If Nico Rosberg’s bid for a first Formula 1 world championship looked good following his victories in Australia and Bahrain, it is now arguably stronger than it has ever been following Chinese Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
After curbing the threat posed by Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel to take his 23rd career pole position, Rosberg is now in a prime position to claim his third win of the year and sixth in a row.
The usual battle he engages in with Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton wasn’t to be in qualifying as an engine issue sidelined the Briton before he could even post a lap time.
As a result, Hamilton will start Sunday’s race from the very back of the grid, arguably making it Rosberg’s race to lose.
The Chinese Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 1:30am ET on Sunday. Here’s what to watch for in the race.
2016 Chinese Grand Prix – What to watch for
History beckons for Nico
In the 66-year history of F1, only three drivers have won six races in a row: Sebastian Vettel, Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher. Nico Rosberg can become the fourth on Sunday.
All three of those drivers were world champion and, to make matters even better for Rosberg, anyone who has on the opening three races of a season has gone on to win the title at its end.
History is very much on his side relying he can keep his cool. Rosberg’s biggest strength has always been capitalizing on Hamilton’s off days or – in this case – bad luck. China could be the biggest test of that yet, because given he’ll be starting on the more durable soft tire, it seems unfathomable that he cannot win.
Hamilton up for a fight
Despite being relegated to the back of the field and having his grid penalty just to add to matters, Hamilton has kept his head high after qualifying. The Briton knows that the race is about damage limitation, yet is a big result really out of reach?
The last time Hamilton failed to make it past Q1 came in Hungary 2014. In the race, he had caught up with Rosberg before lap 20 and eventually beat the German to third place. It was a remarkable comeback that goes down as one of his very best drives.
This time around, Lewis may find the midfield to be more problematic to pass, not to mention to less favorable tire picks. Strategy will be all or nothing in Shanghai, giving Hamilton and Mercedes plenty of thinking to do overnight.
Two versus one in Ferrari’s favor
Ferrari has been oh-so-close to Mercedes oh-so-often so far this season, yet we’ve never really seen it come to much in the race.
Qualifying showed another glimpse of what might be possible when Kimi Raikkonen took provisional pole after the first set of Q3 runs, only for both he and Sebastian Vettel to put in an error-strewn second lap to leave them P3 and P4 respectively.
With Hamilton out of the way, Ferrari could be clever and split the strategies of its drivers. By getting one of its runners to go longer on the first stint and get ahead of Rosberg – admittedly difficult on super-softs – said driver could then back the German up. Teamwork will be key on Sunday – as will getting both cars to the flag, something Ferrari is yet to achieve so far in 2016.
Strategy set to define the race
The addition of the third tire compound for races has so far proven to be a stroke of genius, offering excellent races in both Australia and Bahrain.
In China, it will be more key than ever. The most abrasive of the three tracks so far, Shanghai could leave teams scrambling if they get their strategy even slightly wrong.
Predictions are that the super-soft tire which most of the top 10 will be starting on will last around five laps, paving the way for a three-stop race. Rosberg got through Q2 on softs, so may have an advantage at the start, but will Mercedes go with the mediums or the super-softs as his second compound?
The race will be won or lost on strategy tomorrow. And with so much stacked in Rosberg’s favor, a defeat would be embarrassing for all involved.
A bon anniversaire for Grosjean?
Romain Grosjean enters Sunday’s race keen to continue his impressive run of points for Haas from the opening two races, having picked up a sixth and a fifth so far this year for the rookie team.
Tomorrow is a big day for him as he leaves his twenties behind and celebrates his 30th birthday. Cake has been promised in the morning, although one would imagine he isn’t going to be having too much of it before the race.
Starting 14th, it will be a big ask to continue the points streak, but the strategists at Haas haven’t put a foot wrong so far this year. You’d be wise to tip them to get China right.
2016 Chinese Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Valtteri Bottas Williams
6. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
9. Max Verstappen Toro Rosso
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Fernando Alonso McLaren
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
14. Romain Grosjean Haas
15. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Kevin Magnussen Renault
18. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
19. Jolyon Palmer Renault
20. Rio Haryanto Manor
21. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
22. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
The Chinese Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 1:30am ET on Sunday.