Can Vettel catch the McLarens in China?


It’s often said that sports builds characters but in Malaysia Fernando Alonso’s showed that sports reveal character. The Spaniard’s performance at Sepang was, quite frankly, unbelievable.

The Ferrari F2012 proved to be a nightmare throughout winter testing and the opening race of the season in Australia but in the treacherous conditions of Malaysia Alonso showed his class and produced arguably the most impressive race of his career.

This weekend however Alonso is looking ahead to the Chinese Grand Prix in reflective, and more importantly realistic, terms:

“Nothing has changed since Malaysia and so I expect a tough weekend,” commented Alonso on Thursday. “There will be no big surprises, as although the car has some small improvements, there is nothing big coming for this race.

“I expect this is the same situation with the other teams, which is why I feel the general picture will be the same as at the last two races. This means we will struggle to get through into Q3 on Saturday and then on Sunday, we will be hoping to get a good start and then do a good job of tyre management.”

With Alonso leading the championship it would seem that some of the pressure should have lifted from Ferrari but the Malaysian success has done little other than buy time for the Italian squad as they look to improve their fortunes. The team hasn’t won in China since 2007 and even though they will have some upgrades to the car this weekend it is clear that Alonso is already focussed on damage limitation.

The Shanghai International Circuit

China is a nation of contrasts and so is the Shanghai International Circuit. With two high speed straights the average lap speed is quite high even though the majority of the lap is spent with drivers negotiating long slow corners. These corners place a particularly demand on engineers with understeer to be avoided at all costs.

The entire package gets a stern workout in China with the tight and twisty sections placing an emphasis on mechanical grip while the long straights place a premium on aerodynamic performance. Shanghai is also a difficult circuit for engines with low gear torque crucial for when exiting the numerous second gear corners while top speed and power is of concern on the straights. This contrast in requirements makes Shanghai once of the most challenging circuits on the calendar in terms of finding the perfect balance.

Shanghai has a much smoother track surface compared to Sepang and while tyre wear will play a role in the outcome of the race it is likely that the low ambient temperatures should give the Pirelli rubber a. The lap opens with drivers attacking the first part of turn one flat out before the seventh gear right hander tightens into second gear leading into turn three. The track then opens up with the acceleration zone that is turn five.

 

Jenson Button, winner of the opening race of the season, had this to say about the challenging opening section of the lap:

“It’s a good modern circuit with a couple of interesting touches” said the former world champion. “The first corner is quite unique: you enter it at full-throttle in seventh gear, then come down through the gears as the corner continually tightens. It’s a very long corner – it’s all about being patient – and there’s a little bump right on the entry, which can make it quite tricky too.

 

The middle sector of the lap begins at turn six, another second gear corner, which leads onto the thrilling complex of turn seven and eight before drivers tackle turns nine and ten in third gear. This section of corners will prove very important for drivers as they lead into the final sector with the DRS detection zone at turn 13.

The main overtaking place on the track is at the end of the back straight and with DRS enabled it is likely that drivers could enjoy a considerable advantage as they approach the braking zone. We saw in Sepang that DRS is a facilitator of overtaking but this is the first time that a medium speed corner will lead onto a long straight for drivers to use the system.

Red Bull look to bounce back from poor start to the season

The reigning world champions have struggled in the opening two races with Sebastian Vettel’s outbursts after the Malaysian race having been the centre of much discussion and it will be very interesting to see how the German reacts this weekend if McLaren once again have the fastest car on the track.

Even though Vettel started his full-time Formula 1 career with Toro Rosso he has, by and large, had the fastest car on the grid throughout his career. This has given him a great advantage over the last three years but it has also given him a sense of entitlement and this flashed to the surface last time out following his crash with Narain Karthikeyan.

In China Vettel will have to produce a solid performance but with Red Bull’s technical director, Adrian Newey, say that the team will run two different specifications of the RB8 in China on Friday” it is clear that the team are still at a loss to explain their poor performance thus far in 2012.

For Vettel the first step in reasserting his dominance over the grid will outqualify Mark Webber for the first time this season. The Australian struggled last year to adapt to the development of the blown exhaust which required a completely different driving technique than a “traditional” race car. With exhausts blowing now banned it is clear that Mark has adjusted to the loss of rear downforce much more effectively than Vettel and that found his footing much quicker this season.

The Australian knows that in the final year of his contract that he has to perform otherwise he will be surplus to requirements at the team but so far he has shown flashes of the speed and talent that almost netted him the title in 2010.

Speaking before the race Webber was clearly looking forward to returning to China:

“Shanghai is a track that has been pretty good to me in the past,” said the Australian. “I’m yet to notch up my first victory, but I’ve had some memorable podiums there, notably the extreme wet race in 2009 and my third place from 18th on the grid. I expect this year’s race to be as exciting, but clearly I’m looking to start in a much better position. It’s generally cool, so it’s very different to Malaysia. It’s going to be interesting to see how the long straight will affect people’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of top speeds; the flow of the rest of the circuit is something that I really enjoy.”

