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China preview - can Ferrari strike back in Shanghai?

14 Apr 2016

Will the 2016 Formula 1 Pirelli Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai be the first race of 2016 at which Ferrari can really get on terms with Mercedes, after losses in the opening two rounds?

Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene has put a brave face on both races held so far – Australia where Sebastian Vettel finished third behind the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and in Bahrain where Kimi Raikkonen split them to take second.

On both occasions the issue was clouded slightly by the poor starts that Hamilton in particular made from pole position, but the hard facts suggest that Mercedes still have a decent advantage over the red cars in qualifying, and a small but helpful one in races. The Silver Arrows have also proven much more reliable…

As Rosberg - chasing a sixth successive victory - leads the title chase with a perfect 50 points, Hamilton is 17 behind him thanks to his problems and the need to fight back from adversity in both races. Raikkonen has 18 points, Vettel only 15 after his engine detonation even before the Bahrain race began.

With Mercedes on 83 points to Ferrari’s 33, this is where the Prancing Horse - who seemed closer to their chief rivals in Bahrain - needs to start fighting back if they are to stay in the hunt, and their chances have been helped by the fact that four-time China winner Hamilton will take a five-place grid drop into the race after an unscheduled gearbox change

For their part, Mercedes are fully aware of the threat.

"Kimi showed good pace in the race, and we know that Ferrari is super close - we saw that in qualifying," Rosberg said in Bahrain. "We need to keep pushing because they haven't shown what they are capable of yet - they've had so many mishaps which have cost them dearly. We need to be careful because they are coming at us strong. We haven't seen the real Ferrari yet."


Tyre choice set to be crucial once more…

The battle between Mercedes and Ferrari will, of course, be complicated once more by tyre choice.

For the third race in succession Pirelli are bringing the medium, soft and supersoft compounds to Shanghai, and once again Hamilton, Rosberg and the Ferraris have gone for different allocations. Hamilton has opted for four sets of mediums, four sets of softs and five sets of supersofts; Rosberg’s choice is three, five, five; Vettel and Raikkonen have both gone for three, four and six.

Valtteri Bottas has chosen two, four and seven, while Williams team mate Felipe Massa has made an aggressive section of one, five and seven. The Red Bull boys, Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, are both on two, five and six.

Notably, at Haas Romain Grosjean has also gone aggressive with the same choice as Massa as the American team aims to score points for a third time after its two highly successful outings thus far have yielded a sixth and a fifth for the Frenchman.

…but rubber will be tested in new ways

Although Pirelli have brought the same tyres as in Australia and Bahrain, they will be given a very different workout in China.

Shanghai International Circuit is a front-limited track where the often unpredictable weather conditions can play a key role. It can be quite warm at times in Shanghai, but at others it can be as cool as Belgium, and it’s that variability that can make life tricky where set-up and strategy work is concerned. Graining can also be a factor in cool conditions.

And as 80 percent of the lap is spent cornering, the lateral loading on the tyres is also crucial factor.

“Shanghai places an entirely different duty on tyres relative to Melbourne and Bahrain,” says Mercedes executive director (technical), Paddy Lowe.

“However, we have the same three compounds available, so it will be interesting to see how the competitive order plays out. It's the first time we'll see the supersoft compound used at this track, thanks to the new regulations, and that will likely create a more extreme example of what we saw in Bahrain, where the best qualifying tyre is unlikely to be a great race tyre. Every team is bound to want to qualify on the supersoft - but if it grains in the race, we could see cars stopping in the first five laps.

“There will be plenty of analysis to do on Friday and we could see some interesting calls on qualifying and race strategy.”

Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery agrees.

“China is a very different type of circuit to the two that we’ve visited up to now this year, yet the tyre nomination is the same, which underlines the adaptability of our product under a wide range of circumstances,” he says. “Shanghai is also likely to be quite a cool race, although the nature of the place means that anything is possible, so teams will have to keep an open mind on strategy and carefully correlate the data captured in practice to the eventual race conditions.

“The three compounds selected have led to a number of different tactical permutations up to now, and we expect an ample variety of strategies once more in China.”

WATCH: Get to know the Shanghai International Circuit

Will Mercedes get the start right?

Will Mercedes get both of their cars off the line smoothly for the first time this year? Speaking before learning of his gearbox change (and subsequent grid drop) Hamilton said that he wasn’t concerned about his poor getaways, despite squandering pole position and potential victory in both races to date.

"I'm not really worried about it," he said. "The first one was clutch related and the second one was something else. It's not entirely my fault but it's my reaction that cost the time. It's something we'll work internally on and fix for the next race. It's not a big issue at all, but it has a domino effect. I actually had a good start once I got going.

“China is a track that's been good to me over the years, with five poles and four wins, so hopefully this race can be the turning point.”

That might depend on how fast Daimler have been able to work with Mercedes on a problem that Toto Wolff believes is fundamentally mechanical.

"We believe it's more of a hardware issue than just a control electronics problem, and you can't solve that from one race to the other," the Mercedes chief admits. "The collaboration with Daimler is around optimising the hardware and that needs a bit of time. I am not sure when we will have results."

Alonso poised for return

And what of Fernando Alonso? Will he be back aboard his McLaren MP4-31 for Sunday's race, or will Bahrain sensation Stoffel Vandoorne be called up again?

Even after medical checks in Shanghai on Thursday the answer is still unclear. The Spaniard has been given provisional clearance to compete, but will have undergo a further examination after FP1 on Friday to decide whether he can participate in the remainder of the weekend.

One thing definitely returning in China is the 2015-spec qualifying format after the new-for-2016 elmination-style format proved unpopular.

The forecast

The weather this weekend is set to be quite mixed, but warmer than last year. Rain is expected for both practice sessions, but things will improve on Saturday which will be dry but cloudy with an expected temperature high of 28 degrees. Similar but cooler conditions are expected to pertain on race day.

The lights will go out at 1400 hours local time (0600 GMT) on Sunday with the race running over 56 laps or 305.066 kilometres (189.931 miles).