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China - What to Watch for...

20 Apr 2014

From Rosberg’s attempts to get on terms with team mate Hamilton to Lotus’s pursuit of a first points finish, and from worries about tyre graining to the ever present threat of rain, we preview the key themes to watch out for in the 2014 Formula 1 UBS Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai…

Hamilton to look to control the race from the front

In Bahrain, Lewis Hamilton benefitted hugely from beating Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg into the first corner at the start. The Briton was able to control the tempo of the race and had priority over Rosberg when it came to pit strategy. Starting from pole, Hamilton has every chance of finishing the first lap in P1 once more, and if he does, and if his car remains reliable, his speed over the weekend - in wet weather or dry, long runs or short - suggests he will be very hard to beat.

Rosberg aiming to make amends for his qualifying stumble

If it wasn’t for an ill-timed lock-up and an uncharacteristic spin during Q3, championship leader Nico Rosberg would likely have joined team mate Hamilton on the front row of the grid. As it is, the German driver will start fourth, behind both Red Bulls and just in front of two drivers renowned for making fast starts - Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Williams’ Felipe Massa. It goes without saying that making a smooth getaway will be crucial to Rosberg’s race prospects. Getting stuck behind both Red Bulls for a prolonged period of time would damage his hopes of taking the race to Hamilton, whilst falling behind either Alonso or one of the Williams’ would make his afternoon even harder. On the flip side, if Rosberg makes a strong start he is more than capable of giving Hamilton a very good race at a circuit on which he took his maiden Grand Prix win in 2012.

Red Bulls vulnerable on the straights

Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel were second and third fastest in qualifying on Saturday afternoon, but they were at the opposite end of the order when it came to the speed trap figures. The Red Bull duo were the only drivers not to top 300km/h on the back straight during the wet session; their best speeds of 297.7km/h (Vettel) and 297.1km/h (Ricciardo) were some 20km/h down on the Mercedes drivers and nearly 7km/h tardier than the next slowest car through the trap, Lotus’s Romain Grosjean. That kind of speed differential - which Red Bull boss Christian Horner suggested could cost the world champions as much as seven-tenths of a second on the long back straight - could make the RB10s vulnerable to attack. Therefore it’s essential that Ricciardo and Vettel use their superior speed through the twisty, downforce-demanding middle sector to get out of DRS range, particularly early on in the race. If they can do that, then their long-run pace on Friday was good enough to suggest that they could be Mercedes’ closest challengers.

Front tyre graining to be an issue

Graining. If there was one word heard more than any other during Friday’s dry-weather running, graining was it. At a front-limited circuit like Shanghai - which features numerous long-radius bends - keeping enough ‘life’ in the front tyres is a major challenge and one that will likely prove critical to maintaining performance over the course of a race stint. In practice, as soon as the tyre surface began to grain we saw drivers start to understeer badly and, as a result, their lap times drop off rapidly. Pirelli say that if conditions stay dry, theoretically the fastest way of tackling the 56-lap race is to start on the soft compound tyres, change to another set of softs on lap 14 and then make a final switch to medium rubber on lap 28. That would ensure a long final stint during which rubber conservation would be of vital importance.

Williams could challenge for the podium

The story of Williams’ 2014 season thus far has been one of unfulfilled potential: Valtteri Bottas rescued fifth but could have been higher in Australia; the use of team orders dominated in Malaysia; and a late safety car scuppered their hopes in Bahrain. In all three events, however, the team has had legitimate podium aspirations. That aspiration remains valid in Shanghai, where Williams should once again be in the mix for the ‘best of the rest’ tag behind Mercedes. Bottas and Felipe Massa both showed strong single-lap pace throughout practice and in qualifying they secured sixth and seventh on the grid in conditions that do not play to the FW36’s strengths. Both men also staged impressive long runs during FP2, even if front tyre graining was an issue. In addition, the fact that both drivers are once again so closely matched provides Williams with twice the opportunity to capitalise on any fortune that comes their way. Both Bottas and Massa will be eyeing the podium, especially if either replicates Massa’s stunning start in Bahrain two weeks ago.

Start critical for Alonso

Fernando Alonso goes into Sunday’s race hoping to land his - and Ferrari’s - first podium finish of the season, but like those around him, his chance could hinge on making a strong start. The Spaniard’s Friday practice form suggested that the F14 T is reasonably quick over a single lap, but over long runs there were hints that he could suffer more chronic tyre degradation worries than rivals Red Bull. From fifth on the grid, Alonso’s best hope might therefore be to vault the likes of Rosberg and Vettel at the start and then try to keep them behind him as his tyres drop away.

Potential points for Grosjean and Lotus

After an abysmal pre-season and a similarly difficult first race, Lotus have been slowly picking up steam of late. Romain Grosjean recorded the team’s first 2014 race finish in Malaysia - 11th - and followed it up with 12th place in Bahrain. In Shanghai on Saturday the Frenchman lifted Lotus into Q3 for the first time this season, suggesting that a first points finish might be just around the corner. Although the squad have far mightier ambitions, a top-ten result would be a great reward for the embattled former race winners, but it won’t be easy - Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Jenson Button are just two of the drivers who are starting behind Grosjean and will be desperate to score points themselves.

Threat of rain

The forecast suggest that whilst rain will arrive on Sunday morning, it should fade before the Grand Prix to provide dry racing conditions. However, the threat of rain during the race remains a tantalising prospect. For starters, damp conditions represent the best chance the rest of the field has to catch Mercedes - as evidenced by the two Red Bulls splitting Hamilton and Rosberg in qualifying. On top of that, it massively reduces the margin for error, particularly given how treacherous the kerbs can be in Shanghai. Rosberg’s Q3 mistake at Turn 14, and spin at Turn 16 one lap later, shows just how on the edge the top runners were in the pole shootout. Should the race be hit by rain, expect Mercedes’ rivals not only to close up as a consequence, but also to try everything to try and unsettle Hamilton and Rosberg and force them into further errors.