The Chinese GP: F1’s most important race in half a decade?

Ferrari’s stunning performance in Chinese GP qualifying set new ground, ended streaks and had debate rising over whether the tide has turned in their battle with Mercedes. And here’s why it makes Sunday’s race, live and exclusive on Sky Sports F1, oh so crucial…

We’ve seen Ferrari lock out the front row before in this hybrid era. We’ve even seen them dominate Mercedes by more than half a second.

But this was different.

This wasn’t a high-downforce circuit, such as Monaco or Singapore, which favours Ferrari’s package and leaves Mercedes struggling.

Shanghai is as much a ‘Mercedes track’ as it gets in Formula 1, with the Silver Arrows claiming all six of the previous pole positions before Ferrari and Vettel ruthlessly ended the streak.

Which is what what made the Scuderia’s performance so impressive. Mercedes couldn’t fall back on the overheating problems they said hampered them in Bahrain; Ferrari romped qualifying here in conditions more befitting a gloomy Silverstone.

It was a display the Mercedes multi championship-winning class of 2014-2017 would have been proud of, and Sky F1’s Damon Hill even saw enough to proclaim that Saturday was the “turning point” in this top-two battle.

“It certainly does look like the tide has turned for the first time in a long time in this turbo-hybrid era,” the 1996 world champion explained.

“It’s like empires rising and falling and maybe Mercedes are on the wane and the new Ferrari era is about to come back.”

Full Chinese GP grid
‘Turning point in Ferrari-Merc battle’
Vettel: Ferrari pace ‘unbelievable’

And it’s why the Chinese GP is so crucial, perhaps the most important for the reigning world champions since their era of dominance began.

Could they recover from a Ferrari and Vettel victory on Sunday morning, their third in a row at the start of 2018?

Lose, and not only will Mercedes slip further behind their rivals in the constructors’ standings, but there will be hard evidence that they no longer boast F1’s strongest package – for the first time in five years.

Lose, and this would be their longest winless streak since 2013. It would be three Ferrari victories, on three different tracks – hot and cold, slow and fast – leaving Mercedes with little in terms of excuses.

Lose, and Lewis Hamilton will be left in a position he insisted he “couldn’t afford” to be in – giving up more ground to Vettel and leaving the German in an utterly dominant spot.

No driver has ever won the first three races, and not gone on to win that season’s title.

Can Ferrari convert pole into victory? Will Mercedes respond? It has the hallmarks of an epic race…

Why you cannot miss the Chinese GP

* Mercedes and Ferrari are starting on the same soft tyre and could therefore match each other’s one-stop strategies, with the prospect of a fascinating head-to-head battle for victory

* To add a further layer of intrigue, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, just behind Mercedes and on the third row of the grid, will start on the much faster but less durable ultrasoft compound. Red Bull should be lightning during their first stint, and could wreak havoc for their rivals.

* What’s more, all three teams were neck-and-neck when it came to the longer runs during practice, with only a couple of tenths between their race pace averages. In fact, it was Red Bull who appeared slightly ahead.

* The driver who has sealed pole at the Chinese GP has gone on to win nine of the 14 events, but that statistic is offset by the fact the race holds the record for the most amount of overtakes. With long straights and plenty of DRS zones, opportunities are there.

* Turn One should be epic. Drivers may be able to benefit from a tow down the start-finish straight, but will then be met by an almost endless right-hander, a gradually tightening spiral were their races could be made or ruined.

* The midfield battle is as tight as ever. Renault currently hold the cards when it comes to the fourth place battle, but Haas – and a recovering Force India – are primed to challenge. And don’t forget McLaren…

* Can McLaren make it three successive races with both cars in the points for the first time since 2011? Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne may struggle from 13th and 14th, but that hasn’t stopped them in previous races this year. It’s an under-performing Saturday package, but the MCL33 already boasts impressive race pace.

Watch the Chinese GP exclusively live on Sky Sports F1 this weekend. Lights out on Sunday morning at 7.10am. Get Sky Sports F1.

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