The UBS Chinese Grand Prix is always an intriguing race and strategy has played a significant role in the outcome in recent years.
Overtaking is easy here because of the longest straight in F1 at 1.17km, so teams can plan for the fastest strategy knowing that traffic will not be a huge problem. That said, the speed differential between cars due to the new hybrid turbo engines, could see cars with less straight line speed struggle to pass midfield cars with good straightline speed.
Unlike many F1 venues, where protecting the rear tyres is key to success, Shanghai is all about getting the front tyres at the optimum temperature, especially for qualifying.
A significant percentage of the lap time in Shanghai is spent turning.
There are two unusual corners, Turn One and Turn 13, which are long and drawn-out, Turn One being a 270 degree, tightening corner. This overstresses the left front tyre and this is the limiting factor in any strategy plan. Teams have a limited scope for working on set ups for this kind of circuit situation, so there are always question marks about how competitive a team will be over a race distance.
So getting the strategy right with the correct set up and an optimized plan for how to deploy the two Pirelli tyre compounds, soft and medium, over the 56 laps is essential.
Tyre degradation is not as high at Shanghai as the recent Malaysian Grand Prix, for example and the temperatures are always cooler; usually around 20 degrees. There is a chance of rain forecast for the weekend.
Shanghai International Circuit; 5.45 kilometres. Race distance: 56 laps = 305 kilometres, 16 corners in total, a mixture of slow, medium and fast
Aerodynamic setup – Medium/high downforce. Top speed 322km/h (with Drag Reduction System on rear wing) – 310km/h without.
Full throttle – 55% of the lap.
Time spent braking: 15% of the lap. 8 braking zones. Brake wear: Medium.
Total time needed for pit stop: 22 seconds.
Fuel effect (cost in lap time per 10kg of fuel carried): 0.34 seconds (average).
The UBS Chinese Grand Prix is the fourth round of the 2014 FIA F1 World Championship.
The season so far has been dominated by Mercedes, with pole position and victory in all three races. Mercedes powered cars have also performed well with Force India second in the Constructors’ Championship currently.
Red Bull and Ferrari have had mixed starts to the year and this weekend it will be important for both not to lose too much more ground to Mercedes before the European season starts next month. Renault says that its teams will be able to use the maximum potential of the engine this weekend for the first time, although still lacking power on the straights, it will make the engine more drivable, so the Red Bull should perform pretty well.
As far as drivers’ form is concerned at Shanghai; Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have both won the race twice, while Nico Rosberg, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel have also won in China.
It can often been overcast and cold in Shanghai and rain is quite common. The 2010 event was held in wet conditions, as was the 2009 edition. The temperature is forecast to be around 20 degrees, quite low by F1 standards and there is a threat of rain.
Likely tyre performance and other considerations
Pirelli tyre choice for Shanghai: Soft and Medium.
This is the third time in four races that this combination of tyres has been used; only Malaysia saw a different selection.
The medium tyre is designed for use in lower temperatures and the soft tyre in higher temperatures, so we could see some graining on the soft tyres this weekend, as the cold tyres slide across the track surface in the long corners.
As with the previous races this year, establishing the performance difference between the soft and medium tyres will be the key to race strategy. We’ve seen teams paying the price for not doing enough homework in Friday practice – Williams in Bahrain being a prime example.
This dictates not only the fastest strategy, but also how long the stint lengths should be.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
Last year’s race was won on three stops, the 2012 edition was won on two stops.
Depending on what Free Practice reveals in terms of relative tyre compound performance, pre race predictions generally show that two stops is slightly faster than three stops and gives a driver track position over his three stopping rival after the latter’s final stop. But the danger is that the two stopping driver would be vulnerable in the last few laps on worn tyres.
The key to making a two stop plan work is not leaving yourself too many laps to do at the end on worn tyres. Kimi Raikkonen fell foul of this memorably with Lotus in 2012 and dropped out of contention in the closing laps. This year’s more robust tyres show a slight tendency towards one less stop than 2013, so China will be an interesting strategy challenge for teams.
While Mercedes have the upper hand at the moment and seem to be able to do the race on the minimum number of stops, Ferrari and Williams have higher degradation and it is hurting their race potential, despite both being among the faster cars in qualifying.
Chance of a safety car
The chance of a safety car at Shanghai is reasonably high, at 43% and there is an average of 0.7 safety cars per race. In the 2005 and 2010 races there were 2 safety car periods
Recent start performance of drivers
Getting a good start can make a huge difference to the way the strategy is managed and the final result, while a poor start compromises a race and makes it harder for the strategy engineers. As far as 2014 start performance is concerned drivers have gained (+) or lost (-) places off the start line this season as follows:
11 – Bottas
4 – Kobayashi, Sutil, Maldonado
3- Chilton, Ricciardo, Bianchi, Gutierrez
2 – Rosberg
Net Held position
Alonso, Button [Perez– see Notes]
10 – Vergne
4 – Vettel, Kvyat
2 – Raikkonen, Hamilton
1 Grosjean, Magnussen
Melbourne Notes: Kobayashi, Massa eliminated in a first corner accident; Perez, Gutierrez pitted at the end of Lap 1; Bianchi, Grosjean started from pit lane.
Malaysia Notes: Perez started from pit lane, Bianchi pitted at the end of lap 1
Bahrain notes: Vergne pitted at the end of lap 1 after contact
Pit Stop League Table
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution by the mechanics and we have seen tyre stops carried out in less than two and a half seconds by F1 teams, although this year the emphasis is on trouble free stops and consistency rather than the fastest outright stops.
The league table below shows the order of the pit crews based on their fastest time in the recent Bahrain Grand Prix, from the car entering the pit lane to leaving it.
1. Force India 24.440 seconds
2. Ferrari 24.457
3. McLaren 24.476
4. Williams 24.528
5. Mercedes 24.687
6. Red Bull 24.706
7. Lotus 25.032
8. Sauber 25.293
9. Toro Rosso 25.345
10. Caterham 25.367
11. Marussia 25.383
The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
For a useful at a glance info graphic with all the key considerations for the race, click here Infographic