Could the Chinese Grand Prix be an epic battle to live up to its status as the 1,000th race in the history of the Formula 1 world championship? It’s looks like a decent probability.
Valtteri Bottas, the world championship leader after two races so far this season, heads Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, the two Ferraris and the two Red Bulls on the grid. Margins are tight, and at this stage it is hard to pick a favourite for victory.
The two Mercedes were separated by just 0.023 seconds in the end, after Hamilton pulled it out of the bag in qualifying, as he so often does, despite struggling for much of the weekend.
But while the gap back to the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc was a chunkier 0.3secs, that is well within the margin of error given the way performance differentials tend to shrink from qualifying to race.
“It’s been pretty close among the top three teams,” Bottas said, “so there are many question marks.”
“It is a long race,” Vettel said, “and I expect it to be a very tight race.”
F1 has been making as much as it can in Shanghai of its landmark moment. There has been a big social media campaign. The teams have been asked to buy in – and have done so, with the likes of historic-flavoured helmets for drivers, and the “F1 1,000” logo dotted around. And there are historic displays of various kinds around the Shanghai circuit.
For all that it is possible to nitpick about exactly how many races should be counted, because of the inherent complexities of the sport’s history, the fact is that it is the 1,000th race to count for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship – and that is a big deal.
It speaks of F1’s rich history, its longevity – grands prix actually date back to 1906, long before there was a “Formula 1” or a “world championship” – and most of all its success and popularity that has seen it grow into one of the world’s biggest sports. No wonder its American owners – relatively new to F1, and keen to commercialise its heritage as much as possible – want to celebrate it.
It is, as Hamilton said, “great for the sport”. But the reality is that, for the drivers, the landmark is not such a big deal. “It’s not really much of a moment,” Hamilton said, in the same breath. “It’s just another race. We’re here to win.”
But who will?
So far, the two races in 2019 have been markedly different in character. In Australia, Mercedes were dominant and Ferrari struggling. In Bahrain, Ferrari dominated, and Hamilton led Bottas to a one-two only because Leclerc hit engine trouble after disappearing into a race of his own.
In China, the weekend has been different again. While Mercedes have had an edge, it has been a small one. Ferrari have been close, and Red Bull – or at least Max Verstappen – close to them.
All five of those drivers look in with a shout of the podium on Sunday. And the intrigue extends to the different characters of the cars – the Mercedes is quicker in the corners, while the Ferrari has an advantage on the straights. So can the Mercedes build enough of a gap in the first part of the lap to stay out of range on the longest straight on the calendar? And can Verstappen mix it with them?
“A decent start is important,” said Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff. “It is an interesting constellation that we have the two Mercedes in front with both keen to win and then the battle of the generations of the red ones and then Max will be keen to recover.
“So the start will be very exciting – I hope not too much – and then if you have a decent start it is about trying to survive the first two laps.”
As for the likely competitiveness of the cars in the race, Wolff said: “We’re seeing massive swings from weekend to weekend, even within one team, and it makes this season really interesting.
“Valtteri was in a class of his own in Melbourne, he struggled in Bahrain, but then he has come back here. For Lewis it was the other way around; he had some issues in the race in Australia, but was really strong in Bahrain.
“If you look at Leclerc and Vettel, it’s very similar. It makes racing unpredictable and I’m sure we will see an exciting race as well. Our long-run pace looked decent, but we expect a close battle between Ferrari, Red Bull and ourselves.”