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IT'S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we're excited about ahead of the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix

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Chris Medland
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After a five-year wait since the last Chinese Grand Prix it’s finally time to return to a circuit that has delivered some classic races in the past. And there’s been plenty happening off the track since Japan too that will provide plenty of talking points as the paddock arrives in Shanghai...

Fernando Alonso’s here to stay

Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari – and the timing of that announcement before the start of this season – was always likely to get the ball rolling on the driver market earlier than usual, but even so it was almost a surprise to get confirmation of Fernando Alonso’s future so soon.

READ MORE: Alonso on his new ‘lifetime’ Aston Martin deal, talks with rival teams and a Honda reunion

It was only in the last edition of ‘Race Week’ that I wrote the driver market was warming up, but it was Carlos Sainz’s decision on where he will race from 2025 onwards that felt central to it.

Instead, his countryman Alonso has committed to what he describes as “the longest contract I’ve ever signed in my career”, keeping him racing for Aston Martin until at least the end of the 2026 season, and potentially beyond. Even if 2026 proves to be his final year of racing at the age of 45, Alonso says he sees himself in other roles with Aston Martin beyond that point.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: Fernando Alonso of Spain and Aston Martin walks the circuit during

Fernando Alonso has signed a fresh deal with Aston Martin

As the eighth-youngest driver to start a Formula 1 race, Alonso is set to enter the top 50 of oldest drivers too, and next year will surpass Michael Schumacher to become the oldest driver to start a Grand Prix in 50 years.

With Honda and Aston Martin joining forces in 2026 as well, with the way Alonso is performing it’s certainly not outside the realms of possibility that he could become the second-oldest world champion in F1 history behind Juan Manuel Fangio, who was 46 years and 41 days old when he won his final title.

ANALYSIS: With Alonso locked in at Aston Martin, where does that leave Sainz and his future?

A return to China

It’s almost hard to believe that it’s been five whole years since Formula 1 last raced in China, but a lot has happened in the world since Lewis Hamilton led home then-team mate Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

In that time Hamilton has added a sixth and seventh world title, before a run of three in a row for Max Verstappen, while Racing Point have become Aston Martin; Renault have become Alpine; Alfa Romeo have become Kick Sauber (and will become Audi); Toro Rosso have become AlphaTauri and then RB; Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel have retired, AND Alonso has returned from retirement.

Of the current grid, four drivers have never raced in Shanghai – including Oscar Piastri, Yuki Tsunoda and Logan Sargeant – and that means it will be a first home race for Zhou Guanyu. The first Chinese driver to race in Formula 1 has had to wait since he made his debut in 2022, but will get the chance to drive in front of a sell-out crowd at the Shanghai International Circuit this weekend.

Add in the fact that it’s the first Sprint weekend of the season, and it’s set to be a special return to a circuit that has so often provided exciting racing in the past.

SUZUKA, JAPAN - APRIL 07: Zhou Guanyu of China and Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber looks on from the

Zhou Guanyu will finally get his chance to drive in front of a home crowd

The Red Bull and Ferrari battle

Such has been the dominance of Red Bull under the current set of regulations, there are very few venues that stand out as particularly strong or weak for the defending champions, but Suzuka falls into the former category.

Red Bull were immensely impressive in Japan last year and still were the class of the field this time around, too, but the chasing pack is definitely closing in. The gap between Max Verstappen in pole position and Oscar Piastri in second in 2023 was the same gap that covered the top seven cars this year, including five different teams in Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Mercedes.

POWER RANKINGS: Which drivers stood out and impressed our judges at the Japanese Grand Prix weekend?

The fact I can list McLaren ahead of Ferrari there was due to a very impressive qualifying lap from Lando Norris, but in race trim he didn’t quite have the pace to keep Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc at bay. And Sainz could have been even closer to Sergio Perez and put pressure on for second place at least if he didn’t have to clear Norris through strategy.

For Ferrari to be closer on a track that suits Red Bull is encouraging for the Scuderia, and they now head to a Shanghai International Circuit that tends to be front-limited in terms of which axle defines performance more, which could play slightly more to Ferrari’s strengths.

Red Bull will look to prove its performance advantage is still so great that it can negotiate weekends that suit Ferrari that bit more, but just having that discussion shows how the chances of close fights for victories are increasing.

SUZUKA, JAPAN - APRIL 06: Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Ferrari SF-24 on track during

Ferrari will hope the Shanghai International Circuit plays slightly more to their strengths

Mercedes searching for answers

The Japanese Grand Prix weekend was a bittersweet one for Mercedes, with Hamilton in particular going through a range of emotions. An encouraging start to the weekend on Friday led to a much happier Hamilton enjoying being able to push the car through the high-speed sections at Suzuka, with the way the W15 was handling providing encouragement.

The race did not go so well, with Hamilton limited to ninth place due to a combination of damage and strategy, while George Russell finished seventh.

READ MORE: Wolff says Mercedes are in ‘live testing’ as they look to find their feet with the W15

At the end of the weekend, Toto Wolff admitted Mercedes are in a “rebuild phase”, and struggling to understand why the car isn’t producing the expected lap time gains. But that came against the backdrop of Mercedes learning that they are getting the downforce numbers from the car on track that they are targeting, just without the performance being extracted from it.

Wolff insists that is a positive sign as it moves Mercedes closer to unlocking the pace they believe they should have, and they’ll look to deliver another step forward after the most recent data analysis back at the factory.

SUZUKA, JAPAN - APRIL 07: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1

There was a range of emotions for Lewis Hamilton over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend

The 2025 calendar

I know, I know, we’re only four rounds into the current season and I’m already suggesting next season is going to be a talking point. But the 2025 calendar was confirmed at the end of last week and it features a change to the opening few races compared to this year.

With Ramadan throughout March next year, the races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have moved back from their more recent season-opening slots and will be the fourth and fifth rounds in 2025. And that means a return to the position of first race of the season for Australia.

READ MORE: The key differences and stand outs from the 2025 F1 calendar

And we might not have had this year’s Chinese Grand Prix yet, but next year’s edition will be the second round, forming a back-to-back with Australia before a trip to Japan as the opening group of races are regionalized where possible.

But which drivers will be completing that schedule next year? The driver market still has plenty of twists and turns to take over the coming weeks and months, with the likes of Daniel Ricciardo looking for a result to kick-start his season and increase the chances of him being on the grid at Albert Park to start 2025.

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