Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix Preview: Will the Title be Decided in Shanghai?

Daniel ChalmersSenior Analyst IOctober 15, 2008

History and Track Guide


Everyone in F1 is still talking about the dramatic events of the Japanese GP. However there isn’t much time to dwell on it, as there is only a one-week gap to the Chinese GP, which is this weekend.


Therefore, it has been straight to work to get the cars and equipment over to Shanghai, and for the drivers, the preparation and focus starts straight away, along with a sponsor event here and there.


Mathematically, this could the weekend that the championship gets decided. Lewis Hamilton is five points clear of Massa. If he can end this weekend more than 10 points clear, then Hamilton is champion.


If Hamilton were to win and Massa finished out of the top 4, then that would get the job done.


Ferrari could win the Constructors championship. They would need to score 13 points more than McLaren, so this is a bit of a longshot to achieve in this race, unless McLaren really screw up.


The Shanghai circuit is one of the newest tracks on the F1 calendar, and one of the most cutting-edge facilities on the calendar. It is estimated that the track cost $240 million to build, the most expensive on the current F1 calendar.


Hermann Tilke designed the track; he has designed all the recent new tracks in F1. In fact, he is only one of two people in the world who are qualified to design Formula 1-standard tracks.


The teams have world-class facilities at Shanghai with huge garages and a massive paddock, which contains a number of Chinese style huts, with water flowing around them.


There is plenty space for drivers and team members to have space to themselves. In the smaller classic circuits, the team personnel from all the teams are practically on top of each other, and it’s a more intense paddock atmosphere. At Shanghai, you just don’t get that.


The layout has been designed in a clever way so that it forms the shape of a famous Chinese symbol. The track is very technical and is a mix of slow and fast corners.


When setting up the car, the right compromise has to be found so that the car is well balanced throughout the lap.


Turn 1 is very quick on the entry but tightens very quickly into Turn 2, which is a never-ending right-hander, where drivers stay on the brakes for what seems like an age to them.


Then the corner flicks to the left in what is a very tight left-hander (Turn 3). This first sequence of corners is very technical, and it’s easy to lose time here.


The lap then speeds up going through Turns 4 and 5, which are just merely kinks, not posing any real challenge. This then leads to Turn 6, which is a heavy braking zone into a tight right-hander, almost like a hairpin.


Turns 7 and 8 are quick. Turn 7 is a sweeping left then quickly changing into a sweeping right, which is Turn 8.


Turns 11, 12, and 13 are crucial. Turn 11 is a sharp left-hander which turns into another never-ending right-hand bend rather like turn 2 at the start of the lap.


The importance of this bend is that you need to get the best exit speed possible going onto the long 1-km straight, which follows.


If a driver loses speed around this bend, they will take longer to reach the optimum straight line losing them time.


If a drive takes too much of a risk round 13, then they will end up going wide at the exit. This will seriously compromise them down the straight.


Overall, the teams and drivers like the challenge that Chinese GP tracks provides. Here are a couple of quotes.


Rubens Barrichello (Honda driver)


"Shanghai is a fantastic race venue, and winning the first Grand Prix here (in 2004) means that the race holds some good memories for me.


The circuit itself is exciting with the combination of long straights and different speed corners combining to make a very technical track.


The unique feature here is the length of some of the corners, particularly Turn 1 and Turn 13. To have a good lap here, you need to have a very good aerodynamic balance, straight-line speed for the two main straights and good car stability.


The weather can also play its part, so it will be interesting to see the forecast for the race weekend."




Willy Rampf (BMW Sauber technical director)


The track in Shanghai stands out with its very special layout. A particularly interesting section is the double right-hander, double left-hander combination at the end of the start-finish straight.


The drivers approach it with a lot of speed and then stay on the brakes for a long time on the entry. This is a very unusual section, which places heavy demands on the tyres.

“The long straight offers a good overtaking opportunity, as it feeds into a hairpin and the track is very wide at this point, allowing the drivers to take two different lines.


The combination of widely contrasting corners demands a high level of aerodynamic efficiency. With the tyres put under such heavy loads, we use the hardest Bridgestone compounds here."


Overall this is a good track. However, the main negatives are that the track is flat and lacks character in comparison to the classic circuits such as Spa or Monza. This track is also perhaps a little bit too technical.


This criticism is very common among most of the new tracks we are seeing in F1 these days. However as Hermann Tilke circuits go, this is probably one of his better ones, along with Turkey and the recent Singapore street circuit.


China, in its short history, has produced dramatic races. China has quite a wet climate so this could play its part this weekend. The last two Chinese GPs have taken part in wet conditions. If rain were to make an appearance this weekend, it could turn the championship on its head.


China also allows good racing with two or three overtaking opportunities. The obvious one is Turn 14 at the end of the long 1-km straight.


If a driver can stick to their rival in the long Turn 13 then there is a good chance of a slipstream down the straight, and a chance to really attack into heavy braking zone. It’s nice and wide into the turn, so there is room to make the move.


