Formula 1

Sebastian Vettel & Ferrari look to maintain Mercedes challenge at Chinese GP

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There is a renewed buzz in the world of Formula 1 after Sebastian Vettel beat the two Mercedes in a straight fight a week ago in Malaysia.

But the question on everyone's lips now is; can they maintain the challenge to the Silver Arrows as the season heads to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix?

But before I go into that here's a little background. A part of the calendar for over a decade now, the race in Asia's biggest country hasn't really hit the heights most had hoped.

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China still struggling to embrace F1

Interest in the sport from the 1.2 billion people hasn't matched expectation when the sport first visited back in 2005 and now the race is more of a statement for the country rather than a major market for F1.

Yet given the size of China for companies like Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull etc. a race in the world's second largest economy is something of a necessity as it gives brand exposure, therefore, as long as the organisers keep paying the bill to Mr. Ecclestone, F1 will continue to visit regardless of the empty grandstands.

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Shanghai offers impressive venue

The Shanghai International Circuit is certainly an impressive venue and was the most expensive racetrack in the world when it was built until the figure of $240m was well and truly smashed by the circuit and surroundings attractions at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi.

It also features several unique corners with the winding sequence of turns one-four among the trickiest sections of track of the year.

The facilities are also some of the most impressive in he world with the UFO-style structures surrounding the infamous hairpin and the 30,000-seater main grandstand along the main straight. In the paddock too rather than use trucks each team gets a hut perched above the swampland that the whole venue was built on.

Another main feature of this race is often the weather. While there isn't the storms of Sepang several of the 10 races so far have been rain-affected and so we could expect to see the Pirelli Cincuratos make more appearances over the three days.

Ferrari vs. Mercedes part II?

Now looking at what to watch out for this weekend in Shanghai, and as mentioned the main story is whether Ferrari can repeat their performance in the more typical conditions in China compared to the heat and humidity in Malaysia.

Typically this has been a strong track for Ferrari with Fernando Alonso winning in 2013 and claiming his last podium for the Scuderia there last year and given tyres can often be a problem in terms of lateral degradation rather than the thermal degradation suffered in Sepang, it will be interesting to see if the 2015-spec Pirellis could be a thorn in Mercedes' side.

Rosberg in need of boost

At Mercedes the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg could also be much closer. Rosberg took his first win in F1 there back in 2012 while Hamilton has had mixed fortunes from his disaster in 2007 to a victory last year.

From the German's perspective it is imperative he beats his team-mate if he wants to be part of the championship battle with the renaissance at Ferrari perhaps making Mercedes question some of its free-to-race policies.

Williams & Red Bull eye progress

Another intriguing story will be Williams and how they shape up against the two front runners, it is almost certain that the team may benefit from a few more tricks in mapping and other software from their engine supplier to try and fend off the challenge from Ferrari but at the same time it could see the gap between Mercedes and Williams close too.

After two horrendous races to start the season, eyes will be on whether Red Bull can make some progress in China. In the wet qualifying the team did seem more competitive but brake issues meant both Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo finished behind the two Toro Rosso's in Malaysia.

With the effort to rebuild some of the broken relationship between the team and their engine supplier Renault a Red Bull on the back foot could be a more dangerous one for those around them.

Toro Rosso lead unpredictable midfield

For their perceived junior team, however, they stand fifth in the Constructors' championship but are arguably the leading midfield team after Sauber and Lotus struggled to match their pace from Australia.

Both Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen continue to make a mockery of their inexperience and more points could well be in the offering this weekend, however, much of that depends on just where Lotus and Sauber will be in the pecking order.

The annoyance of missing first practice in Malaysia seemed to affect Felipe Nasr as he never really showed the pace he had in Melbourne and was beaten by Marcus Ericsson all weekend until the Swede made the fatal error under braking on lap four which saw him beached in the gravel trap and cause the race-defining safety car period.

Then there is the experienced pairing at Lotus, who have yet to deliver on the potential they suggested in testing and qualifying in Australia.

The battle between Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado has been much closer than most were expecting and could be another small scrap to watch out for in China.

McLaren & Force India remain inseparable

Nowadays it seems whatever you do you can't separate McLaren and Force India, with the early troubles running the Honda power unit, the Woking team remained the slowest team excluding Marussia with the late-starting VJM08's of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez their nearest challenge.

Both are expected to make some big gains in the coming races so expect them to fully join the four-team fight for the final points paying positions soon after skirting just behind them in the first two races. Whether it will be in Shanghai, however, seems unlikely and another battle between four highly-rated drivers way out of their deserved places on the grid would be my prediction.

Finally Manor Marussia who are fending off claims that they could only manage to run one car at a time in Malaysia hence only Roberto Merhi racing on Sunday.

The Spaniard did finish the race in a mostly positive weekend and making more progress will be the aim again as well as getting both cars within the 107% rule in qualifying.

F1 in for Shanghai surprise?

Back at the front for a final thought and while its hard to say whether Ferrari and Mercedes will go head-to-head again the mere fact F1 fans are even talking about the prospect gives far more optimism for the 2015 season than there was a few weeks ago.

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