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Six key questions ahead of the China race

17 Apr 2016

All through Shanghai practice Ferrari looked every strong and the feeling at Mercedes was that for once they were the hunter rather than the hunted. But right at the end of qualifying a great lap from Nico Rosberg and a poor one from Kimi Raikkonen settled the issue in the German’s favour. And With Lewis Hamilton having to start from the back after an ERS problem in Q1, the Silver Arrows thus bookend the grid. What will it all mean for the race? Here are the important points to ponder...
Were Mercedes clever in running Rosberg on the soft tyre in Q2, where a team’s starting tyre is determined? All his front-running rivals will start on supersofts…

Yes, they were.

Here’s what Paddy Lowe, Mercedes’ executive director, technical, had to say about the Shanghai International Circuit and the demands it makes on tyres. “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.”

Opting to run mediums in Q2 was a very canny strategy by Mercedes that increases their options early in the race. If supersoft-shod rivals do indeed have to pit within five laps, Rosberg could pull clear early on providing he makes a decent start from pole, leaving them to get bogged down as slower cars starting on mediums or softs overtake them during these early stops. He would then be free to exploit his own sets of supersofts later in the race when the fuel load has been reduced.

How will Ferrari cover that? And can they make up for the mistakes that cost them front-row starts?

The feeling within Mercedes is that, once they saw Hamilton was in trouble in Q1, Ferrari decided to go for a split race strategy.

Raikkonen will almost certainly run a three-stop strategy, but since Vettel elected to do only one run in Q3 and thus saved a new set of supersofts, they may try to get him through on two stops in an effort to cover Rosberg. That could be a tall order, however, as he would have to do at least 10 laps on the red rubber in his first stint, then around 30 on softs in his second before switching to supersofts again for the final 15 or so laps. Expect both cars to be in the hunt, though, in race trim.

For the third race in a row, Hamilton faces adversity and the need to go into damage limitation mode. What chances does he have, after his Mercedes’ ERS MGU-H system problem forced him to start from the back?

"No one wants it easy that’s for sure, and in championship terms it’s still early on," the world champion said. "We are definitely in the mud, but we will dig our way out."

He will at least enjoy a free choice when it comes to tyres, which means that should Mercedes wish he could actually use all three available compounds – the mediums, the softs and the supersofts – or a combination of two of them, in order to create as flexible a strategy as possible.

On a track where it is possible to overtake, he should be able to make the top five given adequate reliability, perhaps better if others strike trouble.

Red Bull admitted that Daniel Ricciardo’s brilliant front-row lap in qualifying was a big surprise. But can they hold that position against the Ferraris in the race?

"Today is encouraging,” the Australian said on Saturday.” If we can have this on one lap then in the race we should still be pretty competitive. We're normally better off in the race.

"Hopefully we've a race with Ferrari. Nico starting on the softs should be in good shape, so if we can battle for the podium that would be awesome.

"We've only had a couple of races, but up until now we've exceeded, maximised everything we've got, and we've shown true dry pace here. To get a front row in dry conditions is awesome and testament to how far we've come since the end of 2015. I know it's only qualifying, but the plan is to be back here after the race."

So, yes, in Ricciardo’s mind he’s definitely up for keeping the red cars at bay.

They’ve had a sixth and a fifth in their first two races, but can Haas make it a hat-trick of points-scoring finishes?

Starting outside the top 10, Haas are free to use whatever tyre combination they want, to maximise their strategies on both cars. This is exactly what they did in Australia and Bahrain, and in a race where tyre wear is going to be crucial you wouldn’t bet against them once again making the right calls.

McLaren were bitterly disappointed when Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button lost their chances of making Q3 due to Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India losing its left-front wheel at the end of Q2. Can they still score points to add to the one stand-in Stoffel Vandoorne garnered in Bahrain?

"It was super frustrating to not be able to set a time," Alonso said of his thwarted final run in Q2. "I only had one try in Q1, and the second one I aborted because we were already classified for Q2. Even so, we are 12th, so I think both McLarens would have been quite comfortably in Q3. Extremely frustrating, because we haven't even used the full power of the engine until Q2, when we were going to give it all. But that's the way it goes. The feeling is good. The car is growing, and we've gone from trying to escape Q1 to being frustrated for not being in Q3, so that's a nice feeling."

The advantage of being just outside the top 10, however, means that like Hamilton and Mercedes, McLaren can choose their tyres for the race - they can run on new ones and with three different compounds available they will be able to maximise their strategic chances.

And Hulkenberg’s grid penalty moves them up to 11th and 12th starting positions, which will help.