It’s the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend (live on Sky, highlights on the Beeb) and after two practice sessions this morning it looks like we might be in for another cracker. You will have not forgotten that the race in Bahrain 12 days ago was officially The-Best-Race-In-A-Very-Long-Time®, with Lewis and Nico properly slogging it out up front and racing all the way down the field behind them, particularly among those with Mercedes engines.
Yet first practice this morning was lead by…. Fernando Alonso. Yup, the guy in the red car eaten alive by the Formula Mercedes runners in Bahrain, eventually finishing what would prove to be a precipitous ninth place. ‘Precipitous’ because Alonso’s result (and an equally ineffectual tenth place for Kimi Raikkonen) spelled the end of the road for the affable Stefano Domenicali.
In his place and making his debut this morning after some pretty whizzy visa work from Ferrari was Marco Mattiacci. Mattiacci previously led Ferrari’s North American operation and has had very little, if anything, to do with F1. Accordingly, he largely hid at the back of the box this morning behind a nifty pair of Persol sunnies while his star driver dominated FP1 and lost out only to Lewis Hamilton in FP2.
Let’s get this straight; Alonso’s drive can have nothing to do with Mattiacci’s appointment. It’s too soon. It does however bode well. There is, after all, no general quite as good as a lucky general. Alonso’s speed is more likely do with the Shanghai circuit masking the F14-T’s traction issue. Still it was good to sense that maybe that V6 engine isn’t quite the lemon it was previously considered to be. Mattiacci can do little to fix it before next year, though clearly some evolution is possible inside the homologated spec.
Renault’s engine certainly appears to be evolving, there were four Renault-engined cars inside the top ten after FP2 this morning; Two Red Bulls in fourth and fifth with Daniel Ricciardo again ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Toro Rosso’s equally impressive ‘number two’ Daniil Kyvat in tenth. Say what you want about Red Bull’s MO, but the Driver Academy can sure spot ‘em. (Carlos Sainz Jnr — the scheme’s next superstar — fair dominated last weekend’s first round of the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 series, won last year by Kevin Magnussen.)
The other Renault powered car in the top ten after FP2 was Romain Grosjean, ninth, and enjoying the latest Renault engine for the first time. Lotus maintained throughout the team’s difficult pre-season that the awkward-looking ‘South Paw’ E22 was returning ‘good numbers’. It’s problems were lack of mileage and that Renault V6. It would be good to see the RoGros and the team back near the front, if not exactly at the front.
There is absolutely no reason to believe Sunday’s race won’t be another maximum score for the Silver Arrows. Lewis Hamilton lost 20 minutes at the end of FP1, and a similar amount of time at the start of FP2 as the team rebuilt the front of the car after complaints from Lewis his W05 was a bit understeer-y. Hamilton and Rosberg have not wasted a single opportunity to talk up their games since Bahrain. It’s all very good natured, like a couple of not very frightening, not very big, but very pretty boxers trying but largely failing to psyche out the other. But Bahrain showed us that however phoney the war might be off the track, it is very real on it.
Top ten after FP2, then: Hamilton a tenth and a half ahead of Alonso, who two tenths ahead of Rosberg, the Ricciardo, Vettel, Massa, Raikkonen, Button, Grosjean, Kyvat who is a second and half behind Hamilton.
Qualifying starts at 7.00 am UK time on Saturday, the race at 8.00 am on Sunday. If you don’t have Sky, you might want to fire up Five Live Sports Extra. This is shaping up to be one of those seasons. You really don’t want to miss it…