Who will master the mysteries of the Shanghai circuit? What to watch for at 2024 Chinese GP

F1

F1 returns to China this weekend with an updated sprint race format in tow. Here's what to watch out for, including driver market moves, a potential Mercedes resurgence and a slippery driving surface

F1 returns to China

Who will be victorious on F1's return to China?

Red Bull

Valtteri Bottas was the championship leader for Mercedes; Max Verstappen had just won his fifth grand prix (with 52 more to come); while Lando Norris, George Russell and Alex Albon were all in the midst of their rookie campaigns. The F1 world looked quite different the last time that it visited the Shanghai International Circuit in 2019.

Fast-forward half a decade and F1 is preparing to go racing in China once again, with an updated sprint race schedule making its debut. It will only add to teams’ uncertainty, with fewer practice sessions to prepare for a freshly resurfaced track that hasn’t yet hosted the current generation of ground effect cars.

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Unsurprisingly, Red Bull arrives as favourite, after another dominant showing in Japan after a Melbourne blip. Max Verstappen may have been just 22 years old in his last Chinese Grand Prix, but that didn’t stop the Dutchman from showing superb pace on his way to securing an impressive fourth-place finish — splitting the faster Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc. That would count as a disappointment now, given he’s won 38 of the last 50 grands prix.

However, all ten teams will effectively be starting from scratch when it comes to finding the right set-up to tackle the 3.39 mile circuit, with only one hour-long practice session to do so before drivers are thrown into their first round of competitive action on Friday. Any driver that manages to find the sweet spot early will fancy their chances. Could Carlos Sainz build on his red-hot form and increase his standing in the driver market even further?

Here are the key points to watch out for at the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix.

 

Sprint race changes

2024 Chinese Grand Prix sprint race

Who will come out on top in F1’s sprint event of 2024?

Red Bull

China will host the first of six sprint events in 2024, with a revised format for this season. Last year, sprint weekends featured one practice session on Friday, followed by qualifying for Sunday’s grand prix. Saturday was then focused on sprint qualifying and the race.

This year, qualifying for the sprint race will follow Friday practice. A 19-lap sprint race will then take place in the early hours of Saturday morning (for European viewers), followed by grand prix qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

Most significantly, there are new parc fermé regulations, which prevent teams from making any major set-up changes. Last year, they came into force after first practice, with teams then locked in to their set-up for the rest of the weekend. This year, that has been changed. While parc fermé rules still apply after the first practice session, they will now be lifted after the sprint race, allowing teams to tweak the cars — or adopt an entirely different strategy — before GP qualifying.

Times in BST Friday 19 April 2024  Saturday 20 April 2024 Sunday 21 April 2024
F1 schedule Free Practice 1 — 3.30am
Parc fermé 1 
Sprint qualifying — 8.30am
Sprint race — 4am
Parc fermé 2
Grand Prix qualifying — 8am
Chinese Grand Prix — 8am

Could China reveal the first signs of a Mercedes recovery?

Lewis Hamilton Valtteri Bottas Sebastian Vettel Chinese Grand Prix 2019

Mercedes dominated the Chinese GP podium in 2019. Getting anywhere near the top three would be seen as an achievement in 2024

Getty Images

In 2019, Mercedes was the undisputed king of F1, as that year’s Chinese Grand Prix showed. Valtteri Bottas secured pole position over team-mate Lewis Hamilton by two-hundredths of a second while the closest non-Merc driver finished three-tenths further back. In the race their pace was equally superior — as was the team’s perfectly executed double-stack pitstop — and Hamilton stormed to victory with Bottas close behind.

The chances of a repeat performance seem far-fetched in 2024.

Hamilton experienced a range of emotions in Japan — naming the first practice session of the weekend the “best session of the year so far” before falling to ninth on race day — while George Russell finished only three seconds up the road in seventh. It’s the worst start to a F1 campaign that Mercedes has had in over a decade, without a single visit to the podium through the first four races of the season for the first time since 2011.

Team boss Toto Wolff recently admitted that the team is in another “rebuild phase” in the hope of unlocking the pace Mercedes believes it should have. The Austrian also hinted at another step in performance after some recent data analysis back at the factory. But could a visit to a site where it dominated so impressively in the past finally inspire Hamilton and Russell back into podium contention? Only time will tell.

