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

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds