With a dominant show by Renault and McLaren in China, there is little doubt that these are the teams to watch over the coming weekend. In 2004, Renault struggled to get the best out of their car, but with the Constructors' Championship right in their grasp, they are fighting to the last, complete with a new specification engine that only has to last one race. it could be an exciting event.
Track: The pit straight sees speeds over 200mph, in to the opening corner, a long, sweeping, 270 degree right hander that is immediately followed by a right then left. The exit of turn three leads to left/right flicks and speed building back up towards 190 mph on the run down to the hairpin at turn six. A short straight then leads to the long, sweeping turns seven and eight.
Two sharp bends follow, bringing speeds down before a short straight that leads to the tight left of turn eleven. This second gear corner leads in to another long, sweeping, double apex right hander onto the back straight. Being able to follow cars here will allow drivers to attack in to the hairpin at the end of the straight, after drafting at up to 210mph, so overtaking is a possibility here. The two right handers lead to a short straight before the final, 90 degree left hander back on to the pit straight.
Tyres: The relatively slow circuit in China emphasises the importance of grip, but high tyre wear will stop the manufacturers from getting their softest rubber out for the event.
Weather: A dry, moderately warm weekend is looking likely: neither tyre provider is expected to find much advantage.
Strategy: Last year, either two or three stops made sense, and the same should be true this year. A three-stop fuel load should offer a noticeable advantage in qualifying, but even with the wide circuit inviting passes, it requires some aggressive driving in order to make up the places required of it to pay off on race day - admittedly, it is easier here than in Japan, so expect a mix of two and three stops from the front runners. More to the point, expect teams to try and remain flexible, as inventive strategy is likely to pay off.
Surprises: In their final race with Honda's V10 engines, BAR could turn up the power at the risk of losing engines: don't be surprised if they qualify well and start with excellent pace, or if they slow down very suddenly. Toyota should again be quick in qualifying.
Conclusions: McLaren have the package to beat, but need to get both cars to the finish if they are to take the crown from Renault, who will be close on their tails. A flawless weekend is needed from the team - and they should deliver. Ferrari, Toyota and BAR should be fighting for the remaining points, but Williams are recovering form, too.
Team by Team
Arriving at the end of the season must be a relief to Ferrari, who have struggled all year to show anything for their fans to cheer. China was the scene of Rubens Barrichello's triumph in 2004, but neither driver is expecting to even make the podium this time around. A solid weekend would see qualifying performances in the top six and a race that results in points
Drivers: Michael Schumacher, despite taking the fastest lap, had a dire weekend in 2004 - this is the one event where he will expect to improve this year - which is important as he still needs to finish only a couple of places behind Montoya in order to keep third place overall in the Drivers' Championship. Barrichello is clearly not in a position to effectively defend his 2004 win, but with his pending departure for BAR, at least he is looking at the prospect of new challenges next year.
Objectives: Qualify in the top six, finish in the points.
Returning to the scene of one of their best performance last year, BAR will be looking to step up their performance again. China saw the team qualify well but between Takuma Sato's disqualification for driving like a wildman and Jenson Button's drift backwards in the race, they really need a strong weekend.
Restoring faith is going to require not only a solid performance from at least one of the drivers, but some good team-work - troubled pit work let Webber get around Button in Japan. A smooth performance would go a tremendously long way into the off-season. Fortunately, this circuit should show up some of the strengths of the BAR, so a strong race is possible.
Drivers: Button's performance last year was solid, if insufficient to really challenge Barrichello for the win; this year, even targeting a podium is a stretch, with Renault and McLaren showing so well. Rather, finishing ahead of Williams is going to be an important personal target, even if the team would emphasise Toyota. Takuma Sato has a lot of work to do in order to restore faith; his speed is undoubted, but he needs to finish without a controversial collision.
Objectives: Qualify well, beat Toyota and Williams and score points - a podium would be exceptional.
Heading to the final event, defending a two-point lead in the Constructors' Championship, Renault might just have the pace to upset the McLaren apple cart. The Enstone outfit have been working on improving the car right to the end of the season and enter the final event with new evolution engines. If they are as reliable as expected, then the boost could offer yet more pressure - and at least ensure they are running 'best of the rest' so if either McLaren fails to finish, they can score enough points to keep the lead. With both drivers freed up to run aggressively, it could be another interesting outing.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso was on fire in Japan, overtaking Schumacher twice en route to an impressive third place. A similar performance this weekend could let him split the McLarens, if either driver has a poor weekend. Giancarlo Fisichella might not have had the pace to hold off Raikkonen on the final lap, but besides that he was controlling the race at the front and ought to be able to stay at the front in China. Either way, these drivers are both looking to finish on the podium.
Objectives: Qualify in the front two rows, finish with both cars on the podium.
Having qualified relatively well in the bad weather at Japan, there is no doubt that Williams consider the result a big boost to their moral and that going in to the off-season. It will offer them confidence that they can get back on terms with the front runners. Maintaining that view needs little more than a solid run in China - and they are able to deliver on that, at least.
