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10 things we learned from the 2024 F1 Chinese Grand Prix

Max Verstappen made it four wins from five with a commanding performance at the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, leading home Lando Norris who surprised with second for McLaren. But while the on-track action provided a suitable level of entertainment, off-track rumblings also took the headlines. This and more is what we learned from Shanghai

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, the rest of the field at the start of the Sprint

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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Formula 1 finally headed back to China after the COVID-19 pandemic, where home hero Zhou Guanyu was cheered on passionately – moving the Sauber driver and 2004 Fernando Alonso fan considerably.

Zhou was granted a post-race celebration on the grid behind the podium-sharing Red Bull drivers – Lando Norris absent from the initial congratulatory shots between the dominant Max Verstappen and the shakier Sergio Perez having been unaware he was supposed to head there on the in-lap.

Such scenes for Zhou are unusual and suggests F1 is still working hard to crack the Chinese market at what is effectively a second attempt in 20 years.

Verstappen winning commandingly is, of course, not rare. But in one of his two Shanghai victories there was one infrequent development. That, plus plenty more, features in our assessment of the main takeaways from the season’s fifth round – including its first sprint event.

1. Verstappen so fast he could even test things in-race

Verstappen had everything under control in China

Verstappen had everything under control in China

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Verstappen’s run to a fourth GP win from five rounds was again utterly straightforward for the world champion. Only the virtual and actual safety car activations erased what surely would’ve been a devastating main race victory margin.

When asked if he had had any interesting moments in that run, where he aced the start and both restarts ahead of Norris, he replied: “I locked up in the second restart into Turn 6, I think, a little bit, so that was not ideal.

“Then I threw a tear-off away, which I think I could hear on the intake. It was flapping around hitting my helmet. I don't know where it ended up. And with two laps ago, I think I drove over a little bit of debris before Turn 14. So that was a little bit scary, because with all the tyres it's easy to have a puncture at high speed when you drive over carbon. That was it, I think.”

Plus: Chinese Grand Prix Driver Ratings 2024

The end to his sprint race, where Verstappen had an 8s gap with four laps remaining that was 13s by the end, featured the world champion testing a new Red Bull brake balance setting. He declared a show of supreme strength in depth from F1’s current best squad “good everywhere except Turn 14 – too forward”.

2. Mystery hard tyre pace loss undid Ferrari's GP potential…

Ferrari struggled more than anyone expected across the weekend

Ferrari struggled more than anyone expected across the weekend

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

So far in 2024, Ferrari had been Red Bull’s closest rival and much was expected of the team here after its Australia win. But in the main China contest, it was McLaren that ran Red Bull closest – a relative term – and Norris headed Perez.

He was aided by the VSC/first safety car in the sense that it meant both he and the chasing Leclerc got a free pitstop on their bold one-stop attempt. Pirelli reckons anyone trying this would have struggled late with no neutralisation. But running third after the two restarts, Leclerc would’ve expected to attack Norris given he was showing better degradation on the mediums in their long opening stint.

 

But Ferrari ended up being “a bit less performant on the hard”, per team boss Fred Vasseur. This meant Leclerc struggled to get the white-walled rubber into the temperature window post-restart two and he dropped back from Norris before Perez finally came back by with as the final third kicked off.

“It's a matter of a tenth or half a tenth [against McLaren each race],” Vasseur added. “In Melbourne for example we finished the race after 60 laps eight seconds in front, we are one tenth faster. And then today we are one tenth slower. It's more a matter of extracting the best of what we have.”

3. …but the savage intra-team fight didn’t help

In-fighting didn't help Ferrari's Shanghai efforts

In-fighting didn't help Ferrari's Shanghai efforts

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Ferrari was also left mystified by its lack of qualifying pace in the tight battle behind Red Bull, with its main race qualifying results – sixth and seventh – attributed to gearing the SF-24’s set-up towards better in race tyre degradation.

But what good Ferrari could show on this on the mediums was also compromised by its drivers squabbling at the start and dropping behind George Russell. Nico Hulkenberg also briefly nipped ahead on the first lap before the red pair hit back fast.

Leclerc then took eight laps to pass Russell (thrillingly around the outside at Turn 1) and by that time the early podium scrap had gone clear ahead even as he homed in on Oscar Piastri and Fernando Alonso. Sainz never passed Russell and he was kept on the two-stop strategy before completing the race’s longest stint on the hard around the neutralisations shaking up proceedings.

The Ferrari pair also moved into controversial ground with their sprint race clash exiting the hairpin once Sainz had been in the wars with Alonso.

“When you start from P9 the race is much more difficult because you have dirty air on the first laps, even if you are faster,” Vasseur stated.

“But basically even if you are faster you struggle to overtake because if you don't have the big gap, you damage the tyre for the first 10 laps and then you are dead. I think it's really a matter of putting everything together. We didn't have a clean weekend on our side, but we made collectively too many mistakes.”

4. Strange track surface appeared to aid McLaren

Norris bet that he would finish behind the two Ferraris

Norris bet that he would finish behind the two Ferraris

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

McLaren had headed to Shanghai fearing the track’s various long corners and slow speed turns would expose the MCL60’s ongoing weaknesses. But Norris had a theory that the bitumen surface treatment that appeared “painted” to the drivers on arrival actually helped the orange team overall, as he shone in sprint qualifying and headed the Ferraris behind Alonso’s main race qualifying heroics too.

“This track is very different [compared to 2019],” said the Briton. “The [asphalt] is quite odd. Maybe that played into our hands a bit more than we were thinking, maybe with the old [asphalt], we would have struggled a bit more. So just little things. We're not making it up [predicting struggles]. We're giving our honest opinion on where we want to be.”

McLaren team boss Andrea Stella also highlighted how “China doesn't seem to be as difficult for the front tyres as it was in the past”.

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He added: “At the same time, I think the conditions helped retain grip on the rear [as the overcast GP had a track temperature peak 4°C cooler versus Saturday’s sprint]. Because the rear axle especially today was not overheating. While if we look at the sprint I think we had a bit of overheating. Ferrari seemed to be more comfortable, Max had a huge advantage [on rear deg]”.

5. Bizarre trackside grass fires mystery never fully solved

Friday saw two grass fires erupt trackside - without the cause known for certain

Friday saw two grass fires erupt trackside - without the cause known for certain

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Fire is one of motorsport’s biggest dangers, but it was still unusual to see this concern impacting an area the cars and drivers never reached. This was the large patch of grass that got set ablaze by floor sparks on the inside of Turn 7 in practice and sprint qualifying.

These followed pre-event wet weather and a shower pre-Friday qualifying, which meant the grass wasn’t tinder-box dry. The FIA inspected the area on Friday night but couldn’t find any flammable material or chemicals on the grass, nor any sign the theory of seeping methane gas from pipes and the track’s swampland setting was contributing the fires.

“Although we are still uncertain why grass fires occurred in yesterday's sessions, we are taking pre-emptive measures ahead of today's track activities,” an FIA statement read on Saturday, which thankfully did not have a fire break out at the spot and nor did it on Sunday.

6. Hulkenberg delivered for Haas, while RB faced disaster

Hulkenberg scored points for the third time in five grands prix

Hulkenberg scored points for the third time in five grands prix

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Yet again in 2024, Lance Stroll’s poor showing against Alonso for Aston Martin meant the final point was on offer for one of the bottom five squads. And for the third time this year (having also taken ninth in Australia) this went Haas’s way via Nico Hulkenberg.

He got stuck into the squabbling Ferrari drivers on the GP’s first lap, before they roared back by and he was then shoved wide by Stroll in a bizarrely unpunished Turn 6 hairpin move. But what was more impressive was that much later on, Hulkenberg avoided his sprint order dive with 2023-esque Haas tyre deg not apparent on team-mate Kevin Magnussen’s car.

Having adjusted his set-up to avoid this for the main race, Hulkenberg delivered on a day where the other ‘Class B’ 2024 points scorer so far – RB – had the disaster of having both its cars wiped out by mistakes from others. Ricciardo was done by Stroll’s restart one misjudgement, while Magnussen rashly tried to repass Tsunoda shortly afterwards and oversteered into the RB exiting Turn 6.

Hulkenberg’s point cuts the gap between the two teams to two points – on seven and five respectively – with Williams, Alpine and Sauber still scoreless.

7. F1 points system set for 2025 shake-up

The F1 points system could see points awarded down to 12th

The F1 points system could see points awarded down to 12th

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

This time next year, were all the results to be identical, somehow, only Sauber would have zero points after five rounds. This is because, as Autosport revealed on Saturday, the teams, F1 and the FIA are considering extending points to run down to 12th place for GP events.

The top seven places would still reward the same amount, which avoids the bigger teams gaining and also having to pay higher entry fees based on total points accrued. The early suggestion from the Shanghai paddock is that the barrier of five teams supporting the move (plus officials’ approval) should be cleared.

An F1 Commission meeting this week will also discuss a separate proposal to judge possible jump starts on video evidence, not solely based on if car transponders detect grid box movement. This is understood to have less support amongst the teams but if enough agree the change could come as soon the next race in Miami.

8. Ricciardo's new RB chassis contributed to “best” weekend pre-Stroll crash

Ricciardo had a return to form before Stroll put him out of the race

Ricciardo had a return to form before Stroll put him out of the race

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Tsunoda has scored all RBs seven points so far this year and while Ricciardo’s GP strategy meant he was always set to slip out of the lower top 10 battle in the race’s second half (he was yet to use another compound amongst a gaggle of rivals set to go to the end), he was overall enjoying his “best” weekend of the season. Stroll’s error wrecked all that, however.

Ricciardo had come into the event feeling the chassis change RB had enacted after Suzuka would grant him “peace of mind”. With it, he then headed Tsunoda in both Chinese qualifying sessions and much happier with his feeling with in the VCARB 01, albeit it with one important caveat.

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“So far, it’s been a more positive weekend for us and my best one of the year,” he said after Saturday qualifying. “We changed the chassis this weekend and I feel the car better and have more confidence in it, so that’s encouraging, but it’s just one track. I’ve always enjoyed Shanghai and I also have a pretty good past here, so I think we need to continue proving our performance in the course of the next few races.”

9. Team success potential isn’t the only factor in Sainz’s 2025 contract decision

Sainz is a man in demand

Sainz is a man in demand

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Reading between the lines of F1’s constant truth-massaging games is both vital for seeing the full picture and fraught with peril. As the China weekend got under way, there was plenty more chat about the 2025 driver market and here Sainz’s situation and comments again stood out.

He said: “I’m always going to try and look for the fastest option available...there are, for sure, other very interesting medium-term, not even long-term, options out there that I will consider and I am considering.”

His “it all depends on the compromises or the offers and what everyone offers” line then stood out more when an interview given by Red Bull’s Helmut Marko to Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung was revealed to contain the following.

“We're talking to him,” said Marko. “He's having his strongest season in F1, but he has a very lucrative offer from Audi that we can't match or beat.”

Marko is adept at playing his own games via the media when it comes to driver market decisions but given Audi’s long-term interest in Sainz it nevertheless underlines the bold choice the Spaniard may soon be making.

After all, both he and Audi want that choice – whatever it is – made early, while Red Bull and Mercedes are the only teams with slots he’d truly be interested in right now.

10. Some of F1’s rules still aren’t clear enough, yet more penalty inconsistency elsewhere

Norris was at the centre of confusion in sprint qualifying

Norris was at the centre of confusion in sprint qualifying

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

There was a long list of baffling officiating decisions last weekend: seven in total.

Deleting and reinstating Norris’s sprint qualifying pole time. Reprimanding Hulkenberg for passing two cars in the pitlane early in GP qualifying (a cameraman did have to jump clear) after clearing Alonso for squeezing past Zhou in the pit exit channel just a bit further along the previous day as SQ3 began.

Then there was applying Alonso’s sprint penalty when he’d already retired, but not doing so for Ricciardo’s GP sanction with the Australian out further from second event’s end. Plus, dismissing Aston’s protest of Sainz’s post-Q2 crash rejoining. Giving Alonso three penalty points for clipping Sainz in the sprint when Stroll and Magnussen ended the GP for the RB drivers and respectively got two each. There was also not penalising Stroll for shoving Hulkenberg off early in the GP. And, finally, penalising Sargeant heavily for a close safety car line overtake on Hulkenberg in the main event.

The last incident could surely have been solved by swift intervention by the FIA’s remote ops centre in Geneva, but Sargeant’s “I don't know why they didn't just tell me to give the position back, obviously, I would've done so” doubt suggests Williams was unaware there could be a case to answer.

The penultimate situation was covered by the stewards explaining “car 18 clearly had its front axle at least alongside the mirror of the other car by the apex of the corner” and “it also appears to us that car 27 may have left the track briefly because the car bottomed out over the kerb”. Plus, the penalty points queries are covered by what the stewards can apply for various incidents in the rules.

But these are too vague on the Alonso sprint penalty vs Ricciardo Miami GP grid drop, per the stewards themselves. They recommended that the FIA considers making the necessary amendments to bring greater clarity to this issue given “we note that the language in the regulations as to when a car has retired [Alonso was classified two laps down in the sprint while Ricciardo wasn’t in the GP] and the resultant consequences on penalties that may be imposed or served, especially when that car is otherwise classified, is somewhat unclear and we would recommend “.

The Aston protest on Sainz was also shockingly dismissed largely because the words “outside assistance” were not added to Article 39.6 of F1’s rules on when drivers can make their own way back to the pits after crashes despite the teams apparently agreeing to do exactly this during the 2023 Belgian GP.

At least common sense prevailed in the Norris wet pole time case…

Next up, Miami!

Next up, Miami!

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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