Saturday Night Fever: Shanghai

Michael Schumacher's qualifying faux pas was just one of the highlights of an intriguing qualifying session in Shanghai, but there's plenty more to talk about, with six different cars in the top six. Adam Cooper looks ahead to what should be an exciting race

Saturday Night Fever: Shanghai

It's well known that Hermann Tilke based the design of his circuit on the symbol 'shang', which apparently means something like 'ascend.' That's made for a very distinctive shape that could be used for one of those inkblot tests. To me it looks like a headless kangaroo trying to drive a car. If any shrinks are reading this, do let me know what that reveals...

Anyway, the bottom line is that this is a circuit with a fascinating variety of corners that test not just the drivers, but also the equipment. With another hot day expected on Sunday, tyres will probably be the story of the race, and despite having Rubens Barrichello on pole, Bridgestone could be heading into Sunday with a little more to worry about than Michelin.

Everyone did tons of simulation before they arrived here, so they pretty much knew what they were getting. But there's always something to be learned.

"I think it's probably a little bit quicker than we were expecting," says Toyota technical director Mike Gascoyne. "It's always difficult to know what kerbs you're going to use, and this sort of thing. The grip seems quite reasonable, although it's very smooth and new. We decided to run with lower wing levels than perhaps we were initially simulating, because of the grip. Also you look at the banking onto the turn onto the back straight. That makes the exit speed higher, so the advantage of less wing is more."

Like any technically challenging circuit, Shanghai rewards the best overall packages.

Gascoyne adds: "You need good aero efficiency, good engine power, good change of direction. And you need to be fairly easy on the tyres. You're in corners for a very long time here, and if the tyre gives up half way through the corner - for instance in the long first corner, as it tightens up - if you start getting understeer there, and the tyre starts graining, you can't put any more lock on, and you're screwed. You need to get the front of the car nicely sorted, because the rear will go away during the run as well.

"There's a lot of blistering going on, so conditioning the tyres will be critical. We've got a tyre we can use, but the softer of the two tyres was blistering a lot, and I think that's true for all the Michelin runners. The prime looks just about alright. There's small blistering, but normally we can condition the tyre to keep that under control. I think everyone is going to have to do three stops. The rears won't live with a high fuel load..."

On Saturday Bridgestone looked strong in practice and in both pre and final qualifying. At first glance it appeared that the company had put one over on its rival, but the truth is more complicated. It seems that to survive a race distance the cars are going to have to stop three times, while some of the leading Michelin runners - exactly who remains a mystery for now - will be stopping only twice.

Barrichello, Schumacher and Massa are all on the softer Bridgestone, while Fisichella has gone for the more conservative harder tyre. The Italian actually used scrubbed tyres for qualifying, and it may be that some of the other runners have done the same. But all four cars are certainly on three stops.

Rubens definitely cannot afford to lose the lead at the start - he has to stay in front and open up a lead. Starting from near the back - he's not actually 20th, as you might have thought at first - Schumacher has plenty of options. One of those is to start from the pit lane in the T-car with a new engine and no fuel or set-up compromises. Another is to come in at the end of the warming-up lap and top up with fuel. Either way, he's stuck with the softer compound, and switching to a long first stint will mean those tyres get a hard time. Whatever route he takes he might not find it as easy as he did in Monza to make his way through the field, but he's sure to enjoy himself.

So what of the Michelin runners? As Gascoyne noted, everyone has gone for the conservative harder option, and some teams were pleasantly surprised by how good the qualifying performances were. Raikkonen, Button and the returning Ralf Schumacher are all up there. But will they go for two or three stops?

"For sure the Ferraris will be strong tomorrow," says BAR technical director Geoff Willis, "Even though Michael's made it difficult for himself. With the exception of Raikkonen, I think we're probably quicker than all the other Michelin runners. I would think there may be a mixture, but probably the majority will do two stops. We believe Bridgestone have had quite high wear, but when you're looking at the Ferraris I wouldn't take too much comfort from thinking they're on two-stop fuel."

Of course for BAR this weekend is all about the battle with Renault for second place in the championship. Willis adds: "They have not looked to be very quick this weekend. If we appear to have a good advantage over them this weekend, we must make best use of it, because I think they'll be stronger in Suzuka. Regardless of what else is going on, we've got to race Renault."

Fernando Alonso and new boy Jacques Villeneuve are in sixth and 12th places, and certainly Fernando can expect to gain a couple by the first corner. He could yet be a factor.

"We believe that all the Bridgestone runners will make three stops," says engineering head Pat Symonds, somewhat contradicting Willis. "But I think that will be the norm, to be honest. I think there are some obvious two-stoppers in there, but I think you'll see a lot more people on three than two. All the Michelin guys are on the same compound, and I think it is a very, very consistent tyre. I don't know what the Bridgestone is going to do, but a lot depends on how a circuit develops. With a new circuit like this you'd expect it to pick up a lot of grip, but we don't know, because we haven't been here before."

A few final thoughts. The concrete pit road surface is very slippery, and there is some concern that when the cars are braking at the race limit of 100km/h, there could be problems, even though that's already slower than at other tracks. There was some question of a reduction, which would have made stops correspondingly longer and thrown everyone's calculations out.

"Certainly if the limit were reduced it would definitely push everybody to two stops," says Willis while the idea was being discussed. "But I would hope that after qualifying they wouldn't impose that sort of change. It would be a little bit unfair on anyone that had chosen a three stop."

Shortly afterwards the FIA confirmed that the original limit would still apply, apparently because Ferrari would not accept a change. And they are doing three stops of course. The first time that any driver tries to stop from 100km/h instead of 60 (as in practice) on the slippery concrete will be in the race...

Another possible area for concern come the race is the pit exit. The entry to the first corner is extremely fast, and the cars sweep across from the left to clip the apex - which is right where anyone who's just exited the pits will be. I watched there for a while in practice, and drivers were being extremely polite when coming out of the pits, looking in their mirrors and even braking to a stop to allow those on a hot lap to take their line.

In the race there will be no room for such good manners, and the guy coming out the pits will be under no obligation to cede the line. If there's contact the car on the outside will be sent flying. The alternative is to go wide and give the guy on the inside space, but that sends you out into the dust and marbles and potentially off the track.

There's one thing I'm convinced of - we won't see 20 cars getting safely through the first sequence of corners intact. The first turn has a fast entry, but tightens up, comes back on itself, and plunges downhill into a tight lefthander. It's much, much tougher and tighter than the first/second corner complex at Sepang, and that always provides a shunt.

I spent a lot of time watching there in practice, and drivers were taking it in stop-start bites as they accelerated and braked. In the usual chaos of the first lap, contact is guaranteed, and there are bound to be innocent victims who get taken out by being hit by a car that's bounced into their path. In fact there could well be several unrelated accidents as the field tries to squeeze its way through, as we saw at Spa.

"The Technical Working Group is doing this work on debris and splinters," says Gascoyne. "I think they're going to have ample opportunity to investigate where's it's coming from after the start, because I think there are going to be a few front wings and bits and pieces lying around!"

That of course could lead to an early safety car. And if he picks his way through the mess we might even see Michael in the points by the end of the first lap...

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