12 months ago, Formula One welcomed Mercedes, ‘The Silver Arrows’, back to the top step of the Grand Prix podium as Nico Rosberg secured the first victory for the historic marque in over half a century.
As F1 2013 rolls into Shanghai for the tenth year in a row, it looks increasingly likely the German team could walk away with their second successive triumph in a country that still struggles to understand what Formula One is all about.
2012 saw depressingly large areas of grandstands left empty from crowds, with many of the faces watching the action distinctly European in appearance. In a city where the cheapest tickets for race day are equal to an entire week’s wages, it’s not difficult to imagine the reason is one of finance rather than indifference.
Whatever the crowd numbers this weekend, the third round of the 2013 FIA Formula One World Championship promises to be just as unpredictable as the Australian and Malaysian Grand Prix’s beforehand – and with the fallout from Malaysia particularly evident in the Red Bull camp the scene is set for some retribution and revenge from some of the sport’s key players.
Sebastian Vettel, winner in China in 2009, has controversially commented on his relationship with team-mate Mark Webber in the aftermath of their Sepang set-to:
“I never had support from his [Mark Webber’s] side. I have a lot of support from the team and think they are supporting both of us the same way. I respect Mark as a racing driver but there was more than one occasion in the past when he could have helped the team and he didn’t.”
“I did speak up and apologise,” he said. “Sanction, punishment, what do you expect to happen? We dealt with it internally. I did apologise to the team as soon as I could, the whole team, not just the people working here.”
Down at Mercedes, Red Bull’s closest challengers in Sepang, there are still traces of unease over the team orders that prevented Nico Rosberg overtaking Lewis Hamilton in the final laps of the race but the team insist attention is squarely on the future and this weekend rather than the past:
“The team have been working very hard to develop our car since returning from Malaysia and I was at the factory on Monday to complete my preparations in the simulator for the next two races,” Rosberg said.
“We’ve had a strong start to the season and I’m confident that we can keep pushing and hopefully score some good results in China and Bahrain.”
“We’ve had a better start than we expected and to have finished in fifth and third places so far is really positive.” Hamilton claimed. “I know there is much more to come so we’ll keep pushing the development of the car. I’m looking forward to the upgrades that we‘ll have in China.”
2010 Shanghai Winner Jenson Button has a little more to worry about as the field prepares for this weekend, his McLaren MP4/28 looking decidedly uncompetitive in the opening two races.
“In a funny way, the Chinese Grand Prix almost feels like something of a reboot of the start of my season,” says Jenson Button, hoping updates can make a difference to his performance in China this weekend. “Taking home two points from the first two races obviously wasn’t what we had in mind at the beginning of the year, but I think everybody in the team has picked themselves up and really attacked the task of addressing our car’s issues.”
Lotus astounded the paddock in Melbourne by comfortably winning the opening race of the season, but Malaysia showed the weaknesses of the E21 as it struggled in damp conditions. With the Shanghai circuit often proving susceptible to rain-storms and thunderclouds, this weekend might not be their best chance of taking a second victory. Nevertheless, with a decent weather forecast in place predicting highs of 21 Degrees for Sunday, they are confident Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean can cement the strong start to Lotus’ early season form.
“I think you can expect, mainly because of the tyre management situation, a different race winner each time,” team principal Eric Boullier suggests. “But we can say we are definitely in the top four.”
“We had trouble extracting speed from the car in wet conditions in Malaysia. First it was qualifying and then we did not make the best start ever. After that, we lost a lot in the first stint compared to the leaders, especially Mercedes. If you then compare the race pace after that, we were not bad. We were there.”
Ferrari will have certainly been busy during the three week break after an astonishing decision by Fernando Alonso to continue with a damaged front-wing in Sepang saw him end his day in the gravel trap. The Spaniard now sits more than 25 points (equivalent to a race win) behind arch-rival Sebastian Vettel and there will be no holds barred by Ferrari in making up the gap. On the other side of the garage, Felipe Massa faces his own challenge this weekend; should he out-qualify Alonso he will be the only team-mate to have beaten the 2005 & 2006 Double World Champion in five consecutive qualifying sessions.
If you are tempted to keep your eye on the action up front, you can hardly be blamed but don’t forget to throw a glance or two the way of rookie Jules Bianchi in the Marussia car at the tail-end of the grid; despite having woefully uncompetitive machinery at his disposal the French GP2 ace has shown stunning pace in both races held so far and comfortably outshines fellow F1 ‘first-timers’ Giedo Van Der Garde, Max Chilton, Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez. The midfield scrap promises to be a tight one as well, with Force India, Sauber, Williams and Toro Rosso all battling for supremacy behind the ‘Big Four’ top teams.