In contrast to the Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks’ ago, the Chinese Grand Prix and the Shanghai International Circuit posed another fresh challenge to (most of) Formula 1‘s 2019 rookie contingent, and threw up all sorts of thrills along the way.
The Bahrain International Circuit is a relative comfort zone at the start of a debut F1 season, with the Sakhir track a staple of the GP2 Series/FIA Formula 2 Championship calendar – a level that all four rookies have competed in on their way to motorsport’s top tier.
With Shanghai’s tyre-eating tarmac and numerous, almost perpetual, turns that require a wonderfully delicate touch on the brake and throttle pedals in tandem – China can be an eye-opening experience for those lacking in experience. Just ask Antonio Giovinazzi – who still features on this list – after his troubles in his final race of two in 2017.
Yet China saw a maiden points finish for Scuderia Toro Rosso‘s Alexander Albon, after a crunching start to his Saturday, which will hold the Thai/British driver in good stead when compared to the more seasoned name of team-mate Daniil Kvyat – who endured a tough weekend.
But, alongside Albon, how did the rest of them fare?
ALEXANDER ALBON | SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO
QUALIFYING: TWENTIETH – NO TIME | RACE: TENTH (1 POINT)
Come the end of Free Practice 3 on Saturday morning, Albon’s weekend looked to be in tatters. Toro Rosso had been reasonably optimistic in the points-scoring capability of the STR14 and had hoped to sneak at least one car into Qualifying 3; team boss Franz Tost even regards Faenza’s latest export as one of Toro Rosso’s finest to date.
In his own words, Albon was simply too “greedy” on the exit of Turn 16 and collided with the barriers in a big way, destroying the left-hand side of the car. Three days prior to his shunt, Albon said that Tost had urged him to forget the pressures of a debut F1 season – recalling that the Austrian passed on his motto of “just don’t care” to him. However, after seeing the damage induced a momentary lapse of control and traction, the feeling is that that may need a slight revision.
Engine supplier Honda was forced to fly the power unit back to its R&D facility in Sakura, in order to inspect any negative effects on the complex. With a complete chassis rebuild and new PU needed, Albon was forced to sit out of a qualifying session that brought little joy for Toro Rosso – Kvyat narrowly missed out on a top 10 spot in eleventh.
Allowed to race at the discretion of the stewards, Albon started from the pitlane and produced a stellar fightback that was, unfortunately, largely missed by the television cameras. Passing the wounded McLaren F1 Team duo of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr. and team-mate Kvyat was simple for the 23-year-old. You could probably lump Robert Kubica and George Russell in that category too, through no fault of their own. But two moves on Giovinazzi either side of his pitstop and a Daniel Ricciardo-esque pass on Kevin Magnussen at Turn 6 on lap 31 of 56 would have pleased Toro Rosso, and maybe senior side Red Bull Racing, immeasurably. In the face of leading traffic in the late stages of the race, Albon did well to hold off Magnussen’s Haas F1 Team colleague Romain Grosjean to hold on to a deserved tenth place.
In F1’s 1000th world championship event, London-born Albon’s score marked the first points finish for a Thai driver since Prince Bira of Siam at the 1954 French Grand Prix. He even did it while wearing a one-off helmet inspired by his compatriot. What a Thai-in.
ANTONIO GIOVINAZZI | ALFA ROMEO RACING
QUALIFYING: NINTEENTH – NO TIME | RACE: FIFTEENTH
Another testing weekend for the frustrated Italian, just as he had hoped to banish the demons of 2017. Make no mistake about it, Giovinazzi is a talented driver. He took the 2016 GP2 championship down to the wire against the deservedly well-rated Pierre Gasly and performed competently on a few hours’ notice at the 2017 Australian Grand Prix deputising for the injured Pascal Wehrlein. Partner that with appearances in the DTM and a World Endurance Championship rookie test for factory Audi Sport outfits, the Scuderia Ferrari junior is no ‘also-ran’.
However, the Pugliese has suffered some abysmal luck and been subject to some questionable strategic choices from Alfa Romeo Racing in his first three grands prix with the Italian team. The streak continued in Shanghai, denied any Free Practice 1 running by an incorrectly installed power unit.
