Questions for the 2014 Chinese Grand Prix
Can anyone break Mercedes' dominant run? Was Ferrari's Bahrain performance a one-off? Will Rosberg take revenge on Hamilton? And...
By Sky Sports Online. Last Updated: 16/04/14 9:03am
Can Nico Rosberg take his revenge?
Having lost out to Lewis Hamilton despite taking pole position in Bahrain, Nico Rosberg returns to the scene of his maiden F1 victory this weekend and will be desperately keen to regain the upper hand at Mercedes. If you've any doubt, just look at his face on the podium after being beaten to victory by Hamilton or recall his post-race declaration: "I strongly dislike coming second."
The Shanghai International Circuit is a venue which traditionally brings out the best of the German. It's where he scored his first podium for the Silver Arrows in 2010, two years before he blitzed the field to claim victory by twenty seconds. And it almost goes without saying that Mercedes are set to dominate again this wekeend, with Shanghai's long straights and numerous acceleration zones out of slow corners playing to the strengths of the W05.
The stage is thus once again set for a titanic clash between Rosberg and Hamilton. The latter, still striving to catch Rosberg in the Drivers' Championship, is no slouch in China either - Hamilton took pole position for last year's race (before eventually slipping back to third) and has only finished off the podium once since 2008.
At a venue both drivers like, the fight between Rosberg and Hamilton really is too close to call.
Will Mercedes maintain their perfect run?
Question: What makes the result of Practice One in Australia unique this season?
Answer: It's the only occasion this season, with the exception of Qualy One in Australia and Bahrain when the team deliberately kept their powder dry, that Mercedes have been beaten to the top of timesheets.
Furthermore, and to the delight of eager statisticians, the team's dominance was a matter of absolute perfection in Bahrain two weeks ago with the Silver Arrows leading the way in each of the five sessions - P1, P2, P3, Qualifying and the race - in one-two formation. Even the Red Arrows themselves would be proud of such faultless and unerring synchronisation.
Indeed, with Mercedes once again top of the timesheets on both days of the Bahrain test last week, a full calendar month has now passed since the team didn't have a first place to celebrate at the close of play.
Will their run come to an end in China? Given that such dominance is a very rare thing in F1 - Mercedes' perfect set of results in Bahrain was only the second time this decade that a team has registered a one-two finish in every session at a grand prix event - then it stands to statistical likelihood that they will be beaten sooner rather than later.
Yet if there is one venue on the calendar where Mercedes are likely to dominate then it is Shanghai with its neverending straights and greedy power dependency. Including the outcome of the three qualy segments, Mercedes led the way in four of the seven sessions at Shanghai in 2013.
Don't put it past them making it seven out of seven this weekend.
Can Ferrari's new man revitalise the Prancing Horse?
All eyes will be on Marco Mattiacci this weekend - just as soon as everyone figures out what he looks like - but Ferrari's mysterious new Team Principal will need the touch of King Midas if the Scuderia are to suddenly surmount their base Bahrain performance and challenge Mercedes in Shanghai.
It's more likely that Stefano Domenicali's replacement, who has no racing experience, will begin by familiarising himself with trackside operations before weighing in with some suggested changes for the longer term. In appointing Mattiacci, Luca di Montezemolo has chosen someone he clearly thinks has a full grasp of the bigger picture at Ferrari/FIAT and who can inject some fresh air into the F1 operation - "to shake things up" as Domenicali said in his valedictory statement. It's an interesting appointment and in some ways reminiscent of Benetton's decision to bring in Flavio Briatore - who transformed the fashion brand's North American fortunes in the 1980s, rather like Mattiacci has done for Ferrari's sales Stateside in recent years - as their team boss. In some ways but probably not others; after all, Ferrari already have di Montezemolo to do their grandstanding.
So as Mattiacci starts learning the ropes, Ferrari will be hoping the Shanghai International Circuit's layout will flatter their car rather more than Sakhir (Domenicali's very own Waterloo as it turned out) on which the F14 T was found wanting - waddling even - compared to the opposition, it's lack of grunt laid bare by that track's series of low-speed corners leading on to straights.
"A Force India got me at the exit of corner eight and it was different class," chuckled a rueful Raikkonen after finishing tenth in the race, although both he and Alonso suggested their performance would be better this weekend. How much better remains to be seen, of course, but with the Silver Arrows seemingly unbeatable right now, to suggest the Spaniard might repeat his Chinese GP win 12 months ago would be the height of optimism.
Will China show Bahrain wasn't a 2014 one-off?
Whatever you think about the motives behind the heavyweight paddock politicking surrounding the F1 'show' that overshadowed the build up to the last race in Bahrain, it demonstrated once again how the sport, by hook or by crook, can be a highly self-critical beast when it wants to be. Yet, if some of that condemnation of the racing spectacle was a little over the top after just two races of a complex new era, then arguably the same in turn could be said about the nature of some of the exclaim showered on the undoubtedly thrilling Sakhir spectacle that followed.
Yes, the grand prix exceeded any of Bahrain's previous nine offerings by a desert mile, but 'Race of the Century'? Perhaps not. Given the event followed two less-than-gripping races such a juxtaposition was natural, but somewhat lost in all of those extremes was the fact that sport as a whole, let alone motorsport, is littered with countless examples of famine followed by feast, and vice-versa. In F1 terms, for every Bahrain 2014 there is always a Bahrain 2010.
Not that there should be anything surprising or wrong with such stark swings provided the former outweighs the latter over the course of a season. So, with 2014 to date producing two so-so (at best) races and one absolute corker, attention turns to the Shanghai International Circuit to see which of the two camps its race will fall into. Even the sport's greatest circuits, which China isn't, need a little luck for the variables for a classic race to be right - closely-matched cars/drivers, differing strategies, uncertainty to the flag - but Shanghai has at least produced more riveting fare than Bahrain managed in its own first decade on the calendar up to a fortnight ago.
A continuation of F1's current feel-good-factor for the three-week gap to the start of the European season would do just nicely.
Who will finish 'best of the rest'?
Force India secured their first podium finish since 2009 in Bahrain two weeks ago, becoming the third separate team to finish up behind the dominant Mercedes this season. McLaren and Red Bull preceded Force India in Australia and Malaysia respectively, leaving Williams and Ferrari frustrated.
With Lewis Hamilton (1/5) and Nico Rosberg (1/4) heavily odds-on for another podium spot each, only one podium place is theoretically up for grabs, but Sky Bet's odds suggest any one of ten drivers could realistically finish in the top three along with the Mercedes duo:
Sebastian Vettel - 2/1
Fernando Alonso - 7/2
Daniel Ricciardo - 7/2
Nico Hulkenberg - 4/1
Valtteri Bottas - 4/1
Felipe Massa - 4/1
Sergio Perez - 6/1
Kimi Raikkonen - 7/1
Jenson Button - 7/1
Kevin Magnussen - 10/1
Jean Eric-Vergne of Toro Rosso is next in line at a huge 125/1, but with 44 points from three races, the value would appear to lie with Force India again.
They're second in the Constructors' standings following Sergio Perez's third-place in Sakhir and the Mexican is a big price at 6/1 to repeat that feat. However, the raw talent of Nico Hulkenberg, who has scored 28 of those 44 points, is difficult to ignore - he's the better pick at 4/1 for a podium finish.