2017 year marks the 14th visit to the Shanghai International Circuit. The 5.4km circuit is pretty unforgiving with one of the longest straights on the calendar so underpowered cars will have a tough time and reliability could prove problematic, although curiously, there were no DNFs last year.
The question on everyone’s lips going in to the weekend is – will we see more overtaking? China lends itself to overtaking with 128 in the race last year and Hamilton coming from the back of the grid to finish 7th. The long straights mean the DRS is more effective here, so keep an eye on turn 1 and turn 14, but will we see overtakes out with the DRS zones? This will be the real test of the new regulations, Albert Park was never going to set the world alight with overtakes – it never has, so China will reveal just how worried we need to be about the remainder of the season.
McLaren have gotten ahead of the game and announced that they expect to have a very difficult weekend with Eric Boullier stating that the track will “expose our weaknesses more than Albert Park”. The deployment issues that have plagued them for the past 2 years persist, with estimates of their top speed ranging from 20-35kph behind the front runners. There is a possibility of rain over the weekend so, with reliability continuing to be a concern, they may be able to go easier on their fragile power units and take them to the end. Honda Chief Yusuke Hasegawa has confirmed that there have been personnel changes coming in to this weekend in an attempt to speed up improvements to the power unit, although he was quick to stress that this is not an overnight solution.
Amid all kinds of speculation that Alonso could throw the towel in before the year is out, it will be interesting to see if his words about the state of the team are any kinder this weekend than last. In an interview today with Ted Kravitz, he stated that he believes that Ferrari are genuine title contenders for 2017 adding “They were strong in winter testing and in the first race they had the pace to win it. Let’s wait and see – hopefully we will have a more interesting championship with not only Mercedes”. This is significant as his reason for leaving Ferrari to join the McHonda reunion was that he didn’t think there would be an opportunity to win the championship in the next 5 years at Ferrari and that was what he was looking for. Could he be lining himself up for a job offer, if Kimi’s seat becomes available? Certainly one to watch.
Red Bull may not be overly excited about their hopes this weekend either. With Renault having to resort to 2016 spec MGU-H for the time being, it is clear that they are short on power, coming 12th and 16th in the speed traps in Australia. Verstappen had a quiet first outing although he was able to stick reasonably close to Räikkönen but it isn’t easy to place the Red Bulls, with the start of their campaign falling somewhat short of the hype. Verstappen said in Thursday’s press conference that he is confident they can get the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari to under 1 second in the coming races, giving an insight as to how far behind they feel they are. One thing is for sure, they will be hoping they are right on top of reliability, with Ricciardo’s last outing resulting 2 race day breakdowns.
Keep an eye on the rookies this weekend as they had contrasting fortunes last time out. Lance Stroll hit the barriers in FP3 messing up his set up for qualifying before he was forced to retire from the race with brake failure that some say was directly attributable to his sledge hammer left foot. He looked unstable and unsure in the car all weekend and has admitted that he is planning a different approach in China, with hopes of a marked improvement in his performance. Ferrari reserve, Giovinazzi surprised everyone by almost out qualifying team mate Ericsson at a mornings notice when Wehrlein had to pull out of the weekend. This absence from the team has been extended to this weekend and possibly Bahrain as well and with the motive behind it starting to come under intense scrutiny, the eyes of the world are on the young Ferrari hopeful. He felt in Australia that he didn’t know where he was with the tyres and went too easy at the start of the race, but that with a full weekends running here, he should be able to get more out of the car and improve.
Last year Rosberg won by 30 seconds from Vettel. If Australia is anything to go by, we are unlikely to see that kind of dominance here this year but it does remain to be seen who will come out on top. Discussion since Australia has focussed on whether Hamilton could have taken the win if he could have prolonged his first stint, avoiding being stuck behind Verstappen. Maybe we would have seen the battle between the two that we have been waiting for. Vettel is keen to downplay the what the win in Melbourne means for the rest of the season and is adamant that Mercedes are still the favourites.
So this weekend, could Ferrari make it 2 in a row, or will Hamilton return to the top step of the podium? Maybe Bottas will score his maiden win in Formula 1 for Mercedes.