Shanghai F1 preview: business as usual for Vettel?

Since it was added to the Formula One calendar back in 2004, the Chinese GP has been repeatedly criticised for its lack of atmosphere.

Well, that certainly won’t be the case this year, since – as evident in both of this morning’s practice sessions – the Shanghai International circuit is set to spend the weekend engulfed in a thick cloud of toxic smog. This is reportedly down to local industrial facilities not being asked to halt production prior to the race weekend, as they have been in previous years.

Despite the visual impairment, on-track incidents were fairly minimal during Friday’s two pre-qualifying sessions. Mind you, with last year’s free practice seeing Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso make a bold attempt to kill the Swiss driver when both of its front wheels simultaneously made a bid for freedom, it had a lot to live up to.

There was a little minor carnage, with Nick Heidfeld trying his deftest to reconfirm that he’s not as good as Robert Kubica by sliding off the track and mangling his front wing while under absolutely no pressure, before dumping his injured Renault in an escape road.

Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso also caught our attention on an otherwise dire morning (the Spaniard finished the first session in 12th, the second in 14th) by angrily cutting in front of Narain Karthikeyan after the Hispania driver had apparently held him up during a hot lap. But at the sharp end of the time sheet, one man’s name dominated.

You may have heard of him. At the very least you’ll have seen him waggling his right index finger on the back pages of your newspapers like an over zealous supply teacher. He’s led every single minute of every single race since the lights went out in Abu Dhabi last November, and with two poles and two wins to his name this season, he’s yet to put a foot wrong so far in 2011.

And crucially, with his Red Bull having now grasped the knack of not blowing up at crucial moments, you’d have to be extremely foolhardy (or apocalyptically drunk) to bet against Sebastian Vettel this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button – who’ve both won the race in the past – rounded out the final session’s top three, while the rapidly expanding Vettel-Webber gulf shows no signs of slowing down. Marko goes into qualifying with a lot to think about having been half a second slower than his teammate in the first session and almost two seconds behind in the second.

So, are we in for any big surprises on Sunday? Unless the rains come – which at the moment, isn’t on the cards – then probably not. Ferrari look likely to break their own record for losing the plot by imploding before we’ve touched down in Europe; Michael Schumacher’s pre-season concerns about his team’s lack of pace seem to be right on the money (although, with Nico Rosberg managing to hold it together, you’ve got to question the veteran’s place on the grid); and McLaren, try as they might, just can’t keep up.

With all the above taken into account, here’s our prediction for the top 10 on Sunday’s starting grid. No doubt you disagree completely, so feel free to leave a comment below and let us know how totally wrong we are:

1. Sebastian Vettel
2. Lewis Hamilton
3. Nico Rosberg
4. Jenson Button
5. Mark Webber
6. Fernando Alonso
7. Michael Schumacher
8. Vitaly Petrov
9. Nick Heidfeld
10. Felipe Massa

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