In addition to more Friday Alfa woes, Giovinazzi was denied a fast lap in qualifying by another power unit problem, believed to be similar to the one that robbed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc of a maiden F1 victory two weeks’ before in Bahrain.
Team principal Frédéric Vasseur took the brunt of the blame, saying that Ferrari had advised Alfa Romeo to fit its new-spec control electronics unit but the team decided against it, due to time constraints.
“We have apologised to Antonio, and it’s 100% my fault,” Vasseur told Motorsport.com.
“I assume 100% of the responsibility because Ferrari proposed to us to change it.
“It’s always easy afterwards to say it could have been better, but we also knew coming to China and doing the new installation was also risky.
“We are 200% supportive with Antonio. I know what he is able to do, I know what he did before, I saw every single day what he is able to do.
“It’s not obvious so far on the timekeeping, but I’m sure that he will show it as soon as possible.”
In the race, Giovinazzi was placed on an aggressive two-stop strategy that failed to work, leaving him still searching for a first F1 point. The highlight of the 25-year-old’s race came in the closing stages, enjoying a gripping battle with Sainz Jr. for a lowly fourteenth place and – despite losing the place through DRS – it gave another glimpse of his defensive abilities, first shown in Australia.
He’ll hope that he can rekindle the flame he lit in the ‘City of Fire’, Baku, in 2016 – when he took an impressive double victory during GP2’s first weekend in the Azeri capital.
GEORGE RUSSELL | WILLIAMS RACING
QUALIFYING: SEVENTEENTH | RACE: SIXTEENTH
Russell has said repeatedly said that his parent team Mercedes AMG Motorsport knows what he can do and this year will have little impact on his standing among its hierarchy. Pinned down by a sub-optimal Williams Racing package, 2018 F2 champion Russell has been performing well alongside Kubica – who, while still extremely talented, is a bit of an unknown quantity.
China was much of the same for the man who set the fastest time of the post-Bahrain test for Mercedes, sitting ahead of Kubica and enduring a quiet race. It is tough to see two very talented drivers struggle to make it past the back row of the grid; this weekend they were spared the ignominy by Albon and Giovinazzi’s no-shows in qualifying.
However, he showed some optimism and positivity after the race, believing that the Williams’ showed good race pace at the start, managing to keep in touch with the back of the midfield pack – which is notorious for being a free-for-all up to the fringes of the top six.
Williams had hoped to pull off a one-stop strategy, but struggled for tyre life. This is to be expected from a car that has understeer one moment and hideous oversteer the next, something that Kubica complained about after his first run in qualifying. As well as in the first two races. The Pole even said that spinning on the formation lap was the “most exciting moment of the race” for him.
The car cannot even be salvaged by Mercedes-Benz power anymore, Russell and Kubica languishing sixteenth and nineteenth in the speed traps on Saturday. A difficult situation looks to have no end in sight for the time being, so quiet consistency is key for the 21-year-old.
LANDO NORRIS | MCLAREN F1 TEAM
QUALIFYING: FIFTEENTH | RACE: DNF
After the heights of his own Bahrain night, China brought Norris crashing back down to Earth with a bump – literally. Qualifying last of the Qualifying 2 runners, Norris was caught up in a first-lap collision with team-mate Sainz Jr. and Toro Rosso’s Kvyat – launching him into the air briefly. Fortuitously, the Brit suffered no major suspension damage, but could not recover his race after a needed stop for repairs and apparent floor damage. McLaren ended his day early with seven laps to go in the pits.
It marks Norris’s first retirement in F1, and he expressed an annoyance in his forced inability to add to the points total he started in Bahrain.
“I didn’t have great pace afterwards due to floor damage but Carlos’s pace looked very good,” Norris said.
“The top-three teams aside, he looked to be the best of everyone else. So there was potential in the car today but the contact ruined it.”
Nevertheless, F1’s resident meme king kept his – and his fans’ – spirits up with a run of Instagram posts. And he took enjoyment from finding fresh milk in Shanghai, so it wasn’t a totally wasted venture for the Bristolian.