Red Bull will look to make the most of its technical advantage at this weekend’s Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, with rival teams yet to implement new technology and another weather-affected race looming.
Red Bull romped away to a one-two finish at the previous GP earlier this month in Malaysia, finally confirming its status as this season’s early benchmark after mechanical failures prevented wins that were otherwise there for the taking in Bahrain and Australia.
Red Bull arrive in Shanghai with memories of another one-two finish here last season, and a repeat of that performance this weekend would have its rival teams playing catch up.
That catching up must be done in the workshop, as the likes of McLaren and Ferrari seek to match Red Bull’s technical edge and cure their own shortcomings.
Since Malaysia, McLaren have been working to develop a suspension ride adjustment system like the one many suspect is fitted to the Red Bull cars, despite denials from the team.
Such a system allows the car’s ride to be lowered for the low-fuel qualifying session and raised to accommodate the greater fuel load on race day. How this can be achieved, and has been achieved if the rumours about Red Bull are true, is unclear given that it is illegal to tinker with the cars between qualifying and race. There has been talk of a gas compression that dissipates naturally in the time between qualifying and race, allowing the car to essentially raise itself.
McLaren said this week that they had abandoned efforts to design a new suspension system ahead of China because their understanding of a directive from world governing body FIA is that even a self-raising device would contravene regulations. Where that leaves Red Bull, and whether there will be any official protest, remains to be seen.
Ferrari, meanwhile, have been making efforts to copy McLaren’s F-duct aerodynamic device, which is manually operated by the driver in the cockpit to adjust airflow and stall the rear wing to allow for greater speed on the straights.
Of more immediate concern for the Italian team is reliability after Fernando Alonso’s powerplant engine gave way in a plume of smoke on the penultimate lap in Malaysia.
With only eight engines per car allowed over 19 races this season before penalties kick in, Ferrari are already into conservation mode. This weekend they will use the engines they took to a one-two finish at Bahrain and subsequently changed, suggesting the team is less than confident about the ability of the engines from the last two races.
Should one of the Ferrari engines give way this weekend, there will be serious questions asked at the team’s Maranello headquarters. It was ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix last year that Luca Baldisseri was replaced as chief of on-track operations, paying the price for Ferrari’s poor start to 2009.
This weekend looms as the third straight in which either qualifying or the race is affected by rain, with forecasts of showers and low temperatures in Shanghai. Last year’s wet Chinese GP started behind a safety car, which didn’t pull in for eight laps.
A wet weekend will put team strategy in the spotlight again, after both Ferrari and McLaren put too much faith in their weather radars during qualifying at Malaysia. They waited too late to go out for qualifying laps in the belief that better weather was on the way when in fact it only worsened, and as a result they started the race from the rear of the grid.
Last year’s Shanghai race marked something of a turning point in the season, when the early dominance of Brawn GP came to an end as Red Bull made a significant stride to catch up.
The situation is reversed this year, as Red Bull has marked themselves as the team to beat, even if they haven’t fully translated their early season strength into championship points.
One team under pressure to make a stride forward in Shanghai is Mercedes, and particularly Michael Schumacher.
The seven-time world champion can be excused for his meagre points haul so far this season: a forgivable humdrum performance in a pedestrian Bahrain GP, a first-corner collision in Australia that destroyed his race, and a wheel-nut failure in Malaysia. But he has been out-driven in qualifying by teammate Nico Rosberg in each race.
Mercedes, which raced as Brawn GP last season, were tipped to be championship contenders this year. Instead they have been a distinct fourth-best in general performance, behind Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren, and are even looking like having to fend off Renault so as not to slip to fifth. — Sapa-AP