NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Wild Start to Chinese Grand Prix

As Formula 1 makes its way to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend, racing remains the central focus: which teams and drivers are trending, how the championship will continue to come to form, and who’s able to master this tricky circuit.  That’s typical racing stuff and motorsport’s raison d’etre.  But visiting China is also a chance to marvel at the beauty of race engineering. 

To wit, the track looks like so many others that have been built or refurbished in the last 20 years.  Though each facility may have a layout that makes it unique, there’s a certain similarity that rests with many of the modern tracks and their sharp turns versus long straights all set in rather picturesque manners.  That’s not to say each facility is sterile or lacks challenges; but to paraphrase Shooter Jennings, every track is just a little bit different in the same way.  

The Shanghai International Circuit opened in 2004 after the Chinese government sunk roughly $450 million into the project, turning a swampland into a pristine, modern racing course.  To accomplish this feat, constructors installed over 400 pillars to buoy the track and its facilities.  Correspondingly, over 3,000 engineers worked continuously over a year’s span to ensure Shanghai would be completed on time for its target opening.  

Say what you want about the Chinese, but when this culture wants to get something done, they do it seriously and produce a top quality product.  Here would be a time to mention how the Chinese government has also been building islands in contested waters – something that is also quite an engineering feat – but this column isn’t angling for that kind of political commentary.  Instead, there’s a more funny side to things.

This year, as the cars rip off into turn 1, there’ll be a little bit different visage for the drivers and fans alike.  The grandstands that once dotted the landscape no longer do so.  Their removal isn’t because of some fan attendance adjustment to cook the numbers but instead due to Mother Nature’s dastardly doings.  

Simply put, the grandstands at turn 1 sank into the swampland, unable to withstand the elements.  This aspect makes the Shanghai track more unique than some of its brethren as it continues to change in ways that none of the more recent ones do, as the surface buckles and the entirety of the layout succumbs to nature’s whims.  Who knows what it might be like next year….

Odds & Sods

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Lewis Hamilton continues to see his title defense become more difficult (credit: Getty Images)

– Defending champion Lewis Hamilton faces another challenge to his race this Sunday.  Hamilton already faced a five-spot grid penalty for a gearbox change in Bahrain.  That kind of issue is one that he has shown to overcome frequently and likely did not leave him daunted for the race.  But then… qualifying came about.

Hamilton failed to get out of the first round of qualifying owing to technical issues and will now start from the back of the grid.  The Mercedes team might decide to make further changes to his car which means Hamilton might even begin from pit lane.  While he’s gifted other drivers with his poor starts for the first two races, this one poses a different challenge and will showcase just how good this driver really is.

– Sorry Stoffel Vandoorne, you’ll have to go back to waiting.  Fernando Alonso gained provisional clearance from the F1 doctors to race this weekend, putting his McLaren substitute on the sidelines.  Alonso will continue to be monitored but it is unlikely that the doctors will pull him from the car at this point.  

The veteran acknowledged that he’ll be dealing with pain management as he races for the first time since his accident in Australia.  That being noted, Alonso showed that he’s still a capable racer by posting solid times in the (still under) powered McLaren.  He may have had a shot to make it out of the second qualifying round had Nico Hulkenberg not suffered a wheel flying off his car during the session.

– The return to the preferred form of qualifying proved to be a bit of a mess, though not because the teams weren’t ready for it.  Instead, the bigger issue was changing track conditions that made it difficult for teams to get things right, a problem best exemplified by Pascal Werhlein’s wipeout on the frontstretch when he nailed a puddle in the dip of the track, spun out, and punched the guardrail.  The Manor driver’s session ended there and brought out a lengthy red flag period.

In similar fashion, Nico Hulkenberg’s flying wheel caused the second session to end early just as many drivers began their flying laps in attempt to make it to Q3.  Hulkenberg will be penalized three spots on the grid for an unsafe release but the incident left plenty of teams lamenting what might have been. 

The Race

When the Shanghai track opened in 2004 it was the most expensive one on the schedule.  Rubens Barrichello won the inaugural event which has made a yearly appearance on the schedule ever since.  The track is nearly 3.4 miles in length and features 16 turns with the most notable being turn 14, nearly a hairpin after a long straightaway.  Lewis Hamilton won last year’s race and has four victories here all-time, the most of any driver.  

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