Drivers: Webber's performance in Japan stood in the face of his reputation as a qualifier who struggles on race day - and backed up the faith Williams and Head put in him. A strong run on race day in China, even without passing Button en route to the finish, would solidify that reputation and at least make it seem that he earned the team-lead role. At least until he accuses drivers of false starts, which rather looks like sour grapes and an attitude problem. Antonio Pizzonia's unfortunate spin reflected his inexperience, but relatively little is expected from him in this stand-in role. Scoring a point in China is important if he is looking for a race seat in 2006, though.
Objectives: qualify well, score points.
Clear favourites to win in China - particularly after the scintillating performance Kimi Raikkonen put on in Japan - McLaren are undoubtedly going to be disappointed if they don't finish with both drivers at the top of the podium. They need to score two points more than Renault to win the Constructors' Championship - but seem to have trouble getting both cars to the finish unmolested, whether by reliability or other drivers knocking them off the road.
Drivers: With Raikkonen giving the field a driving lesson in Japan, he is going into China as hot favourite; his performance last year was not tremendous, but he should be able to win the event if he is not let down by the car. Juan Pablo Montoya is his biggest challenger, but since the Columbian will be the first to attempt qualifying, he should have some advantage on the day. Montoya will be looking to go out with a win, but after being taken out of the race by other drivers as often as Raikkonen has had engine changes, perhaps an element of caution will be required if he is to make the finish. Of course, that caution would not only be alien but arguably damaging to his pace. Nevertheless, he must be seeing second place on the podium as his worst case finish.
Objectives: aiming for the race win - and a one-two finish.
After surprising the paddock with their China performance in 2004, it is unlikely that Sauber will manage a repeat this year, even if they do up their game. Shooting for a point - particularly at the expense of Red Bull - remains a good goal. Nevertheless, both their drivers like the circuit and will be looking to get the most they can out of the weekend.
Drivers: Felipe Massa would love to give Sauber a point as a parting gift as he heads off to Ferrari; Jacques Villeneuve on the other hand needs to show well or he will be facing a legal battle with BMW as to whether or not they bought his contract when they took the firm off Peter Sauber's hands. Either way, both drivers put on a good show last year and ought to be able to get something out of the game this year too.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score a point - beat Red Bull.
Despite scoring a couple more points in Japan, the Red Bull outfit were well positioned after qualifying and disappointed not to have made more of their chance - particularly as they lost out through pitstops and strategy, an area where they have been strong all year. Nevertheless, scoring in a field that competitive was still a solid result and a repeat in China would be a coup.
Drivers: David Coulthard had a tough race in China last year, so even with his tremendous experience and level head, taking home more points is going to be a tough call. Despite some excellent qualifying performances, Christian Klien has not really had the race-craft of his teammate, so he will struggle to finish in the points.
Objectives: finish as well as possible, targeting a point. Beat Sauber, if possible.
Although Ralf Schumacher put the car on pole in Japan, it was clearly influenced by the weather and a light fuel load. Furthermore, Jarno Trulli never really got comfortable with the new chassis and was unable to get the most out of it. Come race day, a more realistic measure was found: Trulli's race ended by Sato and Schumacher dropping back into eighth place. Then again, with wet weather interfering with the set-up time for a new chassis, it is not really surprising that the team were struggling to get the car happy both for a full race distance and the qualifying session. China gives four more practice sessions to get up to speed at the circuit. Should it actually represent a step forward, then Toyota can look for best of the rest status behind Renault and McLaren. Otherwise they will struggle to race Williams over the distance.
Toyota have a huge budget and are bringing to bear tremendous resources in their aim to win the Championships; any sign that this car really is the step forward implied in Japanese qualifying can only help to increase their momentum in to 2006.
Drivers: Schumacher qualified well in 2004, even if his race was a disappointment: this season, getting a points finish would be a good way to end the season. Jarno Trulli, by contrast, has to get to grips with the new car, even if it does not suit his style: the processes that resulted in this chassis have a strong influence on the 2006 model so there can only be more of the same coming next year, being at a disadvantage to his teammate will do no favours to his confidence going in to the off season break.
Objectives: target good points finishes; another podium is unlikely - but beat BAR.
Although the wet weather gave Jordan a chance to perform moderately well in Japan qualifying, normal service was resumed for the race, and there is little expectation for anything different in China. The team are currently struggling to beat Minardi, even with the revised chassis, which is proving a disappointment.
Drivers: Narain Karthikeyan had a moderately interesting weekend in Japan, but finished behind Minardi's Doornbos - clearly not a state of affairs that will make him easy to hire, even with a sizeable sponsorship and coverage in India, unless he can show a little more on race day. Tiago Monteiro will again be expected to put together a reliable effort, and if the car does not let him down ought to make the finish in a solid, if unspectacular fashion.
