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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

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Road America

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

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