The scale of the Shanghai International Circuit is breathtaking. Built on marshland in 2003, the track sits on more than 40,000 stabilising concrete pillars and its infrastructure is bigger and bolder than at any other circuit on the Formula 1 calendar.
The track is a good technical challenge for the teams and drivers with some high-speed changes of direction and a 1km back straight offering a challenge to find the least compromised set-up. One of the most demanding corners on the lap is Turn One, a tightening right-hander entered at speeds in excess of 300km/h with an apex speed or 70km/h. It places the left-front tyre under prolonged stress, which has an impact on wear rates and race strategy.
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes has a strong record in the Chinese Grand Prix. The team has won the race three times and finished on the podium on seven further occasions.
You called the Malaysian Grand Prix a “bad day in the office” – does that change your preparations for this weekend’s race in Shanghai?
“Not really, it makes you a little keener to get back in the cockpit as you’re always a bit more determined to be looking ahead rather than looking back. But, like I say, it doesn’t really make any difference. In fact, the three-week break has been extremely relaxing – I was able to get away, relax and keep training. It’s still the start of a very long season, so it’s good to keep fit and refreshed. I’ve usually gone well in Shanghai, it’s a circuit I really enjoy and I’m looking forward to the race weekend.”
You memorably won here in 2010 – what is it about the circuit that makes it special?
“Well, the facilities are amazing, but it’s a very good, modern circuit – the first two sectors are pretty technical, there are some interesting combinations of corners and you need a good, responsive car to go well. Then the track opens up, the straight is one of the longest in Formula 1 – it just keeps going – then you’re into the hairpin and the final turn, both of which offer good opportunities for overtaking. There’s no one particular corner that stands out, but that’s good, because it means they’ve done a good job with the whole track.
“And if it rains, then it’s going to be another extremely unpredictable race as we’re all still learning about the cars and tyres in damp conditions. Whatever happens, it should be interesting.”
What will be the key to a good race performance in 2012?
“There will be the usual set-up compromises: setting the car up to offer good downforce through some of the faster corners, but without sacrificing too much speed along the straights. We saw different teams address that balance in different ways over the first two races, so it will be interesting to see if things start to converge this weekend after a few weeks back in Europe.
“Tyre wear will also be very important – last year we saw a real disparity between the compounds – so getting the preparation right will be crucial.”
You opened your winning account in China last year, are you hoping for the same this season?
“I’m looking at the championship as a whole – although, of course, I’d love to win every race, it’s more important to be in a good points-scoring position at every race. I think the first two races have shown that, as a team, we’re definitely in positions to win.
“I think Malaysia was a good example of how to pick up points when you’re looking at the championship – and that was something I really took away as a positive from that race. But yeah, I’ll be heading to China looking to win – but it’s just as important to pick up some good points if, for whatever reason, a win isn’t on the cards.”
What do you like about the Shanghai International Circuit?
“I have some vivid memories of racing in China – some good, some not so good! I’ve won there twice – both were victories I’m really proud of: in 2008, it was a very important race, and I really needed a good result for the championship – we had a pretty much perfect weekend with pole position, fastest lap and the race win. Then in 2011, coming off the back of a difficult weekend in Malaysia, I had a great race, kept pushing every lap and managed to take the lead right at the end. It was a very important win because it showed that we could be a force in the championship that year.”
Your two third positions have consolidated your position in the championship – is that the key to a good season?
“I won’t deny that I’m disappointed to have had two pole positions and not to have been able to convert either of them into victories, but I prefer to think of it that luck just hasn’t been on my side, and that it will swing my way sooner or later.
“I also think last year taught me the value of consistency: it’s no use chasing a great result if you can’t back it up with another strong finish the following week. So maybe I’m just playing myself in gently: after all, in 2007, I didn’t win a race until the sixth round, and I was in the hunt for the title all through the year. I still don’t think the pecking order has settled down yet, so it’s important to get some good results in the bag while we can. It will be very interesting to see how the order has shaken itself out over the last three weeks – it’s going to be an interesting weekend.”
Martin Whitmarsh - Team principal, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
“The Chinese Grand Prix is a race in which we’ve traditionally gone very well – we’ve won three of the past four races here, all of which have come through faultless performances from Jenson and Lewis – and we head to Shanghai this year keen to add to that tally.
“While there are mixed feelings to have only been able to convert two all-front-row starting positions into one race win, everybody here at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes feels extremely encouraged by our pace in the first two grands prix of the season.
“Make no mistake, however: we’re acutely aware that our rivals won’t have stood still during the past three weeks. We’ve certainly been extremely busy, too, and we don’t take anything for granted: if the overall competitive order was a little hard to read in the first two races, I have no doubt that it will start to become clearer next weekend, and I strongly believe that, once again, it will be closely fought at the front.”
How McLaren defined six days in the history of the Chinese Grand Prix
1. September 26 2004
The inaugural Chinese Grand Prix ends with the top three separated by just 1.4s. Kimi Raikkonen comes home third for McLaren, after sitting on the gearbox of Jenson Button from the second round of pitstops.
2. October 16 2005
Kimi finishes second to newly crowned world champion Fernando Alonso. He sets the fastest lap of the race, but loses a strategic advantage when the Safety Car is deployed after Juan Pablo Montoya dislodges a piece of metal grating at Turn 10.
3. October 7 2007
Lewis Hamilton does everything right early on. He leads the race from pole position, but as he pits on lap 31 he runs wide at the pitlane entry and beaches his car in the gravel. Raikkonen wins for Ferrari, ahead of Fernando in the second MP4-22.
4. October 19 2008
Lewis converts pole position into the team’s first victory in China. His fastest lap of the race emphasises his dominance and, as a result of this win, all he needs is fifth place in Interlagos to clinch the world championship.
5. April 18 2010
A classic Jenson Button victory. Light rain falls at the start of the race and Jenson stays on slicks while his rivals pit for intermediates. When the rain stops and the track dries out, Jenson moves into the lead and is never headed. Lewis finishes second to give Vodafone McLaren Mercedes a one-two finish.
6. 17 April 2011
A three-stop strategy and a fresh set of tyres at the end of the race allows Lewis to rapidly close on Sebastian Vettel, who he audaciously passes for the lead with four laps left. Jenson comes home fourth to maintain his 100 percent finishing record in China.