F1 Preview: 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

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Two races into the 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season and surprises abound in several places on the grid.

Even though Mercedes AMG Petronas appeared as daunting as ever entering the season, it’s Scuderia Ferrari who has been to Victory Lane in the opening two races, with Sebastian Vettel sitting on a perfect 50 points and at the head of the drivers championship.

McLaren F1 has had both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne score points in the opening two races, yet Scuderia Toro Rosso, now using the maligned Honda power units McLaren parted ways with them, outran them in the Bahrain Grand Prix, with Pierre Fasly finishing an outstanding fourth, and doing so on merit – he qualified fifth and ran in the Top 5 all race long, moving up to fourth after Kimi Raikkonen dropped when disastrous pit stop saw him clip a team member and leave with a loose wheel.

Further, Gasly is even with Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo on 12 points and ahead of Max Verstappen after both Red Bulls record DNFs in Bahrain.

Even Alfa Romeo Sauber offered up a surprise, finishing ninth in Bahrain to currently sit ahead of Sahara Force India, who only points finish so far is Esteban Ocon’s tenth place at Bahrain.

All told, the opening two races have set the stage for a season potentially full of intrigue, and the unpredictability could continue at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix.

Stories to watch for at the Chinese Grand Prix are below.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN – APRIL 08: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 8, 2018 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari has a 2-0 victory advantage over Mercedes, and while Sebastian Vettel’s victory at the Australian Grand Prix was undoubtedly helped by a timely Virtual Safety Car, the Bahrain Grand Prix was a genuine display of strength from Ferrari, with Vettel securing pole and holding off a late challenge from Valtteri Bottas to take the win.

Still, there is reason to think Mercedes can easily find itself back in the winner’s circle in China. Lewis Hamilton was dominating in Australia before the Virtual Safety Car allowed Vettel to leapfrog ahead of him, and five-place grid penalty hampered his efforts from the outset in Bahrain.

Still, Hamilton worked his way up to third after starting ninth, and his charge forward featured an early nomination for “Pass of the Year” around Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, and Nico Hulkenberg.

Add in some extra motivation after getting one-upped by Ferrari in each of the first two races, and Hamilton and Bottas will most certainly be ones to watch as they look to restore Mercedes’ supremacy.

Who Emerges This Week from the Jammed Midfield?

In Australia, it was the Haas F1 team who was “best of the rest” on pace, though their double DNF opened the door for McLaren and Renault Sport F1 Team to get double-points finishes.

In Bahrain, Toro Rosso came seemingly out of nowhere to be “best of the rest” with Gasly, while Haas put Kevin Magnussen in fifth while McLaren again had both drivers in the points – Alonso and Vandoorne finished seventh and eighth respectively.

Force India has stumbled out of the gates, with Ocon scoring the team’s only point, while Renault has looked fairly stout, with Carlos Sainz Jr. finishing tenth in Australia and Hulkenberg finishing seventh and sixth in Australia and Bahrain.

Even Alfa Romeo Sauber has been stronger than expected, with Marcus Ericsson finishing an impressive ninth in Bahrain.

With the midfield jammed as much as it is, it is anyone’s guess as to who will emerge from that pack this weekend, and if Mercedes, Ferrari, or Red Bull stumble, even in the slightest of ways, it’s very conceivable that one of these teams could land on the podium.

Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix rolls off at 2:00 a.m. ET.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.