Time heals all wounds but is three weeks enough time for Mark Webber to move on from having a Grand Prix victory stolen away from him? It’s highly unlikely that the Australian will be anything less than supremely motivated to bounce back with a victory at the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend and the tension within the Red Bull garage should be intense.
With Webber having spent the last couple of weeks at home in Australia surfing and training away from the media glare that was focused on his teammate he should be at his best this weekend. Webber has always used any case of, perceived or otherwise, preferential treatment of Sebastian Vettel as motivation for some of his best performances and with the backing of almost the entire paddock he should be at his very best this weekend.
Think back to Silverstone 2010 when Red Bull had two new front wings at the British Grand Prix. Vettel damaged his nose and the team decided to take Webber’s wing from his car and give it to the German. It’s easy to forget that Red Bull had already decided that neither driver would use the wing in the race….
Webber however spoke out aggressively about this favouritism and used it as motivation for his famous victory where he celebrated by radioing to the team “not bad for a number two!”
Will this weekend be another time where Webber finds his motivation to perform at his very best and prove to the world that he is still capable of beating Vettel? China has traditionally been a circuit where Vettel has had the edge on his teammate but it would be unwise to underestimate a motivated Webber.
The Shanghai International Circuit
The Chinese Grand Prix circuit is like a microcosm of the nation itself. It is a circuit of contradictions and contrasts. Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn succinctly commented that “the circuit itself is challenging with fast curves, tight corners and two hairpins. The layout requires good straightline speed, braking stability and traction.”
The majority of the track is quite smooth, with only turn 14 suffering from a bumpy entry under braking. With the smooth surface and smooth kerbs you can see drivers attack the slower speed corners and try and create as straight a line as possible from corner entry to exit and maintain as high an apex speed as possible.
With the circuit featuring one of the longest straights of the season, measuring over 1.3km, you could be forgiven for thinking that Shanghai would be one of the faster tracks on the calendar but it in fact has very few moments other than this straight where engines are stressed at full throttle.
Rémi Taffin, Renault Sport’s F1 Head of Operations, talked about the difficulties of the varying requirements of Shanghai places on engine manufacturers:
“It is unique on the calendar,” said the Frenchman. “There is a 1.3km straight where the engine is at full revs and top speed for nearly 18secs, but a relatively low percentage of the lap is spent at full throttle. The engine therefore needs to deliver throughout the entire range.”
The majority of the lap is spent at slow speeds with the lap opening with the snail like opening sector where drivers are forced through the incredibly technical, never ending series of opening corners. The lap opens with the wide open entry to turn one but the right hander gets tighter and tighter and a slightly over zealous driver will find that if they get on the power too aggressively they will be pushed wide and lose lots of time and ruin a lap.
Force India’s Adrian Sutil actually talked about this earlier this week when he looked forward to this weekend’s race:
“There are some unusual corners, such as turn one – the long right hander,” said the German. “You need to be perfect through these slow speed corners or you lose too much time. It’s wide and you can run some different lines through a lot of the corners, which is probably why it’s a track where you can overtake quite easily.”
The middle sector of the lap is faster but again there are slow speed corners where drivers can lose a lot of time with a slight mistake. It is often said that while fast corners will get the adrenaline pumping it is at slower speeds that have a much greater influence on lap-times.
Shanghai is the epitome of this with low speed traction placed at a premium even with the aforementioned long straight. With Shanghai seeing precious little running during the rest of the year the track surface plays a key role in how teams will look to set up their cars with Taffin commenting that the dirty nature of the Shanghai surface playing a key role in how the demands placed on engines is quite unique to China:
“Engine braking needs to be consistent to assist with a stable rear end,” said the engineer. “But the top speed must not suffer on the long straight. The high amount of dust from the factories around the circuit means grip is low, but can also be ingested into the engine, putting it at risk from internal damage.”
