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Next Event Starts in:
3hrs 24min - MotoGP Qualifying
Apr 19, 2024
Matthew Harper

The fourth grand prix of the season offered up an exciting mix of strategies and, thanks to F1’s calendar shuffle, gave us a real insight into how much teams have improved since the end of last season.

A Red Bull 1-2 may seem predictable but considering how much Perez struggled at Suzuka last year even this makes for an interesting story. Sergio Perez has spoken about a ‘back to basics’ approach to his driving this year and that certainly seems to be paying off. On the return to the race he called ‘the nadir of his season’ last year Perez qualified a mere 0.066 off Verstappen to start and finish comfortably in 2nd place.

A recurring problem for Ferrari over the last few seasons has been poor tyre wear. Their ability to heat up the tyres quickly helped them in qualifying but come race day they would often slip back down the order. Almost a year ago at the 2023 Spanish Grand Prix Sainz qualified 2nd before slipping back to 5th after a painful race of tyre management. However, there were no such problems for the SF-24 at Suzuka, a track which is notoriously hard on tyres. Charles Leclerc drove a brilliant first stint completing 26 laps on medium tyres before making his one and only stop as he recovered from 8th to an impressive 4th. Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz rounded off another impressive weekend for the Scuderia climbing from 7th to 3rd in the last 15 laps after a good strategy call gave him a huge tyre advantage for the closing stages of the race.  

Williams are having the worst start to the season imaginable. Not only do they leave Japan pointless but they suffered significant damage to both cars. After Albon’s huge shunt in Australia his chassis had to be sent back to the UK, repaired and then flown out to Japan. On Friday, Logan Sargeant crashed this same chassis in practice 1 causing enough damage that he wasn’t able to run in practice 2. Alex Albon meanwhile barely made turn 3 of the grand prix before Daniel Ricciardo squeezed him off the road and straight into the barriers. This has had a huge effect on the team costing them upwards of $2 million in repair and freight costs, to and from the two circuits furthest from the UK, as well as pushing back the introduction of a spare chassis which is now not due to be ready until round 6 in Miami.  

And lastly, the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix was only six and a half months ago which means this year's race gave us a rare insight into how much the teams have improved from the end of one season to the beginning of the next. Comparing each teams best qualifying lap from both weekends teams have, on average, improved just over a second in lap time.

To be fair, that is purely comparing qualifying pace. Aston Martin and Sauber have made the biggest gains of the 10 teams, with Sauber being an interesting, if not almost contradictory, case given their improvement yet still languishing at the back. Unsurprisingly, Alpine had one of the worst "year-over-year" improvements.

Qualifying pace clearly isn’t everything though as Mercedes have made a good step forward in terms of lap time (1.142 seconds a lap) but their starting positions were almost identical, qualifying 7th and 8th in 2023 and 7th and 9th in 2024. In the race they finished 5th and 7th in 2023 but only 7th and 9th in 2024. The team did feel they had underachieved and that actually the car was substantially better which the qualifying times year on year confirm.

Returning to China

Formula 1 returns to the Shanghai International Circuit for the first time since 2019 bringing with it a host of unknowns. Six of the current twenty drivers were not on the grid the last time China hosted a Grand Prix and the cars were driven by the powerful surface aerodynamics in the pre-ground effect rules cycle. The circuit itself has changed with a lot of work being done to bring the track surface back up to standard after five years away.

So who should you include in your team and who to avoid?

Drivers I’m Playing

Carlos Sainz - Sainz’s form has been sensational in 2024 and yet he’s still slightly cheaper than Leclerc. Ferrari seem a safe bet to be second fastest with a small chance they might be able to take the fight to Red Bull. Shanghai is hard on front tyres and can lead to graining. This is similar to the situation in Albert Park, Australia where Ferrari were genuinely in the hunt for pole and of course they finished that race first and second. 

Nico Hulkenberg - China hosts F1’s first sprint race of the year which could give a driver like Hulkenberg a good chance of points. The Haas has been better than expected this season and once again it’s Hulkenberg leading the charge, particularly in qualifying. 

If he can get into SQ3 then he might be able to hold on to a good result for the shortened sprint race.

Zhou Guanyu - Yes this is a fanciful perhaps even romantic pick but wouldn’t it be great if China’s first ever F1 driver could score a point at his home race, and why not? Sauber have looked decent and close to points a few times this season only for their hard work to be undone by some catastrophic pit stops. Unfortunately the team have admitted that the pit stop issues won’t be resolved for a few races yet but still Zhou will have the support of everyone in the grandstands and he’s the second cheapest driver in the game so definitely worth a punt!    

Drivers I’m Avoiding

Sergio Perez - Once again Perez is the highest priced driver on the grid and although his average points haul per race has been good it’s still lower than Verstappens. Perez has had a decent start to the season but Verstappen will always be a safer bet to guarantee a good result.

Lando Norris - Norris is currently the fifth most expensive driver in the game and deservedly so as he has been consistently excellent so far in 2024. However Mclaren have admitted that they aren’t getting as much of an advantage from DRS as other teams and at Shanghai it’s all about DRS. The huge 1.3km (0.8 miles) back straight into the tight hairpin of turn 14 is the most likely overtaking spot and there’s a real risk Mclaren could get left behind.

George Russell -  Russell has undoubtedly had a better start to the season than Mercedes teammate Hamilton but not by enough to justify the extra $4.8 million it will cost you to sign him. On top of this there’s still no guarantee of how quick Mercedes will actually be this weekend although the team felt optimistic by how they performed in Suzuka even if the results were disappointing.

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