Objectives: make a good showing of the new car, beat Minardi.
Having missed a chance to get both cars ahead of both Jordans in Japan after mistakes in pitstops, Minardi will be looking to do so in China, instead. They actually have a car that is not always the slowest on the grid, so there is a genuine race not to finish at the bottom of the pile - something this team have not been able to say for some time.
A solid end to the season would be a good send off for a team who have been hugely popular with fans for most of their history - even if there is no danger of scoring any points this weekend.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat Jordan.
The inaugural Chinese Grand Prix saw Jacques Villeneuve's return to the sport, Ralf Schumacher's return from injury and a surprising off weekend for Michael Schumacher after dominating the World Championship - leading to an excellent race with a second win on the trot for Barrichello.
Carrying momentum after winning the Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello did enough on Saturday to take a narrow pole position, a tenth ahead of McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, who looked strong all weekend.
Jenson Button was unhappy with his third place, believing the car had more to offer - but it turned out it was very creditable considering he was running with a two stop fuel load rather than the three preferred by the other front runners. Alongside him, Felipe Massa showed that Sauber had a real handle on the new circuit, surprising most onlookers with their genuine pace.
Ralf Schumacher showed that his injury had not slowed him at all, qualifying comfortably in fifth with Fernando Alonso sixth and unhappy with Renault's speed. Giancarlo Fisichella put the second Sauber in to seventh - and was disappointed with the result, which was impacted by graining. Olivier Panis' eighth spot showed the power of Toyota's engine down the straight.
Other notables include Juan Pablo Montoya, who never looked comfortable and finished in tenth place, Michael Schumacher in seventeenth after a spin on the final corner and Takuma Sato in eighteenth after a ten spot penalty for changing his engine, which had let go in second practice.
Benefiting from an engine change and revised fuel load, Schumacher started from the pit-lane: it would have helped to avoid any start line incident, but this wide track saw no trouble at the first corner. In the event, Barrichello took off cleanly at the front despite Raikkonen pushing him, and Alonso made another flying start to slip in to third spot from sixth. Massa followed, but was soon passed by Button. Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher and Coulthard completed the top eight.
In the opening laps, Barrichello and Raikkonen pulled out a gap over Alonso who was being attacked strongly by Button. Massa's tyres went off and he started to lose places rapidly; then Alonso began struggling and was compelled to yield to the BAR behind on lap seven. Once in the clear, the BAR - despite a heavy fuel load - was the fastest car on the circuit.
On lap ten, the heavily fuelled Ferrari of Schumacher made an optimistic move on Klien at the hairpin, sending the Austrian back to the pits to retire with suspension damage after contact.
Barrichello and Raikkonen pitted on lap 12; Button lapped fast in the lead. Alonso then stopped and a couple of laps later the Briton stopped too, returning six seconds behinds Raikkonen who was on Barrichello's tail. Sato, ahead of Alonso, was still to stop and followed his team mate; Ralf Schumacher returned after Alonso after pitting from the lead. Michael Schumacher, meanwhile, continued to struggle, and span, fortunately losing only time as he worked on in eighth place: when it came, his stop put him back to fourteenth spot.
Barrichello and Raikkonen pushed each other on at the front, opening up the gap to Button to around 13 seconds by lap 25; Raikkonen was called in to the pits a little early - McLaren hoped he would be able to pass the Ferrari by being a little out of sequence; however, with the extra fuel on board he was unable to maintain the pace, so Barrichello's stop a couple of laps later saw the Brazilian return a couple of seconds ahead. Button, opening up a lead on this duo to about ten seconds, stopped on lap 35. He returned in third place - soon to be second as Raikkonen made his second stop.
Michael Schumacher's weekend got even worse, as he suffered a puncture
Further back, his brother's weekend was about to turn sour as Coulthard made an optimistic attempt at a pass - resulting in a collision that sent the Williams spinning. A quick trip to the pits to fix what proved to be a phantom error and Ralf retired, being convinced (probably correctly) that he could not recover to a points scoring position from two laps down. Coulthard also suffered: the puncture he suffered from the contact put him out of contention for points.
With the final pit-stops looming, Barrichello had the hammer down and with a 27 second advantage, he stopped, returning just a comfortably in front of Button... and so it finished with Barrichello, Button and Raikkonen on the podium, Alonso a distant fourth, Montoya fifth after a lonely race, ahead of Sato, Fisichella and Massa.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team-Engine Time 1. Barrichello Ferrari (B) 1h29:12.420 2. Button BAR-Honda (M) + 1.035 3. Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 1.469 4. Alonso Renault (M) + 32.510 5. Montoya Williams-BMW (M) + 45.193 6. Sato BAR-Honda (M) + 54.791 7. Fisichella Sauber-Petronas (B) + 1:05.464 8. Massa Sauber-Petronas (B) + 1:20.080 Fastest Lap: M.Schumacher, 1:32.238, lap 55 Classified: 16 from 20 starters