It is clear that Shanghai is a track of contrasts but it is also quite popular with the drivers. Last year Nico Rosberg was victorious, the first victory for Mercedes in their current guise. The German has been strong at the track throughout his eight year Grand Prix career and he is looking forward to returning to the scene of his first victory:
“I travel to China next week with very good memories from winning my first Formula One race in Shanghai last year, and having led the race there for the past three years,” commented Rosberg. “I enjoy the Shanghai track a great deal and I have a positive feeling going there with the car that we have at the moment.
“The team have been working very hard to develop our car since returning from Malaysia and I will be at the factory on Monday to complete my preparations in the simulator for the next two races. We’ve had a strong start to the season and I’m confident that we can keep pushing and hopefully score some good results in China and Bahrain.”
While Rosberg is looking forward to this weekend his compatriot, Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, admits that this is not a venue that he is particularly looking forward to visiting:
“The circuit in Shanghai is not particularly one of my favourite tracks,” admitted Hulkenberg. “Nevertheless it’s a demanding one, especially the first few corners and the corners before the back straight. Tyres and strategy will be very important during the weekend.”
“I have a better feeling now I have driven my first race in the C32, especially because we were able to collect a lot of information. In Malaysia we scored points and that is also my goal for China.”
Intra team battle at Red Bull will be the focus of attention
The Red Bull garage always has the potential for fireworks with the intensely competitive natures of both Vettel and Webber always liable to spark conflict. For the most part of their five year relationship the pair have done a reasonable job of keeping their relationship in check and not allowing their rivalry to spill over into the public domain on more than a handful of occasions.
Maintaining this level of public decorum is now likely to be impossible. Webber will have little reason to feel that he should offer any level of acceptance to what he will see as his teammate’s betrayal. As far as Mark will be concerned there is little reason to look for the Malaysian incident to be swept under the carpet and while he will be unlikely to bridge the subject without prompt he won’t avoid putting extra pressure on Vettel by stoking the media’s appetite for this story.
It is ironic that Shanghai offered the first shoots of Red Bull’s upcoming domination of the sport in 2009. Vettel claimed his second career victory and the team’s first victory in a dominant one-two finish in difficult conditions. This weekend will probably be one where the German tries to rebuild his relationships within the team because it was clear in the aftermath of Sepang that team principal Christian Horner was fuming with his driver’s refusal to follow instructions.
The added risk of having his drivers’ race one another in the final stint of the race meant that their engines and gearboxes were put under unnecessary strain and there was an obvious risk of the team finishing the race with both cars in the gravel trap and a sure fire 43 points being lost.
Horner’s job is to maximise the results of the team and make sure that come November and the season’s end that they win another Constructors’ title. Vettel’s selfishness in Malaysia could have placed their chances in jeopardy and Horner is unlikely to forget that in a hurry.
For Sebastian this race will present an opportunity to race at a track that he has performed well at in the past and he knows that the easiest way for him to move on from the furore would be with another victory. Once the visor clicks into place and Vettel is sitting in his car he is as hard and competitive a driver as anyone but outside of the car he is generally a friendly and talkative young man. He will have been hurt by the media reaction to his decision in Malaysia but ultimately he has shown on numerous occasions a mental resolve that he will have to call upon this weekend.
The subject of Vettel’s refusal to follow team orders has meant that lots of team principals have been asked have they ever faced a similar incident where a driver disregarded an order. Eric Bouillier, team principal of Lotus, talked about how an issue like this can affect the morale within a team:
“It happens because of the adrenaline and excitement of winning a race, but I think in Formula 1 it should not happen,” said the Frenchman. “When it happens you need to fix it and fix it quickly. Yes, one of our drivers if famous for doing pretty much what we wants, but when you have 600 people behind you, there is a certain respect you must have for the team.”
The saga of Sepang will run for another while but both Red Bull and Vettel will look to move on from it this weekend.
