The 2008 FIA Formula 1 World Championship concludes its Far Eastern tour with this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, the second race in seven days and the penultimate race in an eight-month odyssey that sees the circus trek across the globe visiting 17 countries.
When construction finished in 2004, the 5.45km Hermann Tilke-penned Shanghai International Circuit earned instant acclaim as the biggest and most impressive facility on the Formula 1 calendar. Dwarfed by its pillared grandstands, the track’s 16 corners offer up all manner of challenges for both drivers and engineers, ranging from tightening first-gear corners to broad 300km/h straights.
After a disappointing performance in Japan last weekend, the whole Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team heads to China optimistic of once again returning to the top step of the podium. With just a slender five-point lead in the drivers’ championship, Lewis Hamilton has targeted victory in Shanghai and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen’s competitiveness in Fuji has underlined his ability to help the team chase down the seven points separating the team from leaders Ferrari in the constructors’ championship.
After the difficulties of Fuji, do memories of last year’s Shanghai race still haunt you?
"No, not really. Sometimes I’ve been on YouTube and seen a video clip or a picture of me in the gravel last year and thought, ‘Damn! That shouldn’t have happened.’ But it was a learning mistake. I can still move forwards from it; things like that happen for a reason and it taught me a lot. Last year, the last couple of races taught me a lot about my personality and my life. And I’m stronger for it."
The weather for Shanghai currently looks mixed. What sort of conditions would you prefer for the race weekend?
"I’ve said before that I don’t mind racing in the wet or the dry. Of course, it’s safer in the dry and I guess those are the conditions that racing drivers prefer. But having said that, I would just prefer it if the weather wasn’t too changeable during the weekend; when the track starts drying out, or it starts raining during the race is when things become a real lottery. At this stage in the season you need things to be as reliable as possible for you."
Do you enjoy technical circuits as much as so-called ‘driver tracks’?
"I wouldn’t call Shanghai a technical circuit. Some of the slower turns require a more precise approach, but you’ve got to really attack some of the corners. It’s technical in the sense that you can’t make a slow or poorly-balanced car go quickly around it, but finding a good set-up is one of the jobs of a racing driver and, for that reason, I like it."
How are you approaching the last two races of the 2008 world championship?"Despite not finishing in Fuji, I can take some positives away from Japan - I was fast all weekend and was looking good for an extremely strong result, maybe even a win. For now, it’s important to keep scoring points; we are fighting for the constructors’ championship, and Lewis is fighting for the drivers’ championship. I know I don’t have much to lose but I’m aware we need to keep scoring points to do the maximum for the team; I can’t go completely crazy and try my luck. I need to be sensible, but I’ll still be attacking because I want to score some good points."
What do you think of the Shanghai International Circuit?
"I like it - for a new track, it’s got a bit of character, some good corners and plenty of variety. People talk about the first corner, that’s a technical challenge, but I really like Turns Eight and Nine - the high-speed esses - and the double left-hander that immediately follows it. That’s the good bit."
What sort of set-up do you need for a circuit which such a variety of corners?
"The long straights mean you need to lose some downforce, but you really need the grip through some of the trickier corners. So finding a balance isn’t easy; there are also some areas of heavy braking, so you can’t just set the car up to deal with one characteristic, you need a bit of everything."
Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula 1, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Whenever a world championship is at stake, history has taught us that adopting either a too aggressive or too circumspect approach can be risky. How are you playing it this weekend?
"For qualifying, you want to have a suitably aggressive strategy otherwise you are not going to be in the race. Then, as the race develops, you are afforded the possibility to become slightly more circumspect to ensure you’re scoring the points you need to fight for the world championship. And that is the approach we take into these races."
In terms of coping with the pressure, will the team be doing anything different this weekend?
"The reality is that the last race of the season is no different from the first. However, at the end of the year it’s much clearer in everyone’s minds that the championship could be decided by a mistake - one made by another title contender or ourselves. Both teams have made several mistakes this year but, at this critical stage in the season, a further mistake by either side could determine the championship. As a result, everybody within the team is being very diligent and cautious. We have done a fantastic job so far this year and we aim to round off the season by continuing that approach."
Will this circuit favour the MP4-23’s technical package?
"As this season has progressed, it’s become increasingly difficult to characterise the circuits that favour ourselves or favour Ferrari. And that has gone away because both teams have understandably addressed some of the weaknesses of their cars. But Shanghai is a good circuit, with a good mix of corners that requires a good car to get the best from it. To that extent, there’s every reason to suppose Ferrari and ourselves will be very close there."
Norbert Haug, Vice-President, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport
You must be pretty downbeat after last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix. Starting from pole position and third place on the grid and bringing home zero points was certainly not what you had expected from a Grand Prix that Lewis dominantly won a year ago?
"With our results in qualifying, of course, we all wanted to win also this year’s race. Without the incident with Felipe Massa - which put him to the very back of the field - Lewis still could have had a decent finish in the points. An engine failure finished Heikki’s race and his chances to win. So it was a bad weekend for all of us. We put these results behind us and will now be fully focused on the Chinese and Brazilian Grands Prix. Felipe Massa made one point on the track and got another one as a result of Bourdais’ penalty; so he did not benefit too much as Lewis is still leading by five points."
Last year saw Lewis arrive at the Chinese Grand Prix with a 17-point advantage but leave with it reduced to just seven points. How does that make you feel ahead of this year’s race when Lewis arrives with a five-point advantage?
"Last year’s race was indeed one of the worst for all in the team. Lewis had been dominant in the opening stages, but we made a wrong call bringing him in for a tyre-change. it was a race we should have won but didn’t - and that was our mistake, not Lewis’s. But that’s history. After a difficult race at Fuji Lewis is still five points ahead in the championship; so the team and him have it in their hands to get the job done in the final two races."
Why is the Chinese Grand Prix important for Mercedes-Benz?
"For Daimler and its premium brand Mercedes-Benz, China is a very important, and quickly growing, market. We have been manufacturing the Mercedes-Benz E-Class in China since December 2005. Two years ago, we opened a new plant that produces up to 25,000 E- and C-Class models per year. Last year, we sold 30,600 Mercedes-Benz cars in China - a 44.9 per cent increase on the year before. Between January and September ’08, sales increased by 53.6 per cent compared to the same period in ’07."