Six things we learned from the Chinese Grand Prix

Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix provided plenty of thrills and spills despite Nico Rosberg’s comprehensive victory…

Formula 1 visited the Shanghai International Circuit in China for the thirteenth time in the sport’s history last weekend for the third round of this year’s World Championship.

Related: Rosberg races away with Chinese GP

While pole-sitter Nico Rosberg was serene out in front all afternoon and ultimately claimed a comfortable victory, there was no shortage of thrills behind him, thanks in no small part to the efforts of teammate Lewis Hamilton and the two Ferrari drivers. On the whole, there were several interesting points to take away from F1’s visit to the East…

Welcome back to “real” qualifying

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Having lost patience with the widely-criticised elimination-style qualifying format that the FIA implemented for 2016, Formula 1 reverted back to the “old” format that had been in use from 2006 to 2015 for last weekend’s grand prix. The results speak for themselves.

On Saturday, fans were treated to a tense and enthralling battle for pole that peaked at to a grand crescendo right at the end – precisely like it was meant to. Although Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel’s realistic hopes of pole position came undone due to twin-mistakes at the Turn 14 hairpin, it is undeniable that the “old” format still gives a thrill in a way that the “new” format never did. That, to be frank, is the long and short of the matter, and it should be left there.

Engine progress for Red Bull

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Daniel Ricciardo shocked and delighted the majority of the F1 community on Saturday by smartly qualifying his Red Bull RB12 in second place, ahead of both the Ferrari drivers. It was uncertain whether or not the Milton-Keynes squad would be quite so competitive on Sunday, but the Austrian team were happy to prove their doubters wrong.

Although Daniel Ricciardo suffered the misfortune of a puncture as early as lap three, both he and teammate Daniil Kvyat drove excellent races to finish in fourth and third places respectively, thus securing Red Bull’s first podium of 2016. In particular, it was the RB12’s performance down the long straight between Turns 13 and 14 that impressed. While the team have been the first to admit that their Tag-Heuer-branded Renault engines are not yet where they need to be in terms of performance, it was encouraging to see Kvyat and Ricciardo hold their own against more-fancied engines on the longest straight in F1.

The Red Bull RB12 is undoubtedly a strong car from a chassis point of view, and if its engine continues to make progress as the season progresses, Red Bull could soon become a significant factor on race day. Of course, the road to catch Mercedes is long yet, but with a strong chassis, an improving engine and two quality drivers behind the wheel, it can only get better.

Back to reality for Haas

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After every up, there is a down. Haas found out the cold truth of this statement with a weekend that they will be eager to forget in China. The team’s VF-16 challenger simply didn’t seem to be as competitive during free practice as it had for the season’s opening two races and this grim fact was confirmed when Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez qualified in an uninspiring P14 and P18 on Saturday.

On race day things didn’t go much better, as Gutierrez came home in P14 while Grosjean could only manage P19 after a first-lap scrap with a Sauber cost him a part of his front wing.

The heady days of finishing high up in the points seem to be temporarily on hold for Formula 1’s newest entrant, but on the plus side, their strong performances in Bahrain and Australia, along with the calming influence of Grosjean’s experience should see morale at the American team remain high. How they react at the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi in two weeks’ time will be interesting to see.

Empty McLaren-Honda promises

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McLaren-Honda found themselves suffering misfortune during qualifying on Saturday as Nico Hülkenberg’s loose wheel brought out the red flag, leaving neither Fernando Alonso nor Jenson Button with the opportunity to progress to the third segment of qualifying for the first time in 2016. Alonso, in particular, was openly frustrated over the radio at the lost opportunity, while Button gave his assurance that McLaren were quicker than their qualifying positions of P12 (Alonso) and P13 (Button) suggested.

On race day, all such hopes came to nought as both Alonso and Button finished in their qualifying positions and never seriously threatened to trouble the point-scoring drivers. While all the first-lap drama left the McLaren drivers running handily in the top ten during the first stint of the race, they simply fell further and further back as the laps passed.

It remains unthinkable that McLaren’s prolonged slump could last forever, but until there is consistent evidence of noteworthy progress from the Woking-based squad, it may be best to keep the promises to a minimum and the development work to a maximum.

Performance headaches for Force India

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Although Force India enjoyed a successful end to their 2015 campaign en route to a fifth-place finish in the Constructors’ Championship, they have failed to carry their impressive form through to 2016, and ultimately left China with no points to show for their weekend’s efforts.

Much like McLaren, Force India did a lot of fighting with a lot of cars as the laps ticked by, but ultimately found themselves settling for P11 and P15 for Sergio Perez and Nico Hülkenberg, respectively. That Force India were unable to capitalise on the fact that the Shanghai International Circuit’s main straight is the longest on the calendar (which should have played to their strengths given that they make use of a Mercedes engine) and were out-performed by the likes of Toro Rosso (who use a 2015 Ferrari engine) raises serious concerns about the fundamental quality of their 2016 challenger.

Given the competitive nature of the midfield so far this season, the Banbury-based squad had better bring some useful performance-enhancing upgrades to the next few races, and in particular to the Spanish Grand Prix next month if they are to retain their status as a front-running midfield team.

It isn’t over yet

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It is true that after a string of three consecutive victories to start off his 2016 season, Nico Rosberg enjoys a handy 36-point advantage over his closest rival, which happens to be team-mate Lewis Hamilton. This has led to some suggesting that the championship is Rosberg’s to lose or that he cannot be stopped. In short: it is far too early for such statements.

There are 18 races still remaining on the calendar for 2016, which means that 450 points remain up for grabs. While it would be helpful to Hamilton (or any other driver for that matter) to start clawing back some points as soon as possible, a 36-point margin is hardly insurmountable when there are still 450 points on the table. Of course, the German has driven well in the early races of the season and deserves his success, but Hamilton has been unfortunate in several regards and to be fair, is driving well on a lap to lap basis. As the old saying goes: anything can happen in Formula 1, and it usually does.

Adriaan Slabbert

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