New venue and track debut, as old faces return
If you are going to make a comeback after a lengthy lay-off, where better than a new circuit that is new to everyone? As if the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix is not exciting enough already, the opulent Shanghai track designed by Hermann Tilke will have the added attractions of the return to active duty of Ralf Schumacher and the comeback of former world champion Jacques Villeneuve.
No one knows the Shanghai circuit which makes this race very exciting, says the German, who has been out of Formula One racing since his accident during the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis in June. Its always fun going to a completely new track because everyone is equal in their lack of knowledge. Ive seen the drawings of the circuit and I visited about a year ago, but the track wasnt totally finished so there wasnt much to see apart from the buildings and grandstands which were under construction. I cant wait to get there and have a good race.
Villeneuve is similarly fired up, his last Grand Prix having been at Indianapolis last season with BAR. Now he will be driving the final three races for Renault as the replacement for Jarno Trulli, prior to taking over Giancarlo Fisichellas seat at Sauber as the Italian heads for Renault in 2005.
I have been out of F1 for a while, the French-Canadian says, but I have kept up with my fitness training and my first test at Silverstone recently went very well. Im really looking forward to playing myself back in.
Both drivers have important roles to play. Williams are working hard to maintain their fourth place in the championship in the face of a strong challenge from McLaren, while Renault are determined to wrest back their runner-up position that they lost to BAR in Italy.
Ferrari will start clear favourite yet again after their crushing display at Monza, but BARs Jenson Button and Takuma Sato are determined to take the first victory that, for a while, seemed on the cards at Monza.
Elsewhere, the main news at this stage is that Toyota wont be running Jarno Trulli. After he was released from his Renault contract following the Italian Grand Prix there was speculation that he would usurp Ricardo Zonta as race driver for the final three events, but this will not now happen and Zonta will join fellow racer Olivier Panis and test driver Ryan Briscoe as usual.
At Jordan, however, there will be a change, with third driver Timo Glock stepping back up to a race seat after the termination of Giorgio Pantanos contract this week. Filling Glocks previous role will be Dutch Formula 3000 star Robert Doornbos, who will make his first Grand Prix appearance with the team in Fridays practice sessions.
The drivers and engineers will face an interesting time setting their cars up for the 5.451 kilometre (3.387 mile) circuit. "Its new for everyone, says Sauber technical director Willy Rampf, but of course we have done a lot of computer simulation based on the maps we have received of the layout. We base all of our preliminary set-up on this - the level of downforce, the cooling requirement, the brake specification, things like that.
We begin by working out the theoretical ideal lines on the map and then begin the simulation of the lap times. We run through various possible set-ups and work out our options. There has been a very good correlation between our previous simulation work and real lap times, to the point where we rarely have to change the gear ratios, for example, and normally the data we gather this way is pretty accurate as a starting point for the weekend.
We also input the recommended data from Bridgestone relating to the tyre compound and construction and do comparisons with similar tracks with which we are familiar. This gives us things such as top speed, brake performance and energy, and usually we are within three percent even if the lap times prove to be a second or so out.
Shanghai will be a high downforce circuit even with its long straight, and cooling will be crucial. Brake performance is unlikely to be extreme, however. Its an interesting circuit layout where the drivers will have to brake as they turn into the long corners, so brake stability and controllability will play a key role. We will find out factors such as brake wear once we have started running, when we will fine-tune the mechanical set-up. Things such as that, together with the bumpiness of the track (though new ones tend to be pretty smooth) are what you find out then.
Renaults Denis Chevrier adds: From what we do already know, Shanghai will not be an engine circuit. The duty cycle is not particularly severe, and the time spent at full throttle by the drivers is unlikely to exceed 60% of the lap - a figure that corresponds to the season average. The length of the main straight does exceed the average value, however, and is indeed relatively high at around 16 seconds - which should see the cars reaching approximately 325 or 330 kph (200 or 205 mph).
Much of the rest of the circuit is very twisty, which will make the downforce compromise tricky to judge. However, the number of faster corners, combined with the high number of heavy braking and acceleration phases will make the fuel effect reasonably high - around 0.45s for an extra ten kilograms of fuel. Similarly, the numerous acceleration phases through corners which open out, and the slow speeds at which acceleration begins, mean that a strong torque curve and smooth power delivery will be essential to maintain car balance and give the drivers good speed on corner exit.
The 56-lap race is round 16 of the championship and the first-ever to be held in China, which is eight hours ahead of GMT. The race begins at 1400 local time.