With the demise of Holden dominating the headlines in the run-up to the start of the 2020 Supercars season, the time for the cars and drivers to take centre stage has come at the curtain raising Adelaide 500.
The 2019 Chinese Grand Prix, Formula One’s 1000th anniversary, is more significant than the major milestone alone.
The Shanghai International Circuit has the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time to host Formula One’s 1000th grand prix.
An odd choice, some might contend — indeed Formula One itself considered moving the British Grand Prix earlier into the year before realising that that wet and wild Silverstone would likely be chillier than Jiading in early spring — but then with this being the anniversary of the world championship, hosting the landmark event in the world’s biggest city, in the world’s biggest nation, makes reasonable sense.
In any case the 1000th anniversary is an event swaddled in caveats. It certainly isn’t the 1000th Formula One race, because this tally considers neither the myriad non-championship Formula One races undertaken over the course of the sport’s history from as early as 1947 nor any offshoot series held under Formula One regulations, such as the short-lived South African and British Formula One championships.
Inversely, the 1000 races do comprise several championship races not run to F1 regulations. The entirety of the 1952 and 1953 seasons, for example, were run to Formula Two regulations due to a lack of entrants after Alfa Romeo left the category and BRM withdrew from competition. It wasn’t until the introduction of new F1 rules in 1954 that the world championship became a bespoke formula again.
Further, the Indianapolis 500 was a feature on the calendars of 1950 to 1960 despite being run to regulations formulated by the US governing body and enticing very few regular F1 drivers across the Atlantic.
So, depending on which way you wanted to cut it, the 1000 figure either overestimates or dramatically underestimates the number of ‘Formula One’ races held. What it does represent, however is the very specific title of ‘1000th F1 world championship race’, and that’s a good enough reason to make a bit of a fuss about it.
There’ll be plenty going on in the Shanghai paddock — there’ll even be an official commemorative coin and poster revealed, the height of formal celebration — and drivers are spending much of the weekend fielding questions about their favourite F1 moments, historical or contemporary.
A nice moment, then to reflect on where the sport has been and where it’s going — but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the teams and drivers are focussed on anything than their part in the unfolding 2019 championship narrative.
The 1000th race is only one of a 21-race season that will decide who take home the 2019 championship, and as the third round of the season, the form book is starting to take shape.
Without doubt Ferrari arrives in Shanghai under the most pressure, almost all of which Sebastian Vettel will bear. The German four-time champion has been the least competitive of the drivers at the top two teams and was thoroughly outclassed by teammate Charles Leclerc in Bahrain, where the Monegasque driver would’ve claimed his first win had a short-circuiting injection control system not dropped him to third.
Vettel has been keen to downplay the significance of Leclerc’s emphatic near-victory while he again spun off the track in the heat of wheel-to-wheel battle, but given Ferrari lacks the luxury of a points cushion over Mercedes — the team is 39 points behind Mercedes, and Leclerc and Vettel are 18 and 22 points respectively behind Valtteri Bottas — any advantage one driver steals over the other early could translate into the full backing of the team when the season comes to its crunch moment.
It’s therefore important for Vettel to strike back in China, but the form guide makes for mixed reading.
Ferrari has won the Chinese Grand Prix just once in the last decade and just four times in the event’s history. Vettel himself has been similarly luckless in Shanghai, claiming only five podiums, including his solitary victory — and that win came in 2009, well before the start of his 2010–13 championship streak.
But there is cause for optimism given the Shanghai International Circuit handsomely rewards engine power.
Its 1.2-kilometre back straight is one of the longest on the calendar and should hand the Scuderia and its class-leading power unit an edge over Mercedes, the Silver Arrows having estimated Ferrari had a half-second power advantage earnt exclusively along Bahrain’s three straights.
If that power advantage holds true this weekend, Mercedes will be forced to hope the balance issues that afflicted Ferrari in Melbourne return.
The first three rounds of the season are held at three distinctly different circuits, and only a weaker grasp of the new regulations or a poorer understanding of the car would be able to erode such a substantial Scuderia buffer — but the confident sounds the team made post Bahrain test suggest such an Australian-esque downturn will be unlikely.
So if Ferrari is set to finally deliver on its car’s potential this weekend, the only question is which driver will lead the team home. Both driver have something to prove, but the ramifications for coming second could be substantial.