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F1 Preview: 2017 Chinese Grand Prix

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Two weeks after a flying start to the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia, the paddock now heads to Shanghai for the first Asian round of the year: the Chinese Grand Prix.

China has been a mainstay on the F1 calendar since 2004, with the vast Shanghai International Circuit establishing itself as one of the sport’s premier facilities.

Sebastian Vettel will arrive in Shanghai as the man to beat following his surprise victory in Melbourne where, for the first time since Singapore 2015, Mercedes was left unable to answer to the pace of its rivals.

Ferrari may have been at the front at Albert Park, but Mercedes will have been working tirelessly over the past two weeks to work out where it went wrong and return to the top step on Sunday.

Here’s what to look out for over this weekend’s race in China.

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Ferrari look to consolidate advantage

Even with its searing pre-season pace in mind, Ferrari’s victory in Australia was a big surprise. For a team that has a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (case in point: Australia 2016), to have seen the Scuderia run a perfect race for Vettel was refreshing. And honestly, a strong Ferrari is a very good thing for F1, given it is by far its most visible team.

The challenge for Vettel and co. now will be to kick on and prove that it wasn’t a one-off. If Ferrari is serious about a title bid this year, it needs to keep the momentum from Australia going. Nico Rosberg proved in 2016 just how important the early races can be when it comes to plotting a title bid; Vettel should not take that for granted.

The development race is already underway, so make sure to keep an eye out for what updates appear on the SF70H car for China. If conditions are warm like they were on Sunday in Melbourne, then it should play into Ferrari’s hands; cooler climes worked for Mercedes more in practice.

Vettel won the race in Australia due to his supreme confidence in Pirelli’s tires, while Hamilton was very uncertain, forcing the early stop. The compounds for China are a step harder (super-soft, soft, medium), so again, this could work against Ferrari. Either way, if Vettel can weather the storm and beat Mercedes soundly again, it would surely give the German marque great cause for concern.

The pecking order should begin to take shape…

As every driver that came back from the Australian Grand Prix and delivered a verdict on their performance, each one added a “but” to their summaries. The unique nature of the Albert Park street circuit means that results can often differ from the true pecking order, with a high rate of attrition ordinarily shaking things up.

The majority of teams said that a clearer picture of the pecking order would begin to form on China, with the Shanghai International Circuit being a more representative track thanks to its more flowing nature. As a result, we will hopefully get some idea of exactly where each team lies for 2017.

The big focus will be on Ferrari and Mercedes, naturally, but the midfield fight is also worth keeping a close eye on. The ‘big three’ (Red Bull joining the top two) are well clear of the pack, leaving Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas all to battle in the midfield. The difference between P4 and P8 in the constructors’ championship could be just a few tenths…

…unless it rains (which it probably will)

The Chinese Grand Prix has thrown up some wet-weather classics in the past, with the 2006, 2007 and 2010 races all coming to mind – and we could be poised for another one this weekend.

Rain fell intermittently throughout Thursday’s media duties, leaving the drivers diving for cover at one point as they looked to cross the enormous Shanghai International Circuit paddock for their press sessions. The forecast for the remainder of the weekend is for rain on-and-off, meaning we could be set to see the 2017-spec cars complete their first true wet-weather running.

Rain can be a great equalizer, and at a time when momentum is everything, taking advantage of wet conditions could be the catalyst for a breakthrough season. With so little running completed on Pirelli’s new, wider wet compounds though, it may be a guessing game for the entire grid if the heavens do open.

McLaren set for more misery

Amid ongoing issues with the Honda power unit in its MCL32 car, McLaren expected very little from the Australian Grand Prix, making Fernando Alonso’s flirtation with the top-10 very exciting indeed. The Spaniard ultimately retired late on due to a suspension issue, though, while Stoffel Vandoorne started his first full season in F1 by finishing two laps down and outside of the points.

If things were bad in Australia, they’re only set to get worse on Sunday in China. As mentioned above, the track in Shanghai will lay the true pace of the 2017 field bare, meaning that McLaren’s woes will be clear for all to see. The wider nature of the track will make it harder for Alonso to keep cars back like he did in Australia, with the long back straight set to be a challenge for the Honda power unit.

With Alonso in the car, anything is possible for McLaren – but you have to think that another finish outside of the points is on the cards for the British team this weekend, barring a miracle or two.

Giovinazzi gears up for another go

One of the breakout stories from the Australian Grand Prix weekend was the performance of Ferrari junior Antonio Giovinazzi, who stepped in at Sauber to replace Pascal Wehrlein when the German’s back problems forced him out of the race after practice.

Giovinazzi performed admirably despite the short notice, finishing 12th for Sauber and impressing the watching paddock, particularly the bosses at Ferrari who were eager to see what Italy’s next great hope in F1 could do.

Giovinazzi will get another roll of the dice in China this weekend, replacing Wehrlein once again, but will be able to complete a full practice program this time around, giving him a chance to really dial in with the Sauber C36 car. If he can produce a display like he did in Australia with just a few hours to get ready, what he can achieve with several days’ notice?

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Shanghai International Circuit
Corners: 16
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:32.238 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:35.402
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) 1:39.824
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T13 to T14

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 10pm ET 6/6
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 2am ET 6/7
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 12am ET 6/8
Qualifying: NBCSN 3am ET 6/8
Race: NBCSN 1am ET 6/9

Hamilton tops second Abu Dhabi F1 practice with new track record

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Lewis Hamilton swept to the top of the timesheets in second Formula 1 practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Friday evening, beating Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton trailed Vettel through the daytime-run opening practice session, but managed to strike back by recording a new track record at the Yas Marina Circuit for Mercedes.

Hamilton recorded a fastest lap time of 1:37.877 to finish one-tenth of a second clear of Vettel at the checkered flag, appearing to have an edge across a single lap on the ultra-soft tire.

Red Bull threw its hat into the ring as a possible rival for pole through Daniel Ricciardo, who finished the session third-fastest, three-tenths of a second back from Hamilton at the head of the field.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP2 in fourth place in the sister Ferrari, finishing within half a second of Hamilton, and managed to edge out fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas, who was a further two-tenths back in P5.

Max Verstappen failed to get in a quick flying lap during FP2, ending the session one second down in P6 for Red Bull.

Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon’s tight intra-team fight at Force India continued through FP2 as the pair were separated by just 0.01 seconds, taking seventh and eighth respectively to finish as the leading midfield drivers.

Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso completed the top 10 for Renault and McLaren, with Felipe Massa following in 11th for Williams on his final Friday appearance in F1.

Massa was fortunate to avoid an accident with Ricciardo during the final 15 minutes of the session after a mix up at the hairpin when the Brazilian tried to get a wider line for the back straight.

Running in Abu Dhabi continues with final practice at Yas Marina on Saturday morning from 5am ET on the NBC Sports app, followed by qualifying at 8am ET on NBCSN.