Setting the scene for China
Autosport Plus

Setting the scene for China

By:
, Tony Dodgins

Penalties, protests and a healthy dose of paddock politics dominated Thursday at Shanghai. Tony Dodgins sets the scene for the Chinese Grand Prix

Before we talk about politics or protests, let's consider a piece of actual racing news that could have a big impact on the outcome in Shanghai this weekend - Lewis Hamilton's five place grid penalty for a changed gearbox.

Never mind what may or may not take place next weekend, today's news is likely going to impact heavily on the here and now.

Hamilton has had big peaks and troughs in Shanghai. There was his trip into the pit lane gravel trap in 2007 that could be said to have cost him the world championship in his rookie season, then his victories in 2008 and last year.

After impressive poles in Melbourne and Malaysia, neither of which he managed to convert into wins, Hamilton could have done without today's developments that will see him line up sixth at best on Sunday's grid.

"I only found out about it in the last 48 hours," Hamilton said in the Shanghai paddock, while claiming that his handicap will not affect his approach.

Hamilton's not worried by his grid penalty © XPB

"It's a great track, you can overtake and there's been good racing here for the past few years," he said, refusing to be downbeat. "I won from third here last year and so I will just have to try to win from further back!"

Of course, qualifying even sixth is almost certain to put him behind the Nico Rosberg/Michael Schumacher Mercedes pairing. We saw what Mark Webber achieved from the back last year here with the aid of DRS, having been marooned in Q1, but it may not be the work of a moment to pass a Mercedes. Hamilton could be looking at Monza 2011-style frustration again.

It's taken three races but Lotus finally put its hand in its pocket and proferred the 2000 Euros protest fee against Mercedes in the direction of the FIA on Thursday. That put the ball in the court of the Shanghai stewards, including ex-driver Emanuele Pirro.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that Charlie Whiting has already said twice that the Mercedes innovation does not offend him, the stewards rejected the Lotus protest.

"If they protest now, why didn't they protest in Australia?" Ross Brawn asked, betraying a little frustration at the situation. "Lotus is saying that they have an upgrade worth 0.2s here. Well, I can promise you that our system is not worth 0.2s per lap in the race."

In the race, maybe not, but it's thought to be worth significantly more than that on a qualifying lap, during which it can be deployed throughout.

Still on the subject of Mercedes, it has been noted that Schumacher has outqualified Rosberg at both 2012 races held so far and questions are starting to be asked about whether Nico, with what looks to be a more competitive car, is feeling the pressure and starting to make mistakes.

"No, I don't think so," Brawn responded. "There are differences in the way this car responds under braking that Nico is finding a bit difficult. We are trying to improve that and when it gets sorted out, I think you will see some special things from him."

Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, expects his championship lead to last as long as Sunday night. Realistic aims, he says, extend to Q3 and some points in the race.
Di Resta said Force India 'are not where we want to be at the moment' © XPB

Paul Di Resta is also in damage limitation mode at Force India. "We're not where we want to be at the moment," he admitted, "Williams and Sauber are stronger and Toro Ross is very close. But the wind tunnel and CFD work is focusing on a massive upgrade we have coming. I have confidence from what they achieved from Monaco onwards last year, so the aim is to come to China and get all the points we can."

Then, of course, there's the question of Bahrain.

It seems a little ironic to be commenting on human rights issues from China. One of the most shocking national newspaper images I have ever seen was the face of a pretty 25-year-old mother, contorted in grief and terror as she was about to be dispatched by a police official holding a pistol to her temple. Her crime? Stealing a pig to feed her children.

And yet we come here, year-by-year, after jumping through innumerable hoops to secure a ridiculously overpriced visa for the privilege of a long haul flight to a country in which the majority of taxi drivers should be nowhere near a car. I hope I'm not proven wrong, but the feeling of vulnerability is probably stronger in Shanghai.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't be thinking very carefully about Bahrain. Last year it was simple. The foreign office had issued travel warnings that invalidated insurance cover. This year, that's not the case.

There are bigger political issues - like naval bases, a hurting local economy and not wanting to upset the Bahrainis too much. It's easy to envisage a few motor racing wallahs being quietly considered expendable in the corridors of power. A calculated risk, let's say. No need for anything official...

Which hands any initiative over cancelling the race to a governing body with a lot of middle eastern support, a commercial rights holder that would lose money or a bunch of teams with, ditto, middle eastern support, and which risk being in breach of contract.

As Mark Webber put it, at the end of the day, it's a car race, which millions of people won't even have a clue is happening...

But as he also said: "As a grand prix driver you are contracted to a team, which is contracted to the FIA, and they hold a 20-race championship. And that's where it is..."

The word on the street today is that we'll be there.
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Series Formula 1
Author Tony Dodgins