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Why F1 teams are racing into the unknown in China

Formula 1's Chinese Grand Prix is returning to the calendar after a five-year absence, presenting teams with more questions than they will have answers for.

A scenic view of the Shanghai International Circuit

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Five years is an awful long time in Formula 1 and it feels even longer given the global pandemic that interrupted F1's visits to Shanghai.

The last time F1 travelled to China, Max Verstappen had only won five races and RB was still racing as Toro Rosso rather than its previous name AlphaTauri.

In the meantime, as the Shanghai International Circuit hosted a makeshift COVID-19 hospital in 2022 rather than any major motor racing, F1 went through wide-ranging regulation changes and Pirelli introduced different tyres mounted on larger rims.

Pirelli cautioned that teams are therefore effectively "starting from scratch" on Friday. While the layout itself hasn't changed, the lack of action of any kind over the last few years means the circuit surface may well have undergone significant ageing.

In the run-up to the event, several bumps were smoothened out to accommodate the more sensitive ground-effect machinery.

Picking China of all places to host the first sprint format of the year has raised some eyebrows, with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz both questioning whether it was really the right move for this year.

It gives teams just 60 minutes of free practice to validate their set-ups, with an even bigger emphasis on simulation work.

Photo by: Pirelli

But while a sprint adds to the engineers' headaches, it also provides opportunities to shake things up, which can be good news both for the fans and for teams that aren't so confident in their outright performance.

"It's a good challenge that we're straight into a sprint race," said Mercedes' trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.

"We've not been there with this generation of cars, so the tyres are different, the aerodynamics are very different, there's a lot of work that we need to do and the bulk of that work gets done in simulation.

"But there is also a bit of re-reading old notes, looking at how the tyres were performing in terms of wear, what was driving degradation to try and build that picture.

"It's definitely a big challenge, but it's quite fun and there's good motivation to work on it because if you can get it right, the opportunities at a sprint race are always greater because someone else may have got it wrong."

That is especially the case for teams that are expecting to be on the back foot in China, like McLaren. The Woking squad started off the season well, but Shanghai's combination of slow, winding corners and long straights is exactly what its MCL35 comparatively struggles at.

And while team principal Andrea Stella acknowledged holding the sprint there "adds many complications", it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the papaya team it if executes its Friday running better than its direct rivals.

Photo by: Erik Junius

"Difficulties can also be seen from the opportunity side because everyone will have difficulties, which means you can gain an advantage," Stella mused philosophically.

"Ideally, you wouldn't have had China as a sprint event. At the same time, it's not something that we are in condition to influence. So we just get this out of our heads and we focus on doing a good job."

Crucially, those who do get it wrong are now handed a second chance under the revised format, as parc ferme re-opens after Saturday morning's sprint race so teams can tweak their set-ups ahead of grand prix qualifying.

The ultimate question is whether or not those challenges can actually make Red Bull trip up or whether it merrily continues its steamrolling dominance.

Shanghai is a track where graining is expected to be an issue as tyres cool off on the long straights before being punished by its more demanding corner combinations, shredding parts of rubber off the surface of the tyre.

Ferrari has historically been strong on circuit where that phenomenon is a theme, such as last month's Australian Grand Prix, where Carlos Sainz won after Max Verstappen hit early trouble, and Las Vegas last year, where Charles Leclerc could have beaten the Dutchman to victory too.

When Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was asked if Ferrari could be as strong in China as it was in Australia, he said: "Ferrari on that circuit, they were definitely competitive and we expect them to probably be our closest competitor [in China].

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"It's a good circuit. The first corner goes on forever and with the high-speed corners onto the back straight as well, it's always been very punishing on the front-left tyre."

With temperatures expected to hover around the 20C degree mark, the colder conditions could further exacerbate graining and potentially play into the hands of the Scuderia.

"The biggest question mark for me will be the tarmac and probably compared to the last event we will have colder conditions," said Ferrari chief Fred Vasseur.

"We don't know the roughness of the tarmac and this will be key for the weekend to see if we have graining or not.

"With the sprint and one practice session, you have to choose which compound you will test on Friday. It means that the anticipation of the weekend is crucial."

But while Vasseur backs Ferrari to do well after seeing the team start every Friday in a strong position so far, which is crucial for a sprint weekend, he didn't want the Scuderia to get ahead of itself given the small margins at the front.

"We always had a good start to the weekend. It means that we have the capacity to be ready from the first session," the Frenchman added.

"But it's so tight that I think what is crucial in my business is humility. You don't have to consider that what you did one weekend will be true the weekend after.

"We will start from scratch and we have to keep this mindset for all the races."

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