Five key talking points as Formula 1 heads to China
It’s time for the third round of the season as Formula 1 heads to the Shanghai International Circuit for the Chinese Grand Prix. Motorsport Week casts an eye over some of the main talking points during the build-up to the event.
Can Vettel – and Ferrari – bounce back?
As soon as Ferrari thrust Charles Leclerc from Sauber to replace Kimi Raikkonen it raised intriguing questions about the driver dynamics at Maranello. It was effectively a long-term signal that Ferrari had faith in its protégé to deliver at the top level. It will also have been a warning sign to Sebastian Vettel. That Leclerc was so impressive, so at ease, and so dominant in only his second event with Ferrari has made a mockery of those who anticipated a bedding-in period. That Vettel had a lacklustre race, including his fourth spin in 10 Grands Prix, only heightened the sense of a shift. It was, though, only one event. Vettel is a four-time World Champion whose win record has been bettered by just two drivers. But he could really do with an emphatic display in China as he chases a first win since last August. Similarly Ferrari did not deliver on its rapid pace in Bahrain, thanks to Vettel’s mistake and the glitch that slowed Leclerc, and will need a strong weekend to underline its title credentials. You cannot win a title this early in the season – but you can certainly lose it.
Will Mercedes have an answer for speed?
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was stark in his assessment of Ferrari’s speed advantage in the aftermath of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Wolff described the SF90’s straight-line speed as “unbelievable”, “unmatched by anybody”, “really difficult to compete with” and suggested its advantage in Bahrain was half a second per lap. “It’s sheer power,” he commented, suggesting that altering drag levels would only have had a minor benefit for Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton’s determination kept Mercedes in the hunt in Bahrain, but even then the DRS was merely an assist and not a slam dunk when he battled Vettel. It puts Mercedes in the unusual position of underdog in terms of power and the next two events both feature sizeable full-throttle zones. Can Mercedes get its W10 into the right operating window, and maximise the remainder of the front-limited circuit, to negate the likely advantage of Ferrari’s power unit?
Can Ricciardo – and Renault – show some form?
Aside from Williams, Renault has been one of the biggest disappointments of 2019 so far. It wanted to edge clear of the midfield and close on the top three but it is undeniably still in the midfield. Its pace is so-so and, concerningly, it is still getting waylaid by reliability problems. The simultaneous double retirement was as devastating as it was embarrassing for a manufacturer of Renault’s scale and ambitions. Is this really a team that can emerge as a 2021 title contender? It has yet to get a handle on the MGU-K which has been its chagrin for several years. The one ray of light was Nico Hulkenberg’s race performance but, by now, this should be expected, and not necessarily regarded as a box ticked. China is a huge market for Renault and it must improve. In the cockpit Daniel Ricciardo has accepted he is still getting accustomed to driving with less downforce, carrying too much entry speed and is consequently compromising exit speed. These are only minor niggles but it adds up in such a congested midfield. Both parties could do with a better display.
Will F1’s 1000th race deliver a spectacle?
Technically this is not the 1000th Formula 1 race but the 1000th World Championship Grand Prix (thanks to 1950s anomalies) but the series has made quite the hullabaloo about the milestone. It is an achievement and there will be a handful of special events during the week; drivers have been given freedom to come up with a celebratory helmet design while teams will be running stickers to mark the occasion. All of this, though, means nothing if F1 delivers a dud. Its 700th (Brazil 2003’s wet-fest), 800th (Singapore 2008) and 900th (Bahrain 2014’s desert duel) were all memorable for various reasons – can the 1000th emulate such events? The ingredients are certainly there and Shanghai has typically put on eye-catching races in recent years, whether down to pure racing, tyre madness or wet weather.
Has Red Bull learned from recent setbacks?
Red Bull-Honda started the year with a podium in Australia – behind only Mercedes – but in Bahrain had a more challenging time. It has spent several seasons frustrated by a lack of grunt though accepted at the second round that it was the chassis which required examination. Both Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly struggled and Christian Horner accepted post-race that the RB15 currently has a narrow operating window. Gasly in particular was all at sea, vocal in his ill-feeling with the rear-end of the car – leading to a vicious circle – as he was dragged into the midfield fight. The more experienced Verstappen only cleared Haas’ Kevin Magnussen by 0.005s in qualifying and had to resort to his natural aggression to resist Carlos Sainz Jr.’s McLaren early in the race. This weekend marks a decade since Red Bull’s maiden win and a strong weekend is a must if it is to be regarded as a title contender and not the firm outsider in a two-horse race.