Fresh from the searing heat of Sepang, the F1 circus moves onto the last of the flyaway races in China before heading back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix on the 9th of May.
A number of talking points were raised over the 56 laps of the Malaysian race. Lewis Hamilton once again found himself as the centre of attention due to his robust defence against Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov, a storm in a teacup, owing to the fact that the race stewards let him off with a warning, and there have been no traditional media scrums as is the case whenever Hamilton does so much as go for a toilet break. Red Bull finally exhibited the overall pace that they threatened to show in Bahrain and Australia. Sebastian Vettel leading an easy 1-2 after his team mate Mark Webber decimated the field in qualifying after his brave call to run intermediates on a soaking wet track.
Both Ferrari and Mercedes had underwhelming weekends for differing reasons. The former made a royal mess of Q3 along with Mclaren, relying solely on the Meteo France system shared by the pitlane when others simply looked up to the sky for their weather forecast. Nico Rosberg's solid podium aside, Schumacher and the Ferrari's struggled during the race. Schumacher retiring with a loose wheel nut, Alonso being unable to downshift properly (although putting in a storming drive considering his maladies), and Massa failing to make a big impression.
The combination of results in Sepang left the drivers championship tantalisingly close, with 8 points separating the top 6 drivers. There is a slightly artificial look to the table due to Red Bull's obvious superiority, where one might think that it is simply a matter of time before they pull away a la BrawnGP in 2009. This assertion could come under scrutiny however when the ban on sidepod mirrors comes into effect from Barcelona onwards, which will be a fairly major hinderance speed-wise according to Red Bull sources.
Hoping to close the gap will be Mclaren, who are rumoured to be bringing a new suspension system worth up to 0.3s a lap. The ride height adjuster (of sorts) will perform a similar function, which the Red Bull's are rumoured to be using, in that come race day, the ride height can be automatically adjusted (raised) to cater for the increased weight of a full tank of fuel.
Of course, this kind of device has been outlawed by the FIA as seen by their press release on Wednesday, "Any system device or procedure, the purpose and/or effect of which is to change the set-up of the suspension, while the car is under parc ferme conditions will be deemed to contravene art 34.5* of the sporting regulations" was the official line given. However, there is a reason that top engineers and designers are paid the sums that they are, so for now we must assume that any such device or alteration is legal until proven otherwise.
The new teams of Lotus, Virgin and Hispania can't be expecting much improvement from Sepang to Shanghai. The momentum gained by all the teams getting at least one car to the finish last weekend shall be a welcome boost as they head to the Far East, but the real gains are projected to come in Barcelona at the beginning of May. Lotus technical director Mike Gascoyne has predicted that the big updates being readied back at base in Norfolk will give the Lotus team an extra 1 to 2 seconds of lap time, which may see them knocking on the door of the established mid-table teams on pace alone come the summer time.
Renault and Toro Rosso will also be heading to China full of hope after their combative displays in Malaysia. Jaime Alguersuari finally burst into life after his stuttering start to life in Formula One, and his team mate Sebastian Buemi also showed signs of promise, two drivers who are expected to flourish this season as they learn more about the Toro Rosso STR5. Renault will be similarly pleased after Robert Kubica once again wrung the neck of the R30 to secure a deserved 4th place. The Renault's excellent traction will be of great use around the Shanghai circuit with its mix of slow and medium corners, especially through Turn 13 which leads onto the almost mile long back straight.
The characteristics of the Shanghai International Circuit suggest that Red Bull will once again be on the pace, such is the strength of their car. Mclaren's performance on the medium speed Albert Park circuit bodes well for a strong showing in Shanghai, and it will be interesting to see whether or not their new ride height development will bring them up to the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari in qualfying trim. We have been treated to fantastic exhibitions of overtaking and moving up the field by Lewis Hamilton for the past 2 weeks, and he is my man to watch.
Ferrari will also be hoping to put their Malaysian woes behind them. Reliability concerns aside, the pace of the car and the consistent pairing of Alonso and Massa could see them prove to be a thorn in the side of Red Bull if they do not have a perfect weekend.
Other interesting sub-plots include the performance of Michael Schumacher—will he be able to match and even beat his team mate Rosberg? He has a questionable record at the circuit with one brilliant win in 2006 being preceded by two retirements in 2004 and 2005. If the Mercedes can maintain it's solid but not spectacular pace then it's hard to see beyond another Rosberg victory within the German camp.
Yet, the attraction of Formula One is that as we move towards the end of this "mini" championship in the Far East and Down Under before moving to Europe, predictions can so often be blown apart over the space of a 2 hour race. It should be fascinating.
Further insight can be found at http://www.jamesrossionf1.com or http://www.yallaf1.com