China Practices 1 & 2: The Smog/Cloud Problem

Practices 1& 2: Warning! Clouded Predictions Ahead

Before we continue, I did say in my review of Australia’s Grand Prix that I would focus primarily on the races throughout this season, with small mentions of qualifying and practice. But this week is an exception: there is big news. It is important to note that this post is being written “live” after the events of Friday practice and so the reactions I have are more in the moment to the ones I will make post-race on Sunday. But, as many people know, Practice 1 and 2 were hugely disrupted this weekend in China. What is being described as “low cloud cover and smog” rolled in across the circuit in both sessions: meaning that the medical helicopter, should it have been required, would not have been able to take off due to poor visibility. This huge safety problem meant that only 10 minutes were run in practice 1 and no running AT ALL occurred in practice 2. The problem this has caused for the teams and F1 in general is two-fold: firstly there has been limited prep time to get used to the conditions of the circuit this weekend and secondly there is still genuine fear that the race, which may yet run in similar conditions to what we experienced on Friday, will be halted completely. This is such a concern that Lewis Hamilton is leading calls for a revised programme to the weekend. Lewis, along with everyone, understands that there are severe logistical issues in getting the F1 circus to Bahrain which mean that the weekend cannot be extended to host the race on Monday. Hamilton showed immense gratitude to his fans by crossing the track in a stagnant FP2 before signing and throwing Mercedes caps into the grandstand. In an extension of those feelings, his ideas are based on giving the fans back the track time they paid for and also to ensure safety and reliability on the cars in the race. His suggestions below are doable as well as being based on sound reasoning.Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 17.22.45 (1).jpgI do not expect Hamilton’s clever suggestion to be taken up by the powers that be; what that might mean for the qualifying and the race I will explore now but the problems are very literally up in the air as I write. What Hamilton’s suggestion mainly offers is for teams to salvage their preparation work; because as we stand all the data and highly tuned set up work they need to complete must be rammed in to the one session of practice 3. It does not take a genius to suggest that this lack of prep time could provide a very erratic performance from teams on both Saturday and Sunday.  We might even see teams sacrifice their work on qualifying pace in Practice 3 for race pace, or perhaps vice-versa. Whichever way you look at it, the teams are now HUGELY against the clock and any performance gains they can make in practice 3 will be utterly vital. The stoppages might just mean that those teams who are usually at a disadvantage might only see their deficit heightened as the richer teams can throw more predictive analysis at their drivers and cars. But at the furthest reaches of possibility we could see teams who are expected to be off the pace such as Sauber or McLaren make huge gains on teams if they play their cards right and fast, this could create a mixed up grid. It is also expected to rain this weekend (YES!) and that, along with early season unreliability woes might also bring the teams closer. Hamilton could indeed be right that “this could actually be a blessing in disguise” but maybe not in the way he imagined. Whisper this quietly, but maybe just maybe we might find out that giving the teams less time to prepare their cars and drivers makes for a more exciting, less predictable, race? Maybe if we have a great manic race this Sunday, China 2017 could be remembered as an important discovery into creating more exciting racing and a better F1.

Steel Cities in China's Hebei Province
Handan City, Hebei Province. Air pollution has become one of the most severe problems in modern China.

But one thing is certain, if the main cause of the terrible visibility IS smog, then you would be forgiven for asking wider questions about China’s ability to host a GP going forward. Now, I am just an F1 fan and not a politician: I know pretty much next to nothing regarding China’s industry policies or the expected levels of pollution in their atmosphere going forward into the future. All I know, through some light digging, is that their 2008 Olympic Games were marred by smog issues too. It has also been a concern for F1 in Shanghai before, though as far as I can remember never on this scale or level of influence. With Liberty Media new in town, might the organisers have to prove to them that this will not happen again? This Friday was obviously damaging to the F1 brand and that will concern the bosses in the future. But for now in this weekend, the teams literally and figuratively cannot see what is ahead. Neither can I, so my rambling here joins to a close: what this all means will come clear and the developments of the fallout of the smog stoppages will colour my race-review on Sunday. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy the rest of the Grand Prix weekend after the “aborted start” this Friday.

Hope to see you on Sunday,

J

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