Unpredictability and unknowns are the Chinese GP buzzwords

The combination of a returning race and the F1 Sprint format means there are plenty of unknowns coming into the Chinese GP

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The Chinese Grand Prix is back for 2024 after five years away due the Covid-19 pandemic and it almost feels like a brand-new events. There are no new races on the 2024 Formula 1 calendar but this is probably the closest we’ll get to one.

If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first of six Sprint weekends this season so the drivers will have just one hour of practice before heading straight into Sprint Qualifying on Friday afternoon.

Max Verstappen leads the F1 Drivers’ Championship by 13 points from Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez with Charles Leclerc 18 points adrift and Carlos Sainz 22 points behind Verstappen.

Into a world of unknowns

The current generation ground effect cars have never raced around the Shanghai International Circuit and the simulator work that’s been put in during the build-up to the Chinese GP will be crucial.

Getting as much mileage as possible into the 60 minutes of practice at 11.30am local time (4.30am UK) on Friday will be key for the remainder of the weekend.

You also want to be fast out of the blocks and having a well-settled car, which both the Red Bull and Ferrari are, will enable the drivers to build their confidence as the track evolves.

“I think overall with the Sprint it’s always a bit more of a question mark and always a bit more chaos involved, which I guess in a way is a good thing for F1,” said Verstappen.

“From my side at the moment it’s just quite unknown. We haven’t driven here with these new cars so I don’t really know how we are going to perform here. Time will tell and I’m not too worried about it.”

Race winner Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium after the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Race winner Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium after the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Ferrari expecting to be close to Red Bull

You still have to say Ferrari are favourites but the track layout alone suggests they will be closer to Red Bull compared to Suzuka last time out.

Verstappen finished 20 seconds ahead of Sainz at the 2024 Japanese GP but there are more medium to slow-speed corners in Shanghai, so Red Bull‘s advantage should be less.

Should graining occur, when the tyres chew up because they are not in the right operating window, we may see Red Bull come under threat like they did in Las Vegas, where the cooler conditions saw Ferrari come alive.

“On paper, I think it’s a track where we could be a bit stronger compared to Suzuka,” said Leclerc. “But we’ll just approach it in the same way.

“I still think that Red Bull will have the upper hand this weekend and we’ll just have to focus on ourselves, because it can be very easy, as we’ve seen, especially in qualifying into Suzuka, I didn’t do a good job Saturday and then you don’t go from fourth to fifth but you go from fourth to eighth.

“It’s going to be very important, especially on a Sprint weekend, we’ve got two qualifyings these this weekend to extract the maximum out of the car on both qualifyings and then in the race. I think we are we are quite strong this year.”

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc celebrate on the podium after 2024 Australian Grand Prix 2024 | Scuderia Ferrari Press Office
Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc celebrate on the podium after 2024 Australian Grand Prix 2024 | Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

McLaren vs Mercedes vs Aston Martin in fight behind

McLaren are less optimistic about their chances this weekend due to the long-radius corners and slower turns, which is a weakness of their car. The one positive is McLaren were very strong at Sprint weekends in 2023 and Oscar Piastri won the Qatar Sprint remember.

“I think we’ve been happy with how the season started,” said Lando Norris, who is still looking for his maiden F1 win. “I think we’re in a good qualifying battle with Aston, Mercedes, it’s very close and even last weekend ahead of Ferrari, but I think the order is still clear.

“I think in the racing we’ve done a good job. Not as good as Red Bull and Ferrari, but ahead of Aston and Mercedes. So I think we’re in a good spot. This wasn’t a great circuit for us in 2019 but many things have changed since then, so I’m so optimistic we can have a good weekend.”

As for Mercedes, it’s really up in the air as to where they will be as they continue to tackle the unpredictability of their car. Nevertheless, Lewis Hamilton has won the Chinese GP a record six times and might be able to recreate some past joy.

“Nothing’s changed with our car, so it’s going to be the same car this weekend,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1. “But we understand it a little bit more. On the last weekend, we did make improvements, so we are bringing some of those learnings into this weekend and then, on top of that, some new direction again.

“I think if we could go back we would have done things differently. That’s the benefit of hindsight and experience. So we’re trying to bring that here this weekend and see if we can implement some of those changes we would have perhaps done further in Suzuka, and hopefully that can find us a bit of performance.”

Fernando Alonso can drive with even more freedom after signing a new multi-year deal with Aston Martin and will be somewhere in the middle of the McLaren and Mercedes fight.

China has produced some chaotic races over the years and if anyone can capitalise on several variables and a mad race, it’s Alonso.

Zhou on home soil

Zhou Guanyu has had to wait three years to drive in front of the home crowd but Sauber face the issue of slow pit stops that have seriously hindered them at every race in 2024.

Without doubt, Zhou must be incredibly proud to represent China in Shanghai and it would be a beautiful moment if he can somehow score some points.

Sauber have actually had decent pace this year, just no results to showcase it. With Audi coming into F1 in 2026, Zhou needs to deliver on merit too, so beating teammate Valtteri Bottas must be a priority to get a new contract for next year.

“My first race, I watched back in the day in 2004,” said Zhou. “The man sitting next to me [Alonso] was racing already! Can’t imagine how he is still here, racing at a very high level.

“But for me, of course, it’s been 20 years waiting for this Grand Prix. And, let’s say this journey has been not extremely easy, just because where I’m coming from, and also, trying to win at least a lot of races in feeder series to be here.

“Then once in F1, every year, of course, when you realise that the home race is not happening, two years in a row, we try to kind of do your best to maintain your seat and then to be here, today… of course, I’m still focused on my job, like always said, I know this is very, let’s say a mix of emotions going to this weekend, especially when we have on Sunday with the national anthem going on and also the memory, quickly reflect on your mind.

“But as much as I am a race driver, I think the most important, critical thing is to do the right job on track, which is try to score points, give the maximum I have on the package on the car we have, which, I feel like we have potential even though it’s not a track I know the best in terms of the layout.”

John Smith
John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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