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Tilke, throttle and tyre cliffs: The ultimate Chinese GP guide

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Track tech

With high and low-speed corners, a long straight concluding with a tight hairpin and not much in the way of elevation change, Shanghai is a typical Tilke circuit although one that is growing in popularity thanks to some excellent recent races. Overtaking can be a challenge with few real chances to pass throughout the lap, necessitating careful planning of a move such as we saw Lewis Hamilton pull on Sebastian Vettel in 2011, saving all his KERS for a pass at Turn 7, not one of the fancied overtaking spots on the lap. Traction can be problematic in the acceleration zones out of Turns 6 and 14, while understeer needs to be dialled out of the car’s setup to make the infield section from Turns 6 to 9 easier. The track has a 1.2km back straight, the cars going full throttle for 15 seconds, and it is here that the majority of overtakes happen, thanks to the DRS zone which activates halfway down the straight into the 40mph hairpin at Turn 14.

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Race strategy highlights from 2012

Mercedes planned a two-stop race for both Rosberg and Schumacher from the outset, with both cars starting on the front row. McLaren, who were to be the Silver Arrows’ biggest threat on the day, went for a three-stop strategy, intending to attack throughout the race. However their ability to do so was compromised by errors and a grid penalty for Lewis Hamilton, which saw him mired in the lower points positions for most of the race before recovering to finish third, albeit 26 seconds behind Rosberg at the flag. It was up to Button to take the fight to Mercedes and he was well-placed to do so going into his third and final stop on lap 39 – at this point he was going to emerge second on track to Rosberg, both on medium tyres but Button’s would be fresher, with Nico stopping on lap 34. A botched pit stop cost Jenson an extra six seconds and dropped him into a fight behind a train of cars including Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen, both of whom were also two-stopping. During this phase of the race Button lost over a second lap to the leading Mercedes and any chance of challenging for the win was gone.

From a highlight to a lowlight, and Kimi Raikkonen graphically demonstrated what happens when tyre performance ‘falls off the cliff’. The Finn was running in second place with nine laps remaining, having attempted a two-stop strategy similar to the leaders. In pitting too early for his final set of tyres, Raikkonen left himself with 28 laps to complete on a single set of rubber, and they cried ‘enough’ in spectacular fashion, with cars passing the sluggish Lotus left, right and centre, leaving the Finn to limp home in 14th place. It’s worth noting that this was the only race in 2012 where Kimi failed to finish in the points.

What to look out for in 2013

With the same medium and soft compound tyres available there’s likely to be a real split between two and three-stop strategies. In 2012 half the drivers in the top ten stopped twice, with the other half pitting three times. Overall the two-stoppers fared better, climbing a combined 22 places compared with a net zero for the three-stoppers, though much of that can be attributed to Kamui Kobayashi dropping from fourth to tenth as faster cars made their way past him. Bruno Senna was the big mover from the lower order – starting 14th the Brazilian used a two-stop strategy on laps 12 and 29, going medium-soft-medium on tyre choice, to make up seven places and finish seventh.

With the field even closer than in 2012, running a three-stop strategy is risky as it relies on being able to build enough of a gap so that you can pit and rejoin in front of the first two-stopping car on track. The two-stop strategy is reckoned to be faster by around seven seconds, but could leave a car vulnerable on worn tyres in the last five or six laps. In the top ten the drivers will start on soft tyres used in qualifying, look to hang onto these as long as possible whilst building the gap to the two-stoppers, then run as far as they can in the middle stint on mediums. Look for some teams switching from two to three mid-race if tyre wear proves to be higher than expected.

Who’s the best on track in China?

With two wins and two podiums from six races contested, Lewis Hamilton has the best record of any driver in the current field at the Shanghai International Circuit. Hamilton’s first win in China came in his championship-winning season of 2008, and will have helped erase memories of his first race a year previously, when a shot at the title in his rookie season was dealt a big blow by the young Englishman sliding into a gravel trap next to the pitlane on worn tyres. The other four champions on the grid, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, each have one victory to their name in China, while the circuit holds particularly strong memories for Mercedes and Nico Rosberg, for it was here one year ago that the team secured its first victory as a works Formula One team since 1955 when Rosberg won from pole position.

Track Characteristics

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Tyre wear: 7/10 - A two-stopper won the race last year for Rosberg, but for a combination of circumstances the three-stopping Button could have been in with a shout of victory also. If you can run clear in front either strategy can be made to work.

Downforce: 7/10 - With a long back straight the temptation can be to set the car up for straight-line speed to maximise overtaking opportunities, but with a twisty infield section there needs to be a decent amount of downforce available to maintain speed in the slower parts of the lap.

Average speed: 7/10 - Despite the high downforce setup the track speed is quite high, although some cars can use first gear in the 76km/h right-hander at Turn 6, one of very few places on the entire calendar where first gear is used on track.

Track difficulty: 5/10 - Overall Shanghai isn’t the hardest track on the calendar, but some sequences of corners require practice in order to achieve the right lines.

Overtaking: 6/10 - Turns 6, 11 and 14, with the benefit of the DRS zone, provide the main passing opportunities throughout the lap. Drivers setting up a move will need to keep their KERS energy boost in reserve.

Spectacle: 7/10 - With a price tag of $250m no expense was spared on the Shanghai International Circuit, and in recent years the race has really started to deliver with some brilliant strategic battles being fought on track. Throw in a spot of rain and you have all the makings of a classic.

Previous Races

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Driver’s view – Pastor Maldonado, Williams

“This can be quite an unpredictable race and the weather conditions are a particular challenge. There is also a mix of different corners so you need to get the right balance between good straight line speed for the very long straight, whilst still having good grip in the lower speed corners. Another challenge is the strategy as there are a few difficult decisions the engineers face when deciding what type of race to run here. We haven’t had the best start to the season and we need some time to improve our car to be solid in the points, but the whole team is working very hard so let’s wait and see how we can adapt the car for this race.”

Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director

“We’ll be bringing our P Zero White medium and P Zero Yellow soft tyres to China: the same combination as last year although of course the tyres are generally all softer and faster this year. Shanghai is definitely a race where strategy can make a huge difference: in the past we’ve seen a wide variety of strategies being used, with some very close finishes. A car that uses its tyres well here certainly has the capability to spring a surprise. Compared to the last round in Malaysia and the next one in Bahrain, we should see some comparatively cool temperatures in China, but with plenty of energy going through the tyres we would expect most competitors to stop three times. We’ve obviously had quite a wet start to the season, and we wouldn’t exclude the possibility of seeing rain again in China, so as always we will bring the Cinturato Green intermediate and Cinturato Blue full wet.”

James Frankland

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