Raikkonen and Lotus look to bounce back
Kimi Raikkonen fell back to earth in Malaysia with the Melbourne winner largely anonymous throughout proceedings. It had been expected that the tyre advantage enjoyed in Australia would translate to the following race at Sepang but circumstances worked against Kimi over the course of the race as the Finn admitted when looking back at Sepang:
“Malaysia was a tough race,” said the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix winner. “The start was not good and then I lost part of my front wing on the first lap. The car didn’t handle too well after that and with the wet conditions it was pretty tricky. The pace wasn’t too bad, but it could have been much better when you look at our times on Friday.”
Last year Lotus struggled in China but the new car does seem to have wide operating window so it will be interesting to see if Raikkonen can bounce back this weekend. His teammate however will simply be looking to find consistent handling from his car. Romain Grosjean suffered badly in the opening races with the car suddenly snapping into oversteer or understeer at random times.
The Frenchman was frustrated by this at both early season races but the package has the potential to be strong and if Grosjean can find a consistent setup he could spring a surprise in Shanghai. The three week break will have allowed Grosjean to spend time analysing the data to try and find a solution to his handling problems.
“It’s been frustrating for me as sometimes the car gives me what I want and sometimes it doesn’t, even if the conditions and setup are very similar,” admitted the Frenchman. “I’ve been working closely with my engineers and we made good progress over the last race weekend. The car and the latest tyres seem to be very sensitive to having the balance exactly right so that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Balancing the tyres is very difficult for the drivers but especially so in the midfield. In Melbourne we saw that at the front Raikkonen was able to conserve his tyre wear however his teammate suffered the same excessive tyre wear as everyone else. Grosjean was obviously driving at a much slower race pace but with dirty air and less front end grip the tyres grained and Grosjean suffered badly from wearing rubber. The same issue affected him in Sepang when he was behind Felipe Massa so finding a way to qualify closer to the front will likely hold the key for Grosjean having any chance of fighting for the podium.
Has McLaren had enough time to find performance?
McLaren’s miserable performance in Melbourne was one of the biggest surprises of the season opener and with Malaysia taking place a week later there was little chance of the team finding a performance advantage in the meantime. The last three weeks however have given the team an opportunity to analyse the data from the opening races and try and find some performance from their troublesome car.
Jenson Button started the year as a likely title contender but the Australian performance brought the Englishman back to earth with a bump. He is however a relentless individual and the last three weeks would have given him lots of time to think about ways to drive the team, and the cars development, forward.
The former world champion is looking at China as another chance to start his campaign:
“In a funny way, the Chinese Grand Prix almost feels like something of a reboot of the start of my season,” admitted the Englishman. “Taking home two points from the first two races obviously wasn’t what we had in mind at the beginning of the year, but I think everybody in the team has picked themselves up and really attacked the task of addressing our car’s issues. We know where we’re losing performance, so I think we’re actually all looking forward to seeing just what we can achieve in Shanghai.
“The important thing for us as a team is to go into the weekend with clear focus, hone our strengths across the sessions and increase our understanding of the car. I definitely think there’s everything to play for with this championship, and I can’t wait to get back into the cockpit to start the fight again.”
Whether or not the team can find enough performance this weekend is unlikely but as long as they make progress the team will be pleased with the weekend. Having struggled so badly in the last two races
His teammate, Sergio Perez, has talked a lot over the last month about just how much work the team are able to do back at base. The Mexican has been able to use the simulator over the last couple of weeks but the sheer work ethic of the team at the McLaren Technology Centre has moved Perez to be bullish about their prospects going forward:
“We go into round three, and I feel there’s a lot of positivity within the team,” said Perez. “We know that we under-performed in Australia and Malaysia, but, Jenson and I nonetheless managed to score some points. We may not have been as far up the order as we’d have liked, but those points-finishes mean the team has now extended its unbroken scoring run to 60 races – that’s pretty incredible, and a nice record to be able to maintain. Like everyone within the team, I’m really looking forward to China – it’s a great track with a little bit of everything – and I think it’ll be a good test of the car.”
