Daniel Ricciardo’s future one of many compelling storylines ahead of F1 Chinese GP

My how the world has changed, both inside Formula 1 and outside of hte sport, since April of 2019.

This week marks the return of the Chinese Grand Prix, last held in 2019. The last time the grid arrived at Shanghai International Circuit there was a familiar name atop the Drivers’ Championship standings, but perhaps one my might not expect given recent developments.

Valtteri Bottas.

That’s right, when the grid arrived for the 2019 Chinese Grand Prix it was Bottas atop the Drivers’ Championship, one point ahead of his Mercedes teammate, Lewis Hamilton.

That is not the only major difference between F1 in 2019 and F1 today. Sebastian Vettel was still on the grid, driving alongside Charles Leclerc at Ferrari. Daniel Ricciardo was in his first season at Renault — now Alpine — as Nico Hülkenberg’s teammate. Ricciardo had announced the prior summer that he was leaving Red Bull, and the driver who took his spot next to Max Verstappen? Pierre Gasly.

Some other notable facts from that race? Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr. were teammates at McLaren, Fernando Alonso was in the middle of two years away from the sport while Kimi Räikkönen was driving for Alfa Romeo, and the race saw a Mercedes front-row lockout, with Hamilton finishing ahead of Bottas.

Verstappen finished fourth, still chasing the sixth win of his career. He enters the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix sitting on 57 victories.

And very few had ever heard of COVID-19.

Here are some of the other major storylines facing F1 as the grid heads back to China.

F1 Grand Prix of Japan

Photo by Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images

The fascinating driver transfer market

F1 played another round of “Driver Musical Chairs” last week.

When the music stopped, Fernando Alonso was sitting in a familar seat, after a move that could ripple beyond his current team.

Alonso and Aston Martin announced late last week that the driver had reached agreement on a new “multi-year” deal to remain with Aston Martin for 2025 and beyond. The decision removes one of the more intriguing options from the list of free agent drivers for 2025, and also eliminates a potential landing spot for Carlos Sainz Jr., who has gotten off to a tremendous start this year with three podiums in three races (Sainz missed the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix following an emergency appendectomy).

Following Alonso’s decision, rumors about Sainz’s next seat kicked into overdrive. Lawrence Barretto of F1TV reported that Sainz was still in play for perhaps a seat at Sauber, before the team becomes the Audi works team in 2026, and a potential return to Red Bull. However, Barretto also mentioned Williams as a potential landing spot for the current Ferrari driver, who will see Lewis Hamilton take his current seat next year.

Then late last week, reports from Italian media outlets surfaced that Sainz had been offered a deal by Mercedes to take Hamilton’s current seat, and drive alongside George Russell for at least 2025. There are reports of Sainz seeking a two-year deal at Mercedes, while the team is looking for a “one-plus-one” deal for Sainz, giving them the option to perhaps promote phenom Andrea Kimi Antonelli to Mercedes for 2026.

Whether those reports are true or not remains to be seen, but the driver transfer market will remain a storyline deep into this season, and perhaps even into next at this rate.

Zhou Guanyu’s first F1 race at home

Another difference between the 2019 Chinese Grand Prix and this year’s?

Zhou Guanyu was driving in F2 that year.

This weekend marks the first home race for the lone Chinese driver on the grid, as Zhou now gets to race in front of a hometown crowd.

As you might expect, he is hoping to put in a good performance in front of his supporters.

“While this is definitely not the start of the year that I hoped for, we keep working hard as we know things will improve: our overall pace looked good, and my focus now is on the preparation for my first home Grand Prix,” said Zhou following the Japanese Grand Prix. “With the team trackside and back at the factory, we’ll investigation our issues and work on them to be in a better position, so I’ll be fighting for points at home in China — in Saturday’s Sprint Race as well as the Race on Sunday.”

First sprint race of 2024

That is a perfect segue to the next talking point this week.

The season’s first Sprint Race.

This year will see six Sprint dates on the F1 calendar, including Miami at the start of May, the Austrian Grand Prix in late June, the United States Grand Prix in October, the São Paulo Grand Prix in November, and the Qatar Grand Prix later that month.

