Chinese Grand Prix: Friday Analysis

The Chinese Grand Prix weekend begun slowly today, with activity in FP1 significantly limited by the green circuit. This was compounded by the fact that the soft compound tyre appears to have a similar drop off rate as the medium tyre did during the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend. Subsequently, tyre conservation was the order of the day. Nevertheless, the FP1 and FP2 sessions answered several questions, with Mercedes proving to be the surprise of the field. Meanwhile, Ferrari and Felipe Massa also appeared to have very good long and short run pace. It is certainly finely poised heading into tomorrow’s Qualifying.

FP1

Mercedes have stated their intentions for the weekend, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton making it a silver arrows 1-2 at the head of the timesheet. Rosberg has picked up from where he left off in 2012, after taking his first victory in Shanghi just 12 months ago. Clearly, the circuit suits the Mercedes package.
Just behind the Mercedes pair, the feuding Red Bull drivers reinstated their one lap pace, with Mark Webber finishing above his teammate. However, the Aussie was a frightening 0.9 seconds away from Rosberg’s time, with Sebastian a further 0.3 down. 
While the session began slowly, Esteban Gutierrez was the first to post a time on the dusty surface. It was difficult for team’s to justify heading out onto the track early on due to the poor condition of the circuit, coupled with the short tyre life. Ma Qing Hua received his first FP1 session of the season in the Caterham, and provided the fans with some action early on, alongside Gutierrez. Both drivers were clearly focused on learning the track and subsequently, they made the most of their track time. This was reflected by the number of laps they completed; the most of any drivers in the field. 
At the halfway point of the session, only 13 drivers had posted times, with Adrian Sutil occupying P1 on the timesheet. While Raikkonen was third, the E21 did not look entirely comfortable on track. The Finn attracted attention to the issues, with an uncharacteristic spin after turn nine. Fortunately, Raikkonen managed to return to the pits, with no damage sustained. 
The Mercedes soon left their mark on proceedings, with Nico Rosberg quickly toppling Felipe Massa’s benchmark to go fastest. Lewis Hamilton soon jumped up from an underwhelming P17 to P2, despite locking up during the previous lap. Hamilton displayed his experience by releasing the brake to minimize the damage on the surface of the tyre. 
The final 20 minutes of the session saw many drivers switching to the soft compound as the medium’s became undriveable. However, these tyres suffered on the green track, with a narrow operating window. Moreover, many drivers, including the Mercedes duo, opted to complete race simulation on these tyres. Consequently, the timesheet remained rather stagnant throughout this period and the session was set to conclude quietly. However, Sergio Perez added some last minute excitement to FP1, when he made an embarrassing error on the pit lane entry. In an incident identical to Lewis Hamilton’s race ending excursion in 2007, the Mexican locked up and skittered across the short gravel trap, coming to an abrupt halt as the car hit the barrier. Not the way Perez had intended to end FP1, but he was fortunate to escape with only minor front wing damage. At least now he knows the limits of the pit entry.
FP1 Timesheet
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:36.717 21 laps
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:37.171 0.454 20 laps
3 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:37.658 0.941 21 laps
4 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:37.942 1.225 20 laps
5 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:37.965 1.248 17 laps
6 Jenson Button McLaren 1:38.069 1.352 24 laps
7 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:38.095 1.378 14 laps
8 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:38.125 1.408 21 laps
9 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:38.398 1.681 17 laps
10 Paul di Resta Force India 1:38.561 1.844 15 laps
11 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:38.790 2.073 16 laps
12 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:39.057 2.340 19 laps
13 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:39.158 2.441 22 laps
14 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:39.180 2.463 21 laps
15 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:39.336 2.619 19 laps
16 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:39.360 2.643 20 laps
17 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:39.392 2.675 21 laps
18 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:40.032 3.315 22 laps
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:41.966 5.249 16 laps
20 Max Chilton Marussia 1:42.056 5.339 18 laps
21 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:42.083 5.366 21 laps
22 Ma Qing Hua Caterham 1:43.545 6.828 20 laps

FP2

FP2 was best described as a battle of the soft tyres. Felipe Massa triumphed in fine style, displaying excellent short and long run pace. While Nico Rosberg led the way early on, the Mercedes did not look as impressive when the switch to the soft compound was made. Lewis Hamilton later described the soft compound as “hardcore”. 
FP2 began as FP1 finished, with the Mercedes and Red Bull’s leading the way. Sergio Perez once again found the barriers, yet this time, rather more dramatically, as he lost rear grip heading through the fast turn eight. He managed to return to the pits, yet significantly hampered his FP2 track time, as the team needed to repair several areas of the car following the high speed excursion. Adrian Sutil made a similar mistake, yet in far less dramatic circumstances just moments later. Fortunately, he managed to stop the car prior to hitting the gravel trap. 
Max Chilton suffered an early failure which curtailed his progress. He reported that an oil issue caused the engine to initiate a safety switch off mechanism. When the team eventually got his car back in the garage, they managed to reset the engine. However, Max returned to the track with just minutes remaining before a suspected recurrence of the issue. Meanwhile, Jules Bianchi was collecting excellent data for the team, posting some impressive times along the way. Early on in the session, the Frenchman was as high as P11, albeit he was one of the first competitors to switch to the soft compound. 
Mark Webber was the first front running driver to make the switch to the softer compound and immediately went quickest of all with a 1:36.092. However, Rosberg soon returned to the top of the timesheet; a position which he seemed to be attracted to. This was short lived, as Felipe Massa emerged from obscurity to steal P1 with an impressive 1:35.340. Kimi Raikkonen was next to impress, as he jumped up to P2 following a poor day, full of inconsistencies by his standards. 
On the green surface, drivers continued to complain about the soft tyres. Within five laps, they were totally destroyed. After just two hot laps, Sebastian Vettel reported of “a lot of vibrations”, while Hamilton announced that he had “never experienced degradation like this”. 
With the significant build up of marbles and heavier fuel loads up and down the field, times once again remained stagnant throughout the final few minutes. Felipe Massa finished ahead of the two Mercedes cars who looked like they were set to dominate the Friday running wholesale. However, the short lifespan of the option tyre was the talk of the day. It is likely that teams will opt to run the medium compound as much as possible throughout the race, as this compound fared far better. 
FP2 Timesheet
1 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:35.340 32 laps
2 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:35.492 0.152 32 laps
3 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:35.755 0.415 30 laps
4 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:35.819 0.479 35 laps
5 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:36.092 0.752 31 laps
6 Jenson Button McLaren 1:36.432 1.092 29 laps
7 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:36.496 1.156 39 laps
8 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:36.514 1.174 32 laps
9 Paul di Resta Force India 1:36.595 1.255 33 laps
10 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:36.791 1.451 27 laps
11 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:36.940 1.600 16 laps
12 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:36.963 1.623 31 laps
13 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:37.103 1.763 22 laps
14 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:37.206 1.866 39 laps
15 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:38.127 2.787 34 laps
16 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:38.185 2.845 18 laps
17 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:38.211 2.871 32 laps
18 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:38.276 2.936 34 laps
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:38.725 3.385 29 laps
20 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:39.271 3.931 21 laps
21 Charles Pic Caterham 1:39.814 4.474 27 laps
22 Max Chilton Marussia 1:43.227 7.887 5 laps
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