted at increased load and more efficient cooling, given the lower ambient temperatures we will to see in Shanghai,” explained technical director Mark Smith.
HRT made it into the race in Malaysia – though Vettel and Button probably wished they hadn’t. Expect to see them most often when being lapped by the leaders.
Timo Glock capitalised on problems for Heikki Kovalainen to split the Caterhams in Malaysia.
He’s not likely to repeat the feat without a bit of help, but the fact that the MR01 was capable of that much has come as something of a surprise given their lack of pre-season testing.
2012 driver form
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2012 Chinese Grand Prix
- F1 fans’ videos from the Chinese and Bahrain races
- First win makes Rosberg the Chinese GP Driver of the Weekend
- Rosberg’s China win rated fifth-best race of last five years
- Top ten pictures from the Chinese Grand Prix
- Rosberg becomes F1′s third second-generation race winner
Image © Pirelli/LAT, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Force India/Sutton, Williams/LAT