With the F1 news dominated by off-track events, the circus rolled into China with plenty of in-team and inter-team battles to resolve. The run-up to round four of the Championship had featured Red Bull Racing’s unsuccessful appeal of Daniel Ricciardo’s demotion for fuel flow monitoring problems. Mercedes-Benz, still stung perhaps by Red Bull’s strident call for harsh penalties after last year’s so-called ‘testgate’ affair, sent a strong legal team to the hearing, citing what they saw as Red Bull’s predetermination to ignore the FIA’s fuel flow technical directive. The FIA themselves made the position very clear: in denying Red Bull’s appeal, the message was reinforced that a technical directive is an instruction not to be ignored.
At Ferrari, Stefano Domenicali’s abrupt but not wholly unexpected departure as team principal reflected the team’s lacklustre start to the season. North American Ferrari CEO Marco Mattiacci will now oversee race team activity.
With a three-tier system beginning to establish itself, free practice did not suggest anything other than the continued early season dominance of Mercedes, with the teams running customer Mercedes engines looking pacy. There was better news for Ferrari, with Alonso performing well in FP1 and 2. A wet FP3 saw Ricciardo top the time sheets for Red Bull. The session saw very little running, with teams saving tyres for qualification and the race.
As the clock ticked down to qualification, Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus was disassembled to trace a sensor problem; it seems unlikely he will be setting a time during Q1. Weather forecasts for the race seemed to be unclear, giving teams difficult race setup issues to consider.
With rain falling at the start of Q1, tyre choice was between the intermediate compound, which had shown graining in free practice, and the full wet tyre. Even on the full wet tyre, drivers struggled on the greasy surface. Lap times reflected this, with times nearly 30 seconds off a representative dry time. Hamilton topped the session, with Hulkenberg making the inters work well enough to give him P2 for the session.
Sutil was first out for Q2 on the inters, which proved to be the tyre to be on on an improving track. Again, it was Hamilton setting the pace early in the session. With the painted lines and kerbs very slick, there were plenty of excursions into the run off areas, notably Vettel, Raikkonen and Perez. Hamilton again topped the session. High profile casualties were Raikkonen and both McLarens, with Button reporting front tyre problems.
With the rain threatening to increase, the early laps of Q3 proved crucial, with Vettel temporarily top of the timesheet until Hamilton delivered a lap time that sliced a full .6 of second off Vettel’s time. With lap times on the crossover point between the compounds, Hulkenberg’s gamble on the full wet tyre did not pay off and with four minutes left he pitted for a fresh set of inters. An unsettled Rosberg spun on his final lap, with Ricciardo beating his world champion team mate to P2. Better news for Williams, securing 6th and 7th grid slots for tomorrow’s start.