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China preview - can Ferrari star again?

09 Apr 2015

After dominating the season opener in Australia, many predicted that Mercedes would run away with the 2015 championship. But all that changed last time out in Malaysia when Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari took a shock victory. Now the big questions are whether the Italian team can maintain their pace from Sepang in the cooler conditions of Shanghai - and whether they can once again take the fight to the Silver Arrows.

For his part, Vettel is feeling confident, not least because he has already established a degree of comfort with the SF15-T that appeared to be missing last year at Red Bull. 

"Obviously I wasn't around last year (at Ferrari) and I don't know how last year's car was, but I was told that this year's car is a lot better," says Vettel, who can equal Ayrton Senna's career tally of 41 race victories this weekend. 

"I'm very happy with how the car feels, with the balance. It allows me to play and to work which I think is always crucial as a driver, and then I think there's a fresh wind, there's a lot of new people (at the team). Some people have changed their position and so far I think the atmosphere is great, people are happy just to be there and do their job. They're very passionate and I think that's the most important thing. Everything else, of course, at this stage, is a bit of a surprise for us. But of course, we take it!

"So far, reliability has been very strong and I think in Malaysia the key was to look after our tyres. That's, I think, where we were able to close the gap a lot compared to Australia, compared to Mercedes.

"I think China will be special. Obviously I've always felt that there are a lot of fans, especially for Ferrari and especially for Kimi in China. I think if they wave the Ferrari flag then I feel they also wave it a little bit for me...

"China is a unique event. It's a crazy track and crazy conditions, and anything can happen there but for sure, we will be very happy to go there after the great success in Sepang."

Mercedes, however, are not taking defeat lying down and have pledged to fight back quickly to maintain their supremacy.

"We left Malaysia with plenty to think about," admits Toto Wolff, head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport. "It may have been a good result for the sport - but for us, it was a wake-up call. 

"This is something you cannot afford to happen often and, although we had two cars on the podium, we have been looking very carefully at every area where we could have performed better. Our opposition has raised its game and we must now raise ours even further."

It is likely that the team will bring forward their development schedule over the next few races.

"Malaysia was a tough weekend," points leader Lewis Hamilton acknowledges. "It always is with the heat - but with car problems on Friday, rain during qualifying on Saturday and a race which didn't go to plan on Sunday, this one was particularly challenging. I think ultimately we made the best choices we could - but there is always room for improvement and we've been working hard to analyse everything for the race in China.

"Shanghai is one of my favourite locations, simply because of the fans. I don't know how, but from the moment we land at the airport they know we're there. It really is amazing to see the support we get. 

"The circuit itself is a different challenge to Albert Park and Sepang - but it's one I really enjoy and it suits my driving style quite well. I won the race last year and have only finished outside of the podium places twice, so the target is definitely to build on that and get back to the front."

Shanghai will also mark the arrival of another Briton in F1 racing as Jolyon Palmer gets his first official Friday morning practice run with Lotus. 

"Jolyon is a crucial part of the team for this season so it was important for us to see him in the car over the course of a Grand Prix early in the season," says deputy team principal Federico Gastaldi. 

"For the first two races, it made sense for our race drivers to get as much time as possible in the car, but now we can start exercising some of Jolyon's talents in the FP1 session and we'll see him out in action quite a few times over the course of the year."

"I don't know the circuit because I've never raced there, so that will be quite tough," GP2 champion Palmer says, "so I've done a lot of work in the simulator and also focused on my fitness. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity."

Down at Marussia, the team are sure they have found the source of Will Stevens' ongoing fuel system problems which prevented the Briton starting his second Grand Prix in Malaysia. They will be hoping for more track time to help them close the gap to the lower midfield teams.

Nearly 80 per cent of the lap in Shanghai is spent cornering, so the tyres are always working hard under medium downforce and during braking, turning and acceleration. Degradation can also be a problem if the temperatures are cool. 

Pirelli have thus brought their white-marked medium compound and yellow-marked soft compound tyres to this race, and motorsport director Paul Hembery says: "The weather tends to be quite unpredictable in China, although generally we can expect to see temperatures that are significantly cooler than those we experienced in Malaysia. 

"Last year we had reasonably stable weather conditions in China whereas in previous years it has been more up and down - so this throws in a very interesting variable. The front-left tyre is the most stressed in Shanghai, while the traction demands of the circuit also give a lot of work to the rear tyres. 

"Although we haven't actually yet seen a very hot Chinese Grand Prix during our time in Formula One, if you look at the weather history there is potential for this to happen as well. This would make things very difficult for the tyres - Shanghai is a big, open circuit and if you add in heat, it creates a lot of energy - but we've seen from Malaysia that these tyres will rise to the challenge. 

"As Shanghai is a large circuit there's plenty of opportunity for overtaking and big on-track battles."

The 5.451 kilometre (3.387 mile) Shanghai International Circuit is largely unchanged from last year, although the gravel trap on the outside of the pit lane entrance - which famously caught Lewis Hamilton out in 2007 - has been replaced with asphalt. The track will once again feature two DRS zones. The first is situated on the long back straight between Turns 13 and 14 with a detection point at Turn 12, while the second is between Turn 16 (the final corner) and Turn 1, with the detection point just before Turn 16. 

Sunday's race will start at 1400 local time (0600 GMT) and will run over 56 laps or 305.066 kilometres (189.559 miles).