Rewind five years to the 2013 Chinese Grand Prix. It’s lap seven and the field is led not by one of the Red Bulls or Ferraris. Nor a Mercedes or Lotus – despite the fact two of their drivers shared the front row.
Instead it was Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber at the sharp end. He qualified 10th but all the drivers who lined up in front of him started on the softest available tyre and pitted within the first seven laps with two exceptions: Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button, both of which Hulkenberg passed.
However unlike then drivers have the choice to qualify on harder tyres in Q2 and start on them. Which of the front runners might want to risk it?
Red Bull seem an obvious choice. They already tried such tactics in Australia, albeit without success at a track where passing is hard. Shanghai would be a better bet, and Daniel Ricciardo indicated he wasn’t pleased with his race simulation run on ultra-softs (you can never rule out the possibility of such talk being a ruse, of course).
Mercedes and Ferrari should be the contenders for pole position. As expected Mercedes look in better shape here than in Bahrain but Ferrari are clearly too close for comfort. Kimi Raikkonen tends to go well in Shanghai, has started both of this year’s races from the front row, and said he had more time in his pocked after Hamilton pipped him to Friday’s best time by seven thousandths of a second.
According to Mercedes, they found the ultra-soft less of a headache than they expected. “It was surprisingly consistent over the long runs and still going strong when we boxed both cars having seen the rain approaching on the radar,” said chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin.
The concern for Mercedes is the cooler conditions their car thrives on may be gone come race day, allowing Ferrari to put them under pressure. “Some of the work tonight needs to focus on that change of temperature for the race, but even for the cool conditions we anticipate tomorrow, we have work to do on the balance to fine tune a few corners,” Shovlin added.
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Those who do start on the ultra-soft are likely to have the option of trying to run to the end of the race on the medium tyre after an early first stop. Pirelli confirmed this is a realistic strategy, and as their predictions tend to err on the conservative side, there will surely be some considering it.
Renault were quickest of the midfielders in practice but the team has flattered to deceive in qualifying, posting quick times in Q2 then falling short in the top 10 shoot-out. Haas are right up there again, though once more it’s Kevin Magnussen leading the way while Romain Grosjean spoiled his qualifying simulation lap with a spin.
What about McLaren? They are the only team so far to have set a quicker time than they managed 12 months ago. However it bears pointing out they did this by falling back on a favourite tactic of Fernando Alonso – using the other driver to give a slipstream on the straight. Co-ordinating these tactics in qualifying is always tricky. But if failing to reach Q3 brings the advantage of starting on fresher tyres, perhaps they’d be better off not bothering.
Longest stint comparison – second practice
This chart shows all the drivers’ lap times (in seconds) during their longest unbroken stint. Very slow laps omitted. Scroll to zoom, drag to pan, right-click to reset:
Complete practice times
|5||Max Verstappen||Red Bull-TAG Heuer||1’34.668||1’33.823||48|
|8||Carlos Sainz Jnr||Renault||1’35.616||1’34.473||51|
|9||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull-TAG Heuer||1’34.537||1’34.557||48|
|11||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||1’36.051||1’34.792||58|
|12||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso-Honda||1’36.037||1’34.849||54|
|13||Esteban Ocon||Force India-Mercedes||1’36.351||1’34.874||62|
|15||Brendon Hartley||Toro Rosso-Honda||1’36.715||1’35.333||60|
2018 Chinese Grand Prix
- Verstappen: I’d’ve done the same as Hamilton in China
- Symonds criticises Ferrari’s strategy for Raikkonen in Shanghai
- ‘It’s incredible they haven’t won yet’: Is Mercedes dominance over?
- ‘No evidence’ banning traffic lights would make pit stops safer
- Analysis: How Ferrari’s Vettel-first strategy ruined Raikkonen’s race