The nature of the Formula One calendar means teams really rack-up the airmiles in the opening weeks of the F1 season. Shanghai is by no means the furthest we go for a race but, in many respects, it feels like the furthest.
There is something otherworldly about the Shanghai International Circuit, even when it isn’t swathed in fog, with the grandstand bridges occasionally glimpsed through the gloom, looking like zeppelins hovering over the start-finish straight. F1 is a big sport but it’s conducted on a local scale. The entire circus packs into a paddock that is at-least full, and frequently bursting at the seam with people, equipment, noise and intrigue. China is the exception. It isn’t like that. The Shanghai International Circuit has been built on an epic scale, but F1 doesn’t scale-up for it, which means everything feels a little lost in the vastness.
It isn’t just the paddock. When the circuit was created, the designers ticked the XXXL box when considering the straights. The main straight is long, certainly long enough to ensure plenty of action down at Turn One, but it’s dwarfed by the back straight. It’s one of the few places in F1 where it isn’t particularly advantageous to make a pass early – as this gives the overtaken car the opportunity to tuck into the slipstream and steal the place back at the hairpin. Baku is similar next time out – but with a street circuit, that’s more an accident of city-planning rather than a design feature.
It’s fitting that an epic circuit has produced some of our most epic results. We’ve had three pole positions in China, courtesy of Sebastian Vettel in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and grabbed the fastest lap on three occasions also – but it’s the Sundays that are the most memorable, and it’s that overtaking-friendly track configuration that makes it so. Mark Webber, in 2011, and Max Verstappen in 2017, both finished third against unlikely odds, Mark from 18th on the grid and Max from 16th. Those were fantastic results – but it's the winners trophies that really stick in the mind. We had our first here, Seb and Mark combining for a one-two finish in 2009 that set us on the way to a memorable few years, and then last year Daniel Ricciardo won a scintillating race, scything his way through the field after a race-changing Safety Car a little after half distance.
While this doubtlessly made great viewing, it was all the more satisfying in the garage, given the frantic Saturday that saw Daniel suffer yet another engine failure at the very end of FP3. His crew – but many of Max’s crew also – hurled themselves at the car to get a new one installed for qualifying. He made it out onto track with just a couple of minutes of Q1 remaining, the enormous power slide essayed while exiting the garage testifying quite how tight things were. It’s not often a team gets the full reward for such a monumental effort but we definitely left China last year knowing the win had been a proper Team victory.