China preview - who can spring a Shanghai surprise? 12 Apr 2012
Ahead of this weekends 2012 Formula 1 UBS Chinese Grand Prix, McLarens Lewis Hamilton believes that consistency will be paramount in what is turning out to be a close and so far unpredictable 2012 world championship fight.
"I won't deny that I'm disappointed to have had two pole positions and not to have been able to convert either of them into victories, but I prefer to think of it that luck just hasn't been on my side, and that it will swing my way sooner or later," he says after the first two races yielded two third-place finishes.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, it may be later rather than sooner, thanks to Thursdays news that an unexpected gearbox issue is set to drop him five places on the grid for Sundays race. Nevertheless, the 2008 champion has not ruled out victory and remains upbeat on his title prospects.
"I also think last year taught me the value of consistency: it's no use chasing a great result if you can't back it up with another strong finish the following week. So maybe I'm just playing myself in gently: after all, in 2007, I didn't win a race until the sixth round, and I was in the hunt for the title all through the year.
"I still don't think the pecking order has settled down yet, so it's important to get some good results in the bag while we can. It will be very interesting to see how the order has shaken itself out over the last three weeks - it's going to be an interesting weekend."
McLaren have a strong record in China, with Hamilton winning here in 2008 and 2011, and team mate Jenson Button in 2010. While the latter is keen to make up for his snafu with HRTs Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia, Hamilton continues: "I'm looking at the championship as a whole. Although, of course, I'd love to win every race, it's more important to be in a good points-scoring position at every race. I think the first two races have shown that, as a team, we're definitely in positions to win.
"I think Malaysia was a good example of how to pick up points when you're looking at the championship - and that was something I really took away as a positive from that race. But yeah, I'll be heading to China looking to win - but it's just as important to pick up some good points if, for whatever reason, a win isn't on the cards."
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are desperate to get Red Bulls first victory of the season in the bag on a track where the German nearly won last year, while Ferraris Fernando Alonso admits that a repeat of his triumph in Sepang will require similarly unusual conditions.
All three top teams face growing opposition from the two dark horses: Mercedes and Lotus.
We hope that the weekend will prove more successful than the first two races of the season where our race results did not match expectations after a positive start to both weekends, Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn says. A lot of hard work and analysis has taken place back at the factory since our return, and I hope to see these efforts pay dividends with a performance which reflects the capabilities of the F1 W03."
A serious amount of investigation into car set-up has been undertaken at Brackley to solve the tyre degradation problems that have blighted the team thus far, prompting Michael Schumacher to comment: I've never had much luck in Shanghai, apart from my win in 2006; however that could change this year. In the first two races we didn't manage to maintain our qualifying pace in race conditions. We've been working intensively on this, so that we can offer our fans a strong performance in China."
At Lotus, Kimi Raikkonen believes his power-steering problems have almost been solved, and there is an air of expectation here after problems in both Australia and Malaysia prevented the team from displaying their full potential.
"The E20 certainly feels good," Raikkonen confirms. "We're working to get the steering exactly right for me - and we're almost there. The speed in the car is good - and this applies to qualifying and race pace.
Technical director James Allison added: "Our latest set-up now gives Kimi sufficient assistance in the high-speed, high-load corners, but we still have yet to give him a power-steering unit which offers the finesse he wants. We're making progress in this area, but the way Kimi drives the car is to find the limit on the front axle and then adjust the car very delicately around that limit; he can only do that if the steering is giving him exquisite feedback.
"We are working hard to provide him with perfect equipment so that he can deliver those last few tenths in qualifying."
Shaped like the Chinese character shang, the Shanghai International Circuit features a unique first corner entered at full-throttle in seventh gear before rapid downchanges are required as it tightens suddenly. The layout features seven right and seven left turns, and medium downforce is the norm because of the two very long straights which present strong opportunities for overtaking as drivers slow from 320 km/h.
Sauber are hoping to build on Sergio Perezs brilliant drive in Malaysia to score more points and continue their progress in a midfield fight in which Williams are also looking increasingly strong amid great pressure from Force India and Toro Rosso.
As Pirelli will again bring their P Zero white medium and yellow soft compound tyres, in contrast to 2011 when it brought hard and soft, the Mexican says: For the tyres in Shanghai it is very important to get the cars set-up right, especially for the front axle. The long high-speed corners, in particular Turn One, put a lot of load on the front tyres and you have to make sure you dont lose them too quickly.
Last year, the top three finishers all used different strategies in a race that was not decided until the final lap - and with Pirelli having closed up the performance gaps between the compounds this year, the accent on strategy will now be even stronger.
China proved to be one of the most fascinating races in our first year, with tyre strategy at the heart of it, so we have a tough act to follow, says Pirellis motorsport director Paul Hembery. However, the philosophy we have adopted this year actually extends the window of peak performance on the slick tyres, which means that the drivers should be able to race harder and closer. Although ambient temperatures can be quite low in China, tyre degradation is traditionally high due to the unique track layout. So although we have the same nomination as we saw in Australia - medium and soft - our P Zeros will face a quite different challenge.
As in 2011, there will be just one DRS zone, from halfway down the back straight that heads into the hairpin Turn 14, with the detection point at Turn 12. Weather-wise, it looks set to be relatively cool, with an ambient temperature high of 15 degrees and partial cloud on Friday, and similar conditions and 16 degrees pertaining for the rest of the weekend.
Three teams are expected to run test drivers in Friday's opening practice session: Giedo van der Garde in place of Vitaly Petrov at Caterham, Jules Bianchi in place of Paul di Resta at Force India, and Valtteri Bottas in place of Bruno Senna at Williams.
Sunday's race will run over 56 laps of the unchanged 5.451 kilometre (3.387 mile) track, or 305.066 kilometres (189.931 miles), and starts at 1500 hours local time, which is eight hours ahead of GMT.
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