Mercedes have recorded one-two finishes in both of the opening two races of the 2019 Formula One season, and rivals Ferrari will be desperate to hit back by taking victory at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix (Race: Sunday, 2:10am ET).
Ferrari were the pre-season pace-setters but already find themselves trailing in both championships. They were surprisingly sluggish in Australia and then failed to convert their superior speed into victory in Bahrain two weeks ago.
There, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel qualified first and second. Leclerc then drove an excellent race to build up a comfortable advantage before mechanical problems significantly slowed him, allowing both Mercedes drivers to pass and so denying him his first victory. Vettel drove a scrappy race that saw him finish fifth after a nose change.
Mercedes were the beneficiaries, with reigning champion Lewis Hamilton leading home Valtteri Bottas, but they were under no illusions that it was a triumph well earned. The pace advantage Ferrari enjoyed all weekend, particularly the extra grunt of their power unit, seems to have the German marque, not to mention the rest of the field, very much on the back foot.
Ferrari’s race-day execution to date makes it difficult to suggest backing them for victory in China this weekend. They locked out the front row last year only for Daniel Ricciardo to take the win for Red Bull, but they can be expected to come out on top in qualifying.
Ferrari dominated qualifying last year, with Vettel’s pole time over half a second quicker than the fastest Mercedes. With what looks fundamentally to be an even more rapid package this time around, and despite what is likely to be a worthy challenge from his teammate Leclerc, Vettel can be fancied to top the timesheets on Saturday again.
Max Verstappen came home fourth for Red Bull in Bahrain, ahead of Vettel, the McLaren of Lando Norris, Kimi Raikkonen’s Sauber, Pierre Gasly in the second Red Bull, the Toro Rosso of Alexander Albon and the Racing Point of Sergio Perez. They were impressive first points for F2 graduates Norris and Albon, both of whom seem to be settling in quickly.
One driver who is struggling to settle is Gasly. There is certainly no shame in being beaten by Verstappen, one of the fastest drivers on the grid, especially when you are just two races into your time at Red Bull following an off-season promotion from Toro Rosso, but the difference between them has been startling. Whereas Verstappen has twice qualified and finished in the top five, Gasly has twice qualified outside the top 10 and finished 11th and eighth.
All of the teams seem to be having some problems getting their cars set up this year due to the new aero regulations and thinner tyre treads. Operating windows appear to be much narrower and Gasly has called for more help from his engineers in getting his car working the way he wants it to.
Until he does, his underperformance provides an opportunity for a midfield team to secure a top-six finish this weekend, as Kevin Magnussen did for Haas in Australia and Norris did for McLaren in Bahrain.
The latter of those two results was very nearly Nico Hulkenberg’s. The Renault driver had recovered from a lowly grid position to make his way up to sixth before a power unit failure four laps from the finish, just before his teammate Daniel Ricciardo pulled up with similar problems, saw Norris inherit the place.
Renault have been a bit disappointing to date, securing just one points finish with Hulkenberg’s seventh in Australia, but the pace they showed in Bahrain suggests they have a solid chance of getting things back on track this weekend. Hulkenberg came home sixth in China last year and has a decent chance of repeating the trick on Sunday.
Like Ferrari, Haas are yet to take full advantage of the underlying pace of their package. Both of their drivers have qualified in the top eight in each of the first two races, but they only have Magnussen’s sixth in Australia to show for it. In Bahrain, Romain Grosjean was eliminated following a collision with the Racing Point of Lance Stroll, while Magnussen was unable to get his tyres working for him and gradually slipped down the order and out of the top 10.
It feels like Haas are due a result in China. Magnussen has finished in the points at the Shanghai International Circuit in each of the last two seasons, while Grosjean did so three times in his four years at Lotus. A double points finish should be within their grasp.