But the Chinese Grand Prix kicks them all off this weekend.

In addition, F1 has tweaked the Sprint Race format this season. On Sprint Races last weekend there was a single practice session on Friday, followed by qualifying for the Sunday Grand Prix later that day. Saturday brought the “Sprint Saturday” format, with a dedicated qualifying session for the Sprint Race followed by the Sprint Race itself.

This year there will still be the first practice session on Friday, followed by qualifying for the Sprint Race later that day. Saturday will begin with the Sprint Race, followed by qualifying for Sunday’s Grand Prix.

In addition, parc ferme rules have been tweaked this season for Sprint Weekends. Following qualifying on Friday for the Sprint Race, the cars will be under parc ferme conditions until the Sprint Race is concluded. After that, the teams are free to make any adjustments for qualifying for the Grand Prix.

This may allow teams to avoid what happened at the United States Grand Prix, when both Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc were disqualified — losing out on podium finishes — when a post-race inspection noted excessive wear on each of their planks under their cars.

Why McLaren might be on the back foot this weekend

Unlike last year, McLaren has enjoyed a tremendous start to the 2024 season. The team is coming off four-straight races where both Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri finished in the points, and the team heads to China sitting third in the Constructors’ Championship, 35 points clear of fourth-place Mercedes.

However, replicating that success in Shanghai may be a tall order.

While the MCL38 has picked off where its predecessor finished the season, seeing McLaren on the front foot the first four races of the season, the Chinese Grand Prix might be a matter of “damage limitation” for the team. Why? It starts with the layout of Shanghai International Circuit:

Screenshot 2024 04 14 at 2.27.27 PM

Here is a look at the circuit, courtesy of F1.com. Look initially at the first sector, highlighted in red above. Those low-speed corners may prove difficult for the MCL38, as slower-speed corners have not been McLaren’s strength this year.

While they may find some fertile ground in the quicker second sector, the third sector — highlighted in yellow — offers up even more slow-speed corners.

And with this being a Sprint Race weekend, McLaren will not have a ton of time to figure things out before the lap times count for real.

“The difficulties in China definitely will be associated with not having been there for a long time,” stated Team Principal Andrea Stella at the Japanese Grand Prix. “Difficulties can also be seen from the opportunity side because everyone will have difficulties which means like you can get an advantage. I think where I’m a little more prudent about China is that there’s so much low speed and so many hairpins that definitely should not be the best track for us at this stage of the season.”

“So, I think China may be a bit of a damage limitation for us and then from Miami onward, hopefully we start kind of a better stage of this 2024 season and more to come in the second part of the season,” Stella continued.

How McLaren handles this weekend — and whether they can find a way to picking up some points on a track not catered to their strengths — will be a huge storyline to watch.

F1 Grand Prix of Japan

Photo by Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images

Daniel Ricciardo under pressure

Could Shanghai truly be the end of the line for Daniel Ricciardo at Visa Cash App RB F1 Team?

It sound preposterous, but then again Red Bull has not been known for its patience with drivers, even veterans like Ricciardo. With a number of drivers in their organization eying spots on the grid — such as Liam Lawson — and some decisions to be made over the course of this season into next, Ricciardo is certainly a driver who needs a good performance or two to feel better about his standing on the grid.

In fact, at the end of March reports surfaced that if Ricciardo failed to improve on his form over the upcoming two races (Japan and China) then there was a possibility that Lawson could be in his seat for the Miami Grand Prix. While subsequent reporting dismissed those rumors, Ricciardo arrived at Suzuka clearly under pressure to improve.

He did not finish a lap.

Now all of these reports could be wildy premature, and while they make for compelling reading they could be well off the mark. But with Lawson looming in the garage (again, partake in the Underground F1 “drink every time the camera cuts to Lawson after a Ricciardo mistake” game at your own risk), the clock could truly be ticking on Ricciardo’s time at VCARB.

Meaning he might want to be on the front foot in China.

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