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What Shanghai's sprint race and qualifying tell us about the 2024 F1 Chinese GP

Another day, another dominant Red Bull and Max Verstappen display in the Chinese Grand Prix sprint race and qualifying. But the main event is still to come and could provide different answers to what was learned from Formula 1’s tweaked sprint race format

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20 battles with Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

A reshuffle of Formula 1's rather Marmite sprint weekend format has now come to pass at the Chinese Grand Prix, as the sprint race - won by Max Verstappen, no less - moved to the morning rounds.

Last year's arrangement of settling the grid on Friday for the grand prix offered the pleasing sibilance of Saturday sprint sessions, but at the detriment of the teams as they were already locked into parc ferme for the rest of the weekend. With minimal practice, any set-up mis-steps could not be rectified unless teams wished to risk a pitlane start, which further damaged a weekend.

Now that qualifying for the grand prix has been shifted to its usual Saturday afternoon slot, the re-opening of parc ferme after the sprint offered a hint of retribution for those who had struggled, providing three hours of tinkering time to iron out the creases.

Naturally, some teams took bigger risks with their spanner-work, and some of those risks failed to pay off as others offered bountiful rewards in terms of grid position.

Thanks to the sprint race, we've got an idea of how the teams performed in their initial set-up arrangements - and qualifying has also offered a view into what was changed ahead of the grand prix. Let's take a look at how that might change things in our race forecast.

Verstappen should have it even easier in the race

The final margin between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Saturday's sprint race stood at 13 seconds, considerable given that the Red Bull driver only took the lead at the end of the ninth lap of 19. Although Lando Norris' wide moment in the opening corner after being given short shrift by Hamilton handed Verstappen one position, the Dutchman spent the early laps wrestling with his hybrid settings as he struggled with energy regeneration. Complaining of a "flat" battery, Verstappen was told by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase to switch to "Mode 8", which appeared to alleviate his deployment issues.

From there, Verstappen easily caught and passed Fernando Alonso, and faced little resistance from Hamilton either as the Briton ceded about a second with a Turn 14 lock-up.

Once in the lead, Verstappen stormed off to victory in the first sprint race of 2024

Once in the lead, Verstappen stormed off to victory in the first sprint race of 2024

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Now that Verstappen is starting from pole and with those deployment issues sorted, the race appears to be awaiting a slam dunk. He maintained a consistent pace among the high 1m40s and low 1m41s, over a second a lap faster than Hamilton's collection of 1m42s, with a set-up that appeared to accept compromising the opening corner for a good balance overall. Both Hamilton and Alonso seemed to carry a bit more speed through Turn 1, but Verstappen's GPS traces show that he reverses that advantage in the cross-over between Turns 2 and 3.

It seems that, in race trim at least, Red Bull was giving up a little bit of pace in the longer corners; Verstappen's break-building emerged through excellent straightline speed and good traction on the exits of corners - an avenue where others struggled atop the low-grip surface despite a pre-event slathering of bitumen coating.

Assuming his set-up has not been fiddled with too much, Verstappen should have an easier run of things if Sunday's 56-lap affair remains relatively conventional. Rain isn't expected but, with the surfeit of errors across qualifying sessions, a safety car might not be an unlikely sighting.

"The cars we had in front today anyway are quicker over one lap this weekend. Medium-high speed, long duration corners, which is where the Ferrari always tends to struggle" Carlos Sainz

Sergio Perez admitted to a messy qualifying as he was precariously teetering on the cusp of elimination at the end of Q1, but he rallied in the final segment as his front wing changes were dialled back to claim a hotly contested front-row start. His own sprint aspirations took a hit when stuck in a fierce scrap with Alonso and the Ferraris but, once the squabbles subsided and Perez snatched third from the Alonso-Carlos Sainz duel, his lap times were only 0.3-0.4s away from Verstappen's at the front. He's a very good bet to convert second, should that form remain.

The final podium position is up for grabs

A fierce battle of wits, grip, and style is expected in the clamour for the final position on the Chinese Grand Prix podium. Expectations before the weekend have been somewhat confounded; Ferrari was at least supposed to be a lock for a top-three finish owing to predications (many made by this writer, just to apportion accountability to the right bargain-bin Nostradamuses) that China's front-limited nature and the threat of graining would play into the SF-24's hands, as it had in Melbourne.

Although the Prancing Horses were somewhat handy trotting through the slower corners, it seemed to lack gallop across the faster areas, and never entirely looked convincing in terms of grip. Even in qualifying, both Sainz and Charles Leclerc seemed to be uneasy on turn-in, which Sainz reckoned was down to a Ferrari weakness in longer-duration corners.

Ferrari had been expected to be Red Bull's closest challenger in China but so far it hasn't lived up to that billing

Ferrari had been expected to be Red Bull's closest challenger in China but so far it hasn't lived up to that billing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"The cars we had in front today anyway are quicker over one lap this weekend. Medium-high speed, long duration corners, which is where the Ferrari always tends to struggle so hopefully tomorrow in race pace we're better off," Sainz said.

"[Here it's] more like Suzuka than Australia. In the end it's probably even worse than Suzuka, I would say, over one lap. And that in combination with a weird surface that doesn't seem to be keeping as much grip for us this weekend just shows that over one lap we're nothing special. Hopefully the race we have this one or two tenths turn around that we sometimes see, and we can get those cars tomorrow because it's a long race."

