If you build it, they will come

Having picked Shanghai as the location for the first Chinese Grand Prix and allocated the respective financial (mega) investments, only one problem remained: the circuit. The Chinese organisers were not exactly highly prepared in this area. The first option proposed was Zhuhai: a well-known but idiosyncratic GT venue. Unsurprisingly, the FIA dismissed the idea: Zhuhai was neither suitable, technologically adequate, nor safe. 

So, the only option was to build a brand-new circuit because the existing facilities in the area were even less adequate and incorrectly sized than Zhuhai. Enter Herman Tilke, whose previous work had included Malaysia and Bahrain. His take for China went one step further: in addition to following the usual technical brief for long straights followed by very slow corners to favour overtaking, the Shanghai track was a nod to Chinese tradition and culture. The track was drawn in the shape of the Chinese ideogram shàng meaning "above" or "climbing".  The word is part of the name of the city of Shanghai and eloquently expresses the ambitions of local organisers. 

Seen from above the circuit looks like a flower. The long central straight, overlooked by the huge raised glass media centre over the pit lane, ends with a tightening right-hand corner that closes to form nearly a complete circle. The track is wide to promote overtaking, at least in principle. The corners are all different from each other and amount to nearly 80 per cent of the lap time, posing a serious challenge in terms of lateral acceleration and tyre wear. The other big challenge is the weather, especially after the grand prix was bumped up from the end to the beginning of the championship, after the first few races.

Lap averages in excess of 210 kilometres per hour during the race were clocked from the start in Shanghai. At the opening grand prix of 2004 Michael Schumacher was forced to settle ‘just’ for fastest lap in his Ferrari (at 212.7 kilometres per hour) while his team mate Rubens Barrichello won the race. These days, with the new turbo hybrid era and the P Zero Purple ultrasoft tyre in China, those speeds are only going to get higher.

You have to go back to 1982 to find a driver who won the first two rounds of the championship, like Sebastian Vettel, and then didn’t go on to win the title. A good omen for Ferrari, but in truth the Shanghai track has always had a tinge of red to it. Besides Barrichello’s triumph in the inaugural race, the Chinese Grand Prix went to the Prancing Horse another three times: to Schumacher in 2006, to Raikkonen the following year and to Alonso in 2013. Since then, it’s been a Mercedes benefit. But for the last four years, the winner in China has always won the world championship. So which bit of history might be about to repeat itself?

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