Shanghai Speed Trap: Who is the fastest of them all?

© XPB 

The Shanghai International Circuit isn’t exactly a power circuit, but at 1.17 km in length the track’s back straight is the longest of the season, just ahead of Baku.

As such, superior top speed comes in handy, especially for overtaking into the Turn 14 hairpin.

But while the straights are very long – the corners are very long also, meaning the amount of time spent at full throttle is quite low in China compared to tracks recently visited by F1.

This pushes teams to run relatively high downforce settings, especially if grip is low and tyre degradation is high, a typical characteristic of Shanghai’s circuit.

So, as usual, it’s all about striking the best compromise, especially for race day.

We’ve purposefully chosen to look at the speed trap readings from Saturday’s Sprint event rather than the numbers from qualifying, as the former offer a better approximate indication of things to come on race day.

While Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll gets bragging rights for breezing down the straight at a cool 346.9 kph, Charles Leclerc was the fastest of the front-runners in a straight line, and by a comfortable margin over his Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes rivals, and by an even greater margin over his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz.

Both Alpine’s of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly displayed healthy top speed, but this only highlights the A524’s depressed downforce as both drivers finished their Sprint well down the order in the second half of the field.

Lewis Hamilton’s depressed top speed – much lower than Russell’s – still allowed the seven-time world champion to finish runner-up to Max Verstappen in the Sprint, which points to drag still heavily weighing on Mercedes’ performance.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we’ll guess that Max Verstappen will be out of reach from the outset of Sunday’s race, likely followed by Sergio Perez. But behind the Red Bull duo, anything goes as far as the third spot on the podium is concerned.

With everyone leveraging their knowledge and data from free practice and the Sprint to adjust their set-ups accordingly ahead of qualifying, it’s nearly impossible to project a pecking order among the Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Aston crowd.

With no recent data to rely on, tyre degradation is also an unknown quantity, leaving teams with perhaps more guess work than hard facts on which to build their strategies.

And then there’s also the weather that can throw the odd spanner in the works. Interesting times…

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