Leclerc added that changes to his car were race-focused, which "compromised even more our qualifying", but accepted the endeavour to climb up the order on Sunday.

Instead, Alonso's Aston Martin and the two McLarens acted as the buffer between the Red Bulls and Ferraris after qualifying. Sainz is correct in that, particularly in the sprint race, Ferrari held an advantage in the longer runs and the three teams are effectively arranged in reverse race-pace order. But they're separated by a couple of tenths.

Alonso admitted that he expected to fall back in the race, despite a series of small changes to his AMR24 that Aston Martin hopes will extract a little more goodness on Sunday. It's hard to accurately pinpoint his race-pace deficit through the sprint as he was largely holding up the chasing pack of Sainz, Leclerc, and Perez, but the trend through 2024 has been that this year's Aston is slightly more prolific in qualifying trim.

"You cannot change the car completely because you are into the rhythm of the weekend," Alonso explained, when asked what Aston Martin could achieve on the reopening of parc ferme. "But you can still make some small set-up changes. Some of them are just for balance problems, but some of them are just guesses that you do into tomorrow's race and you flip the coin."

McLaren also had a better run in qualifying than it expected, anticipating a long-corner weakness to hamper its progress in Shanghai. Instead, both cars sit on the upper quartile of Sunday's grid as both Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri arguably got everything out of their papaya machines; it wasn't quite the heady heights of pole position that Norris had unlocked in a rain-affected sprint qualifying, but it was still a result that surprised the team.

McLaren hasn't struggled as much as expected in China, but can it produce a result after a tricky sprint race?

McLaren hasn't struggled as much as expected in China, but can it produce a result after a tricky sprint race?

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Norris was worried about his race pace in the sprint, however, labelling it as "pretty shocking" after he'd bowled his wide in Turn 1. GPS shows that his pace between lap 6 and lap 14 was effectively on a par with Hamilton's, suggesting that he'd have at least been in the fight for the podium had he held on through the opening corner. But Hamilton was faster out of that range; in laps two to five, Hamilton's average lap time stood at 1m40.696s, compared to Norris' 1m41.317s. In laps 15-19, Hamilton's greater consistency led to a 1m42.603s average, while Norris was at 1m43.340s. Although Norris appeared to suffer a greater tyre drop-off towards the end, he did not have the benefit of free air while Hamilton did - and the early melee may explain some of Norris' shortfall in the opening phases.

If McLaren is able to find a stronger vein of pace relative to that which it managed to unearth in the sprint race, Ferrari might have a fight on its hands. Alonso, even if Aston Martin is weaker than its projected competitors, will give them hell come what may.

Mercedes experiments come at a cost

Even though Hamilton had little hope of keeping Verstappen firmly ensconced in his mirrors during the sprint race, he demonstrated a canny approach to the 19-lap dash and ensured he stayed well clear of the burgeoning skirmish over third. But he suggested that a wide variety of changes to his car, citing Mercedes' commitment to its experimental phase, was partly to blame for his ignominious Q1 exit. Ultimately, the Turn 14 lock-up was of his own making, apparently caught out by the tailwind down the straight.

"The drivers chose to go in pretty different directions to support our learning process, but it clearly didn’t work for us today on a single lap" Toto Wolff

“We made massive changes going into qualifying,” he said. “We just wanted to experiment. So George [Russell] decided to go one way, much different to what we had because we worked pretty much with the same before."

Russell's assessment was slightly different, stating that there was "a small difference, but directionally very similar between the two of us", although conceded that the team had overall made wide-reaching changes from the sprint in a bid to evoke an improvement in lower-speed performance. Either way, those changes did not appear to work out; Russell could only manage eighth in qualifying - over a tenth behind the Ferraris as the rear end of the Mercedes did not appear to connect particularly well with the front.

Let's settle the driver debate: team principal Toto Wolff stated that "the drivers chose to go in pretty different directions to support our learning process, but it clearly didn’t work for us today on a single lap."

Hamilton has it all to do start back in 18th for the grand prix

Hamilton has it all to do start back in 18th for the grand prix

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

A congested battle for the lower points

Of the five teams occupying the rear half of the field, both Haas and Sauber were represented in Q3 as Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas got into the top 10. Haas made multiple changes to Hulkenberg's car after the sprint as the German "fell off like hot apples" and finished a lowly 19th, thus his hopes are renewed that he can achieve a valuable points finish if he can retain his position among the opening corners.

Bottas also did well as Sauber continues to seek its first point of the year, but he'll have stern competition from behind in the grand prix; Lance Stroll sits behind him on the grid, while the 12th-placed Daniel Ricciardo looks more comfortable in his RB thanks to a chassis change ahead of the China weekend.

And then there's Esteban Ocon, another driver who sought a wealth of set-up changes after the sprint sessions. Ocon was granted the sole available upgrade package that Alpine brought to Shanghai, which Pierre Gasly will receive in Miami, and the new floor and lighter chassis will get its first proper workout in the race now that it has been dialled in through the sprint sessions.

Williams' struggles suggest that it will have to continue its wait to get off the mark, as 14th was the maximum that Alex Albon could realistically achieve - the Grove squad prioritised its set-up to get more out of the lower-speed corners, costing performance in the longer-radius turns.

Can anyone catch Red Bull in the Chinese GP?

Can anyone catch Red Bull in the Chinese GP?

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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