Turn 1 is also a relatively long straight, following a slow turn so there is a small chance here. There is another small chance going into Turn 6 if you get a good run coming out of turns 3 and 4.




Past races


China has only hosted four races in its short F1 life, but they have all been memorable in some way.


2004: In terms of the championship, this race had little relevance, as Schumacher and Ferrari had already wrapped up the championships earlier in the season.


Schumacher made an error in qualifying going into turn 1 and thus had to start at the back (remember, it was single lap qualifying back then).


Schumacher struggled to fight through the pack and made several errors along the way, including a misjudged move on Klien’s Jaguar and a couple of other offs.


In the end, he finished a very disappointing 12th. At the front was a tight battle between Barrichello, Button, and Raikkonen. They followed each other in close company for much of the race.


Button and Raikkonen tried very hard to beat Barrichello, but he resisted the challenge and took an impressive victory.


2005: China hosted the last race of the season in 2005. Fernando Alonso had already won the championship in Brazil. However, McLaren were favourites to win the Constructors.


It didn’t go right, as Raikkonen had a scuffy quali lap and lined up third behind an all Renault front row. In the race, Alonso went ahead into the distance, as Fisichella successfully held off Raikkonen.


However, McLaren could get back into the hunt later on. It wasn’t to be, as Montoya drove over a loose drain cover on the circuit. His car sustained enough damage from this, that retirement was the only option.


With only one McLaren left in the race, winning the Constructors was going to be very unlikely unless the Renaults encountered trouble.


Indeed, later in the race Fisichella got a drive-through for blocking other cars (stacking) in the pit lane, during a Safety car period after a heavy crash for Narain Karthikeyan in turn 13.


However, this wasn’t enough to stop Renault from taking the title. Raikkonen set a fastest lap near the end of the race, but it was too little, too late.


2006: Renault were confident their Michelin tyres would work well in the damp and cool conditions at this event. They were proven correct, as in a saturated qualifying session, they locked out the front row.


Michael Schumacher did incredibly well to qualify sixth with Bridgestones that couldn’t cope with the conditions.


The race itself brought more wet weather. Alonso raced into the distance from the off. By lap 16 he was leading his own team mate (Fisichella) by 19.2 seconds.


It was all looking so good for Alonso as he came to pit on lap 22 and took on two fresh front tyres only.


From then on it all started going downhill, as he suddenly started lapping slower than Fisichella and Schumacher. By lap 28 the top 3 were up each other’s gearboxes.


Fisichella is ordered to stay behind Alonso and keep Michael behind. However, Alonso was so slow, Fisi was struggling to do this. On lap 30, Fisichella took the lead of the race and Schumacher breezed past Alonso shortly afterwards.


Schumacher pitted on lap 40 and struggled to keep control of the car on cold dry tyres. Fisichella came in next lap and suffered the same problem coming out of the pit lane.


However, Schumacher was coming down the straight up to full speed with his tyres already warmed up, and dived down the inside of Fisi at Turn 1, putting two wheels on the grass in the process.


After this he pulled away from Fisichella. Alonso had more problems on his second stop with a problem with the right rear tyre. Alonso was down to sixth after this stop.


However Alonso did a great damage limitations job by fighting back to second place. He was much quicker than Schumacher in the last phase of the race and only finished 3.1 seconds behind him.


2007: Lewis Hamilton came into this race with a great chance to win the world title in his debut season. He was 12 points clear of second-place man (and McLaren team mate) Fernando Alonso.


It all started very well, as Hamilton won pole position. Hamilton got a good start from pole in wet conditions and beat Raikkonen in the battle down to Turn 1.


Alonso and Massa dueled for third place throughout the first lap of the race. Hamilton’s first stint pace in damp conditions was very strong.


After eight laps, Hamilton led by 5.2 seconds and by 8.6 seconds after 14 laps. Hamilton stopped on lap 15 to change fuel but not the tyres.


On lap 22, Hamilton’s lead over Raikkonen was 5.3 seconds. However, it started to go wrong on lap 27 as more rain started to fall. Hamilton’s laptimes started to slow significantly.


Raikkonen then quickly gained on Hamilton and the pair did battle. However Raikkonen managed to breeze past due, the amount of difficulty he had to keep his car on the track.


Hamilton continued to struggle as his tyres look to go down to the canvas. He came into the pits on lap 31 but drove straight into the gravel trap and went out of the race. Raikkonen went on to win the race ahead of Alonso by 9.8 seconds. With no score for Hamilton, it ensured an unexpected three-way title battle in Brazil.




What is likely to happen this weekend?


This weekend is the first match point of the season in both the Drivers Championship and the Constructors Championship.


By the end of Sunday’s race, Lewis Hamilton could be World Champion or Ferrari could be Constructors Champions.


However the likelihood is that both championships will go down the final race, two weeks later in Brazil. This would mean that Bernie Ecclestone would get his prime time championship showdown, of course.


In Singapore, it was Ferrari who messed up and came out of the race with no points. This was a hammer blow to their championship chances. The McLaren worked very well in the cool conditions in Fuji, so they had a chance to compound Ferrari’s misery.


