SHANGHAI, China -- The Chinese Grand Prix looks like a clear one-stopper but there are still some unknowns going into the race. For the first time since the paddock assembled on Thursday, sunshine is forecast all day on Sunday and track temperatures will be much higher than they were in qualifying. That should help Mercedes, which struggled to get its tyres up to temperature over one lap, but also means the extent to which the tyres degrade is something of unknown.
According to Friday practice data from Formula One, Mercedes was 0.5s per lap quicker than Red Bull on race pace and 0.9s quicker than Ferrari. But those figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. On Friday the main issue was graining on the front left tyre, which was brought about by the cold track conditions, but with the sun beating down on race day that should be less of an issue. Instead, thermal degradation will be the thing to watch out for, especially on the front left, which takes a lot of the strain through Shanghai's three sweeping right handers at Turns 1, 8 and 13.
Pirelli predicts a strategy of ultra-soft, medium will be the quickest one-stop to the flag, but there are plenty others within the paddock who believe soft, ultra-soft will be the optimum strategy. The top four drivers are starting on the soft tyre, so if you see them continue beyond lap 23 without pitting, it's likely they are trying to make the soft tyre last until around lap 29 with a 27-lap stint on the ultra-softs to the flag. That might sound like a lot for the softest compound, but with the track rubbered in by 30-odd laps of racing and lower fuel loads in the second half of the race it should be possible.
After being outperformed on Saturday, Mercedes will be on the attack from third and fourth on the grid and may decide to go aggressive with one of its cars on a two-stop strategy. A pit stop usually costs a lengthily 27 seconds, which may discourage a two-stop, but switching from the softs to the ultra-softs early could provide a powerful undercut that would allow Mercedes to gain track position when Ferrari makes its planned single stop. With one car on a one-stop and one car on a two-stop, the world champions could regain some control over the race if they are still stuck behind the Ferraris at the end of the first lap.
"The funny bit of being outperformed on Saturday is that you are the lion that's just waiting to jump on the prey," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said on Saturday evening. "Being behind opens up opportunities. For a change, if you compare to Bahrain, we have two cars [in the fight]. So there are several possibilities, there is splitting the strategies or just the undercut or overcut, lots of possible plays."
Keep an eye out for the Red Bulls too, which will start on the ultra-soft compound and should have a significant traction advantage off the line. Max Verstappen's long-run pace on the ultra-softs looked good on Friday and both he and Daniel Ricciardo won't by shy about attacking the cars in front if they get an opportunity.
"Obviously us having the ultra-soft, if we make a clean launch, I think we can try and get at least one spot, just on pure performance," Ricciardo said of the start. "Hopefully the run to Turn 1 is short enough that the power [of the Ferrari and Mercedes engines] doesn't compromise the good start we could have.
"If we undercut them [on a one-stop] it means a very long stint on the second tyre and I'm not sure we could A make it last or B hold them off that whole time trying to manage the tyres. I think a two-stop would be more aggressive, and aggressive is always more fun so that would be the plan A for now."
After two tight races between Mercedes and Ferrari so far this year, we could be set for a three-way battle in Shanghai.