 

The driver market heats up 

Carlos Sainz Red Bull Ferrari 2024

Where will Sainz land in 2025?

Ferrari

Fernando Alonso dominated last week’s driver news after announcing a new deal with Aston Martin which will keep him with the Silverstone-based constructor until at least 2026. Having previously been one of the biggest names available for 2025, the deal takes him off the market and closes off a prime seat.

The window of opportunity may be closing, as other teams and top drivers look to secure their favoured line-up before somebody else steps in. Two drivers who look key to next year’s grid are Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz, who will be ousted from Ferrari in favour of Lewis Hamilton next season.

up for grabs on the driver market, the move could force other teams to come to a decision quickly in the hope of securing a top driver. Therefore, performance at every grand prix has suddenly become critical.

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Considering his current form — he’s finished on the podium in every race he’s entered this year — it’s little surprise that Sainz has been linked with almost every available seat, including at Red Bull, where Perez is out of contract at the end of the year.

But what seemed like a surefire vacancy at the start of the season, now looks less certain after Perez’s confident start to the season, which has earned him three second-place finishes.

Will Red Bull opt to stay with Perez, or will it snap up Sainz to avoid losing him to Sauber — soon to be Audi — or even Mercedes? Perhaps China will help the team decide.

Ocon’s Alpine woes 

Alpine Esteban Ocon 2024 Chinese Grand Prix

Will Ocon remain with Alpine for 2025? Or jump ship?

Getty Images

Alpine‘s struggles continued in Japan, with Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly taking up 15th and 16th position in the Grand Prix, finishing behind cars which “looked like they were in another category.”

Ocon made no secret of his frustrations with Alpine’s slow start to the 2024 campaign and stated that the team had taken a step back from their start in Bahrain, where both cars finished inside the bottom four finishers.

“I think we were just not fast enough,” he said in a post-race interview. “We took a good step forward in qualifying at the weekend, but in the race it was even the first step back since Bahrain.”

The Frenchman has already been linked with a move away from the Enstone outfit, which prompted team principal Bruno Famin to make a clarifying statement.

“We have a project which doesn’t need to convince them [to stay],” he said. “I would like to use this opportunity to thank them. We are in a difficult position. It is not the start of the season we wanted and I appreciate how constructive they are with the team, not only in communications with journalists but also internally.

“We are also looking at the market and we also have our academy where we are developing talents for tomorrow or the future. We have Jack Doohan who is our reserve, Victor Martins in F2.

“We have a wide scope of possibility. We are happy with Esteban, happy with Pierre – but we are ready to react in case something happens. That’s it.”

Unknown circuit surface will force teams to ‘start from scratch’

All ten F1 teams will head into the first and only practice session of the Chinese GP weekend with little real-world knowledge on how their car is going to react. Each will have completed simulations, but none has run on the Shanghai circuit under the current set of ground effect regulations, bringing an element of uncertainty to set-up calculations.

According to Pirelli’s own simulations and past data, the greatest strain will be felt by the outside of the tyre on the left hand side of the car, which is expected to wear the most. Shanghai’s lengthy turns could force drivers into intensive tyre conservation mode, taking wider and slower lines to prolong their useful life.

Pirelli Chinese Grand Prix preview

Pirelli suggests that every team will be ‘starting from scratch’ in China

Pirelli

Having recently been resurfaced, there is also some concern over how much grip the track will be able to provide when wet, but according to the the current weather report, no rain is forecast to fall over the course of the weekend.

Pirelli has chosen to bring the mid-range selection of tyres to China, with the C2 acting as the hard compound, the C3 as the medium and the C4 as the soft. Although this is identical to the selection F1’s official tyre provider brought in 2019, the updated regulations could mean that the cars react very differently.

“Five years ago, the 13in tyres were still in use, fitted to the previous generation of car, which had a flat floor and completely different aerodynamics to the current car,” said Pirelli in its Chinese GP press release. “In fact, for the drivers, the teams and indeed for Pirelli, it’s pretty much a matter of starting from scratch, given that the references are very vague.”