And so to China, where the headline times from practice show Mercedes looking good in FP1 and Ferrari in FP2. But the real story is that the soft tyres are fragile. We talking about more than 0.5s per lap degradation – it’s like it only has a phase 2. Alonso lost five seconds of pace in just six laps. And this was typical. Which means two things. First, there will only be a short stint on these tyres, so the teams will be needing to make sure that they only need three stops. A fourth stop, meaning two stints on the soft tyres, would be a disaster.
So whatever they do, the teams need to get about 50 laps from three sets of medium tyres. Which looks to be achievable – Webber did a stint and was still maintaining pace at 14 (fast) laps in. So I think that three stops will be normal, but some might squeak to two stops depending on how many laps they are willing to do on the soft tyre…
So again, the key race pace to assess is the pace on the harder (in this case, medium) tyre. However, the time lost on the soft tyre could be important – either at the beginning of the race (if anyone is brave enough to go for softs in Q3), or more likely at the end of the race. I think that the Red Bull pattern of qualifying from Malaysia, using softs for Q1 and Q2 and the mediums (OK – I don’t know that for sure as it rained, but…) for Q3 may well be the way to go here.
So to the underlying race pace. There were a few stints in FP1 of reasonable length, but they don’t add to the story from the FP2 stints, so I’ve left them. There are fewer useful stints than normal, and even two I have plotted (Alonso and Button) can’t really be used to get a sensible pace. So the cars I have on the chart are Webber, both Ferraris, Button, both Lotuses, both Mercedes, Hulkenburg, both Force Indias, Maldonado, both Toro Rossos and Bianchi. First the chart, then the analysis:
So what do we see. Well, Ferrari set off on their stints faster than anyone else, but their pace slows – Massa is slower than quite a few others by lap 5 – so this is not as good as it looks. There is a pace drop off from many of the cars (not just Ferrari) before 10 laps, which suggests to me that they might need to drop their pace a little (or improve the set up) to get the tyres to last. Clear exceptions are Webber, Grosjean and Sutil, who look to be going well on the tyres. Mercedes look strong and consistent – and faster than Lotus and Red Bull. Di Resta had a very strong run – either he will be very competitive or Sutil’s run is more realistic – remember that Di Resta was quite a bit faster in Malaysia. Button’s pace is in the mix, but there is not enough data to get a real idea of his pace, which is a shame as what there are hints that McLaren could be amongst the top teams here.
Sauber and Williams look to be adrift of these teams, but Williams look to be doing better than in the opening races. Toro Rosso look to be behind, but then they were slow in FP2 in Malaysia, and scored a point with Vergne having great race pace.
Fitting the curves which I can make sense of, we get the following pace order (relative to the fastest underlying pace). Oh, and the baseline pace is about 0.5s quicker than in the first stint of last year’s race, so I would think that the times are reasonably representative of a first stint fuel load, give or take a little:
+0.1s Hamilton/Di Resta
It’s a shame that there isn’t more from Ferrari and McLaren, but the first blood in China seems to have been drawn by Mercedes. They have certainly consolidated on their Malaysia performance. In fact, those that went well in Malaysia seem to be continuing the good work – I think that McLaren will do better than most expect, and that Force India could get in amongst the top teams – especially in the race. Lotus have been quiet, and don’t seem quite to have the pace of Mercedes. Ferrari remain a mystery, but will be in the mix.
So Mercedes favourites. Just. But for one to watch, it’s worth remembering that Di Resta had faster underlying race pace than Lotus, Ferrari and McLaren in Malaysia… I wonder what Hulkenburg would be doing in that car.