- Chinese Grand Prix preview
A change for the good?Laurence Edmondson April 17, 2014
If a Formula One fan watching the Chinese Grand Prix last year were to be transported through time to the present, he might struggle to recognise the sport being transmitted from his television set. He would be able to attribute some of the unfamiliarity to the 2014 engine regulations he'd been reading about - the lower gruntier exhaust note and the fuel readings on the side of the screen - but who are all these unfamiliar characters on the pit wall? The friendly faces of Stefano Domenicali and Martin Whitmarsh have gone … wait, is that Lotus boss Eric Boullier sitting next to Ron Dennis at McLaren? Highlights from the Bahrain Grand Prix would flash up on the screen and he'd see two team-mates fighting for the lead without the need for team orders - how refreshing compared to the last race he watched in Malaysia (2013). Hang on, surely something's not right … how is Force India ahead of both Red Bull and Ferrari in the constructors' championship? And what's this? The two Williams drivers both have more points than Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari! He'd probably sit back, mull it over and think, "Well, at least no-one can say F1 is boring".
With the characteristics of the Bahrain International Circuit playing to Mercedes' strengths, the two W05s looked as dominant as they have been all season at the last race. Even with a late safety car and a race-long duel between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, they still finished over 24 seconds clear of the nearest competitor. Nevertheless, a fascinating battle between the two team-mates is emerging, with Rosberg leading on points but Hamilton currently looking like the stronger of the two. However, Bahrain was just the opening on-track battle in a season-long war between the two and Rosberg's keen eye for detail has been pouring over Hamilton's data to figure out where the differences lie. The title will not just come down to outright driver talent behind the wheel, but adapting and improving as both drivers push each other to new levels of performance.
Out of formThe 2014 season should have been Ferrari's big chance to return to the top of the sport. As one of just two factory teams, it had a big chance to hit the ground running by integrating engine and chassis development to deliver a world-beating package. If anything, the concerns should have been on the aero side, with an overhaul of its wind tunnel over the winter, but the engine should have been better. For a company whose founder once said, "Aerodynamics are for people who can't build engines" the F14 T is an embarrassment. No-one likes being embarrassed, least of all Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, and as a result Stefano Domenicali was offered up as a sacrificial lamb to the disgruntled tifosi this week. New team principal Marco Mattiacci won't arrive with a silver bullet, but things have to get better from here.
One to watchWilliams has not yet fulfilled its full potential this year. In Bahrain the track played to the strengths of the FW36, but an unfortunately-timed safety car resulted in another disappointing result. The team will bring updates targeted at addressing the lack of downforce the drivers have been complaining about this year, but the car should retain its top speed advantage on Shanghai's long straight. However, wet weather could still scupper the team's weekend as it did in Australia and Malaysia, with Felipe Massa saying ahead of the race: "We still need to improve the car in the wet, so we are hoping the weekend will be dry, I also prefer the dry, but there is hard work going on to improve the car."
It's one thing to have a team principal resign when results don't go a team's way, but it's another thing replacing him. When the news started to break that Stefano Domenicali was ready to fall on his sword at Ferrari, the immediate question was who would replace him. It's not as if candidates with suitable experience are in short supply, ex-Ferrari man Ross Brawn left Mercedes over the winter and Martin Whitmarsh is still out there somewhere after leaving McLaren. But perhaps it's not surprising that Ferrari looked within its own organisation, naming Marco Mattiacci as soon as it confirmed Domenicali's departure. He may not have the engineering background of some of the team bosses in the paddock, but Mattiacci is clearly a very capable man manager after heading up Ferrari in two of its most crucial markets - Asia and North America - over the past eight years. It's not unknown for team principals without motorsport experience to taste success in F1 - Flavio Briatore springs to mind - and they also have the ability to bring fresh views to the table when negotiating at F1's top tables. What's more Ferrari has Pat Fry and James Allison to take care of the technical side of things, freeing up Mattiacci to focus on the bigger picture.
Go with the flow
Earlier this week the FIA court of appeal upheld Daniel Ricciardo's exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix. It was not a surprise judgement because a reversal of the stewards' decision would have created the potential for a free-for-all with fuel flow monitoring at this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix. But that's not to say it was not a fair process. Red Bull was given the opportunity to prove that it had not exceeded the fuel flow limit, but ultimately could not provide sufficient evidence to counter the fact it had ignored the readings of the FIA sensor. The FIA sensors are not without their issues, but will continue to be improved as the technology moves forward.
Money, money, money
F1's small teams have been warning for some time that a cost cap is crucial for their survival over the next few years. The FIA responded by announcing a cost cap for 2015, but now those plans have been shelved after F1's strategy group voted against it. The likes of Sauber, Force India, Caterham and Marussia are understandably upset about that decision, as they - unlike F1's six biggest teams - do not have a vote in the strategy group. There's little doubt that a cost cap will not be easy to establish and police, but the FIA's best intentions have now been outvoted by the big six teams and Bernie Ecclestone. The news that Haas Formula will join F1 as an all-new team at some point over the next two years has no doubt eased concerns about a thinning grid, but it's crucial that the sport finds a fair way of controlling costs in the future.
Facts and stats
- Chinese Grand Prix is written as 中国大奖赛 in simplified Chinese
- The circuit plan is designed to look like the Chinese character 'Shang', which means high or above
- Drivers spend 15 seconds at full throttle on the straight between turns 13 and 14
- The Zhuhai International Circuit was meant to host the first Chinese Grand Prix in 1999 and even made it on to the provisional calendar. However, when the circuit in the Southern province of Guangdong failed to meet standards set by the FIA, the race was dropped. The Shanghai International Circuit was then built with no expense spared to ensure Formula One came to the country in 2004
BettingLewis Hamilton is 8/11 to make it a hat-trick of wins this weekend, while Nico Rosberg is 2/1 to return to come out on top. Such is Mercedes dominance that Sebastian Vettel is 16/1 to win and third favourite. Daniel Ricciardo is 25/1 to take his first F1 victory while Williams' Felipe Massa is 33/1, the same odds as his ex-team-mate Fernando Alonso.
ESPN predictionThe Bahrain Grand Prix proved there is not much separating the two Mercedes drivers at the moment, but if anything Lewis Hamilton has the advantage. Nico Rosberg may have taken his maiden win in China in 2012, but Hamilton has won there twice in his career in 2008 and 2011.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1