With Webber utilising an evolution of the car from Malaysia during Friday practice it will be intriguing to notice whether the team has found a solution to the problems that have caused such a poor start to the season.

After dominating the opening two qualifying sessions of the year there is little doubt that McLaren has the fastest car on the grid in the early stages of the season and it is likely that this preeminent position will remain theirs until the F1 circus returns to Europe and the development cycle gets into full swing.

For Jenson Button the Malaysian Grand Prix was a disaster. In conditions that were tailor made for the former champion it seemed that the race was his to lose but a clash with a backmarker following a pitstop cost him dearly and ended any hopes of challenging for the win were dashed.

Two years ago in China Button displayed the poise that has become his trademark in recent years when he judged the conditions perfectly to claim victory. A repeat of that victory would be the perfect antidote to his Sepang struggles but his main rival this weekend should be his teammate, Lewis Hamilton.

The Englishman has won twice in China, and should have won in 2007 before losing control on the pit entry, and even though the 2008 world champion will be hampered by a five place grid penalty it is likely that he should be able to overcome that and get into the lead battle quite early in the race.

The likelihood of a safety car will also play into Hamilton’s hands. Formula 1 has made it pretty clear in recent years that even it rains heavily the field will form behind the safety car until the worst of the weather passes and with rain a distinct possibility this weekend it could play into Lewis’ hands as he looks to get back on terms with his teammate and the rest of the expected pace setters from his lower than expected grid position.

Can Mercedes and Lotus bridge the gap?

Both Mercedes and Lotus have shown a lot of promise so far in 2012 but both haven’t been able to convert that into the type of finishing positions that their undoubted pace represents. For Mercedes it has been especially galling with just a single point to show for their efforts even though the team, and particularly Michael Schumacher, look more competitive this year.

The German looks rejuvenated by his new car and having run third in the early stages of the opening race before retiring with mechanical failure clearly buoyed his spirits before a stunning Q3 effort in Malaysia saw him qualify third. The team have focussed on improving their tyre life for this race and even though their much discussed rear wing is being protested by Lotus this weekend it is still likely that the silver cars will be amongst the front runners this weekend.

It has been another tumultuous week for Lotus with the team having ended their sponsorship agreement with Lotus their identity is once again under the spotlight. Their pace however is not in question. Both Kimi Raikkonen, fifth last time out, and Romain Grosjean have shown that the car is competitive. For the Frenchman however it is high time that he repays the team’s faith in him.

His speed is not in doubt but having only completed one lap this season, following two accidents, it is clear that he needs to have a solid finish this weekend. In his eight Grand Prix starts Grosjean has been an early retiree in half of those races. Unless he wants to be under severe pressure in the coming months it is crucial that he takes the car home safely this weekend.

His teammate, Raikkonen, has looked very comfortable on his return to the sport following two years in the WRC and with Hamilton’s grid penalty a start on row two is not out of the question such is the pace of the Lotus.

Technical challenges in China

The Shanghai circuit requires a balanced setup with the long straights necessitating a high top speed but the circuit also has some of the tightest corners on the calendar and as a result a driver needs a front end that the can use with confidence.

Finding this balance is difficult and as McLaren’s Sam Michael said:

“The corners in Shanghai are all heavily loaded on entry, particularly Turn 1” he said. “This normally requires a strong front end for the driver to place the car accurately. Traction is also important with there being four slow speed corner exits around the lap. Track temperatures are cooler again in Shanghai, much like they were during the Australian GP.”

Sauber’s head of track enginner, Giampaolo Dall’ara also commented on the difficulties facing drivers and engineers this weekend:

“The Shanghai International Circuit is a very demanding track,” said the Italian. “Its peculiarities are several sections with a combination of braking and lateral forces as well as traction and lateral forces. This puts some demands on the car with regards to braking stability and overall balance. The straights are also quite relevant for lap times, especially the very long one where you need speed in qualifying as well as for overtaking in the race. We are being allocated the soft and the medium tyre compounds. Normally the durability is not an issue but, as the track is not often used, there can be graining and high wear levels at the beginning of the weekend. We had some difficulties with tyre degradation in hot conditions in Malaysia, however, this should be less of an issue in Shanghai, because the tarmac is smooth and overall there are fewer high speed corners with high lateral forces. What can be a challenge is the weather. In April there is always quite a high possibility of rain, which is not as dramatic as in Malaysia, but still is something we have to bear in mind when planning the weekend.”

Weather for this weekend

As ever the weather is expected to play a role in the Chinese Grand Prix. Local forecast is for a showery opening day of action and for rain on race day. Saturday however is expected to be cloudy but not wet with temperatures throughout the weekend in the mid to high teens.

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