Team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, faced a similar challenge in 2009 when the team brought a terrible car to the early season races but gradually improved their competiveness as the season progressed and eventually the team won races. This year’s car is nowhere near as poor as the 2009 model but developing an understanding of the problems and shortcomings of the car will be key to how they can move forward.
Given that the team has made some major philosophical shifts with the new car it is understandable, with hindsight, that they are not as competitive as initially expected but the three week break should have given them an opportunity to improve their package.
“We are confident of being able to implement a number of changes this weekend that will widen its operating window and, potentially, improve its performance,” commented Whitmarsh. “The team’s ability to respond has been exemplary and both Jenson and Checo has been superb. They have shown themselves to be true, inspirational leaders. The engineers, designers and mechanics, too, have worked tirelessly and painstakingly to unlock the car’s potential, and we feel confident that we are starting to turn the page.”
McLaren are unlikely to suddenly turn their pumpkin into a carriage this weekend but they should be able to show signs of improvement in the next ten days at both China and Bahrain.
Rookies gear up for Shanghai
Marussia’s Jules Bianchi has enjoyed a superb start to his season and been incredibly competitive for the tail end team. The Frenchman has bolstered his reputation significantly in the opening two races and his dominance of his teammate, Max Chilton, has brought many to question whether Force India were wise to overlook him over the winter.
The Silverstone based team’s loss has been Marussia’s gain and given that he has been close to matching the pace of the more established team’s in the opening two races as he gains experience he could start snapping at their heels in the coming races. It was unfortunate for Bianchi that there has been a three week break but he will be looking to maintain his momentum in China:
“I’m really looking forward to heading to China and getting back to the racing,” he said. “Things had started out so well that it was almost a shame to have to stop for a few weeks, but for the Team it is very important to have the time to look at what we have achieved and how to continue moving forward. For me also, I was able to reflect on what has been a bit of a whirlwind, but a very positive start to my first season of F1 nonetheless. I am quite happy with the progress so far. It’s all about maintaining the momentum now. The target for this race is to keep closing on the guys ahead and be challenging them consistently, lap for lap.”
Chilton will be looking to bounce back from a difficult opening pair of races where he was found wanting in comparison to his teammate but the Englishman is looking forward to getting back to racing this weekend:
“The break since Malaysia has been really beneficial,” commented Chilton. “On the one hand it has given us the chance to reflect on the first two races and what we need to do to keep on making progress. On the other hand, off the back of the first two races of my F1 career, it has also felt a bit like an eternity and I can’t wait to head to China now and get back to racing!”
Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde on the other hand is looking to get as much dry running as possible as he tries to get a better understanding of his car:
“It would be good if it was sunny,” said the Dutchman. “That would mean we could get the most number of laps done and focus on improving our setup options for qualifying, using the practice sessions to give us as many options as possible for the race but also for quali. I didn’t have the car behaving exactly as I’d like in either Australia or Malaysia so I want to get that right in China.”
At Williams Valtteri Bottas has had a good start to the season and having practiced at Shanghai last season, in his role as reserve driver, he has some experience of the track and he feels that this and the similarities to Sepang should help battle for the first points of his career this weekend:
“This is a track that shares similar characteristics to the last Grand Prix in Malaysia,” commented the Finn. “I was unlucky not to score my first points in the last race and whilst we aren’t quite where we feel we should be, the team has been working hard to understand the car and bring a package to this race that’s a step forward in performance.”
Setup challenges facing the teams this weekend
The contrasts of the Shanghai circuit obviously means that finding a compromise between top speed for the long straight and good acceleration is key for engineers this weekend. They also need to find a way to ensure that drivers have good grip in the many slow speed corners while also allowing for quick direction changes in some of the higher speed corners.
Sauber’s Tom McCullough, the Swiss squad’s head of Track Engineering, commented about how his team will approach this weekend:
“The Shanghai circuit has a good mix of low, medium and high speed corners,” said the Englishman as he looked forward to the weekend. “The track has several technical sections where corners lead straight into further corners requiring a good car balance and precise driving.
