Two weeks on from Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Australia, the emerging duel between Ferrari and Mercedes (and excitingly, Vettel and Lewis Hamilton) has journeyed to China, where long, powerful straights will emphasize the difference between the teams with engine power, and those without. It will also highlight any weaknesses in a team’s chassis – sector two in particular features slow and mid speed corners that will be a test of the downforce the new cars can generate. You might think that the long, sloping curves of turns 1, 2, 3 and 4, not to mention the loops of turns 7 and 8 (plus the surprisingly fast 9 and 10) would play into the hands of teams like Red Bull, but after farcial scenes in practice (FP1 was cut short and FP2 cancelled completely because of bad weather preventing the medical helicopter from running), qualification brought about a 1.3 second difference between Raikkonen’s fourth-placed Ferrari and Ricciardo’s fifth-placed Red Bull.
It’s clear that Ferrari are a lot closer to Mercedes this season. Hamilton snatched pole for Sunday’s race by 0.186 seconds, with Vettel slotting into second, just 0.001 seconds quicker than the second Mercedes of Bottas. Raikkonen wasn’t too far behind either – 0.275 seconds behind Bottas. Less than half a second is between the top four, which could make for a fascinating race tomorrow.
It could be that the race is won and lost at the first corner. It remains to be seen if overtaking will be easier here, with the tight turn 14 lying at the end of a monster straight being an obvious chance, but only if the chasing car can close in. There could be opportunities to be had at turn 1, and the sequence that follows, but it may well be that, as in Australia, pit strategy is decisive. One man who will be keen to demonstrate overtaking skills is Max Verstappen, who starts 19th following car trouble. Ocon (in the Force India) is lining up in another car that is somewhat displaced, the result of Giovinazzi’s heavy crash in Q1 unhinging a few flying laps.
All in all, we are set for an interesting and intriguing contest tomorrow.