Instead it was McLaren’s turn to leave the race with no points whatsoever. So this effectively makes the situation closer to what it was before Singapore.


Lewis Hamilton comes to China under a lot of pressure. Just like last season, it looks like Hamilton is cracking under the pressure and desperate to win the title.


He needs a clean weekend with no errors or bad luck, which he just hasn’t had recently. Hamilton won’t need to be reminded of last season’s Chinese GP. He went for broke to win a race he didn’t need to win.


Hamilton says he has learnt that he needs to take the cautious approach, and think about the long game.


However, this went straight out of Hamilton’s head when the lights went out in Fuji. Instead of a lead over title rival Felipe Massa, which should have been extended, it’s down to five points.


With the gap that small now, Hamilton may not be able to afford the luxury to be cautious anymore. Lewis Hamilton will be very disappointed his lead isn’t bigger.


As we have discovered in this feature, the Shanghai circuit is a mixture of fast and slow corners. At the moment, both the Ferrari and McLaren cars work just as well in either type of corner configuration.


This is very unlike last season (and the beginning of this season to less an extent) where the McLaren was most definitely the faster car on the circuits dominated by slow corners. The Ferrari, on the other hand, was always faster on the circuits dominated by faster corners.


No matter what kind of track, Ferrari does currently have the faster car, particularly over a race distance. The time difference isn’t much but decisive enough if Ferrari can get qualifying right and start at the front. However, this is providing that track temperatures are warm and there is no rain.


Providing Ferrari make no mistakes and the weather conditions play out as they want, they could well end up with a 1-2. The main implications on the championship with that result, would be that Massa would only be trailing Hamilton by one point in the championship (presuming he trailed the Ferraris in third).


The final race is Brazil, and Ferrari are always very strong round there; so is Massa. If Hamilton ends up having to beat Massa in his home race in Brazil, then it will be a very tall order indeed for Hamilton.


Massa will be very bullish about winning in Brazil (he dominated there in 2006 and could have won in 2007 if he didn’t have to give way to Raikkonen).


This means Hamilton has to get a big result this weekend in order to give himself a good chance of taking the title in Brazil. He ideally needs a buffer of more than four points so he can trail the Ferraris home and still be champion.


His tactics will need to be aggressive, and he will have to extract every tenth out of his McLaren in China. This aggressive approach wouldn’t have had to be put into his game plan at all had Hamilton been cautious at Fuji.


Had he, let's say, finished second to Raikkonen in Fuji but ahead of Massa, he would be in the position where he could trail the Ferraris in both this race and Brazil in two weeks time. Hamilton now has to beat a Ferrari or two to win the championship.


If Massa can win the race this weekend, he has a great chance of winning the championship. They key thing for his title challenge is that Raikkonen is in good form in these last two races.


Ideally, he needs to win the last two races, but he would need Raikkonen to finish ahead of Hamilton in at least one of these two last races. Raikkonen should be able to do this. But his form has been very patchy so he isn’t a reliable bet for Massa.


The main thing for Massa is he does what he has to do. If the car setup and Ferrari weather conditions fall into place, along with no mistakes, Massa can win this championship.


Hamilton/Massa and McLaren/Ferrari aren’t alone in the title battle. BMW Sauber have capitalized on recent errors from both teams and have a chance of snatching the titles. Kubica is 12 points behind, and if weather conditions or more errors from McLaren/Ferrari occur, then he has every chance.


The same applies in the Constructors Championship where BMW Sauber are 14 points behind. The main problem for them is that their car is probably a bit too far off the pace for them to challenge on merit.


Perhaps if they hadn’t lessened their development on the car after Canada (where they scored their 1-2 victory) they could be in a very promising position.


BMW Sauber may ask themselves this question once the season has finished. BMW say they will do everything they can to win both championships. It could be too little too late.


In the last two races of the championship, anything can happen and we have seen this in the past. Light showers are forecast by some weather stations for the race on Sunday, so that could really mix things up.


Alonso and Renault, after their two consecutive race victories, are on a high, and much closer to the front running pace. They could well mix themselves with the championship contenders, and have a big impact on where the titles go.


Renault’s return to form has been the story of the last month or so. The amount of time they have gained on McLaren and Ferrari has been quite extraordinary. It’s not completely impossible that Alonso could earn himself a hat trick of wins.


The title challenging team and driver who does the best job over these last two races will probably win the championship.


There is no more room now for problems with fuel hoses at pit stops! There is no more room for rash gambles at the first corner!


There is no more room for car reliability issues! There is no more room for binning your car in the tyre barrier!


One more catastrophic error and it could over.


In the heat of a battle, a clear head and concentration is vital. Both Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton have been susceptible to pressure in the past, so this is a huge test for them. The driver who gets the highest marks in the pressure test could well be champion.


It could be a very exciting battle this weekend. Who will be favourite going into the season finale in Brazil? Or could one of the titles even be snatched in China?


Tune in to find out. You won’t want to miss this one. It really could go either way!


My top 3 prediction


1.      Massa

2.      Hamilton

3.      Alonso


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