“The smooth track surface and typically low track temperatures have a significant impact on how the tyres perform – especially at the start of the race weekend whilst the track is cleaning up. Pirelli have allocated the Soft and Medium compounds which is the first time we have this pairing this season.”
Lotus technical director, James Allison, also discussed the difficulties of finding the balance needed in Shanghai:
“China presents quite a different challenge to the last two circuits,” he said. “Melbourne has a lot of medium speed corners with relatively few at either end of the scale, while Sepang has a reasonable spread; perhaps slightly biased towards the more high speed corners than average. Shanghai by contrast has almost no high speed corners, featuring predominantly low speed ones with a smattering of medium. Some of the lower speed corners are also extended in their radius, even with tightening arcs. This provides quite a stern test for the tyres, as you have a significant excess of torque over grip making it very easy to wreck a set of rear tyres rather quickly.”
Strategy for this weekend
As McCullough outlined the teams will once again be forced to manage their tyres this weekend and it could be a major challenge for them in the early stages of the Grand Prix. With full fuel tanks and an abrasive track surface we are very likely to see severe tyre wear in the opening stint of the race.
Paul Hembery of Pirelli commented on how the Italian manufacturer is expecting to see three stops this weekend:
“We’ll be bringing our P Zero White medium and P Zero Yellow soft tyres to China,” said the Englishman. “This is the same combination as last year although of course the tyres are generally all softer and faster this year. Shanghai is definitely a race where strategy can make a huge difference: in the past we’ve seen a wide variety of strategies being used, with some very close finishes.
“A car that uses its tyres well here certainly has the capability to spring a surprise. Compared to the last round in Malaysia and the next one in Bahrain, we should see some comparatively cool temperatures in China, but with plenty of energy going through the tyres we would expect most competitors to stop three times.”
In Melbourne we saw Kimi Raikkonen enjoy a significant advantage in terms of tyre wear and the Finn romped to a dominant victory. When asked about the potential for this weekend to offer a similar challenge to those faced by team’s in the season opening Melbourne race Raikkonen’s technical director commented that:
“It’s generally quite cool in Shanghai meaning that graining will be an issue once again,” commented Allison. “The smoothness of the asphalt which is comparable to that of Melbourne and from what we’ve learned so far the E21 is reasonable in conditions where graining is rife, so we’re hoping for more of the same in China…”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres….
Pirelli have come under a lot of criticism from some quarters for the lack of durability from their race tyres this season. It’s a familiar refrain at the start of the season that drivers’ and teams’ cannot find the balance between speed and consistency with the new tyres and that they are being forced to make too many pitstops.
The same thing was said in 2011 and last season and while the early season races resembled a lottery at times and provided some surprising results but the majority of the time the leading teams did find a balance between speed and durability even though they may have had to use three stops to get to the finish.
This season we have seen in Melbourne and Sepang that it was very difficult to get more than a handful of laps before suffering from excessive tyre wear. It is likely to be the same again this weekend but as the year progresses and teams generate more and more data from the season and with this experience they will find the balance between performance and durability.
It’s simply a case of gaining experience with the tyres and it simply take time. Twelve months ago we started the season with seven different winners because it simply took time to understand the rubber but by the summer the playing field was more established and races reached a more balanced medium. The same will happen this season but it will take time.
“China has often produced some of the best races of the year, where strategy has been at the forefront of the action. With all our compounds having got softer this year the degradation is deliberately more extreme leading to increased performance, but history has shown that it never takes too long for the teams and drivers to get on top of the tyres.
“Shanghai is less aggressive on the tyres than the last round in Malaysia but we would expect to see the majority of competitors go for three stops although some may try two. Last year we had a new winner with Mercedes and Nico Rosberg, who were able to get the most out of their tyres from the very beginning of the weekend in order to spring a surprise. That goes to show exactly what is possible with the correct tyre management at this point in the season.”