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F1 faces a fresh challenge on return to China

FORMULA One returns to China for the first time since 2019 with even world champion Max Verstappen facing a new challenge at a circuit that provided his Red Bull team’s first Grand Prix victory 15 years ago.

The weekend will host the first sprint of the season, with only one hour of free practice on Friday to fine-tune the cars and do tyre assessments, and the teams have only simulator data to go on.

The last time they raced at the Shanghai International Circuit, the cars had 13-inch tyres and a flat floor instead of the current 18-inch Pirelli rubber and ground-effect aerodynamics.

The track has also seen little use since 2019 and could be bumpier than before.

“It’s going to be quite hectic anyway with the Sprint weekend,” said Verstappen after winning in Japan for his third victory in four races.

“So, yeah, only one practice session to really get into it again. So I think it will be quite interesting.”

The 26-year-old has been critical, with some others, of the decision to have a 100km Saturday sprint in China when there are so many unknowns.

“It would have been better to have a normal race weekend there. But on the other hand, it probably spices things up a bit more, and that’s maybe what they would like to see,” he said.

“We’ll see what we get there. I mean, I always loved driving there. So yeah, hopefully we can hit the ground running as well as we can, and hopefully we don’t need to fine-tune too many things on the car.”

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Verstappen has won three championships since he last raced in China and such is his domination that another victory on Sunday would mean the Dutch driver has won half of all the F1 races held since Shanghai’s last appearance on the calendar.

It would also be his first win in China, which was Lewis Hamilton territory until the COVID-19 pandemic brought down the shutters.

Mercedes’ seven times world champion has won a record six times in Shanghai but arrives this time on the brink of 50 successive races without standing on the top step of the podium.

Ferrari are likely to be Red Bull’s closest rivals, with Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc third and fourth behind Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez in Japan, and Mercedes beaten by McLaren and Aston Martin.

Verstappen is 13 points clear of Perez in the standings and 18 ahead of Leclerc with George Russell the highest placed Mercedes driver in seventh. Hamilton is ninth.

“The headline results didn’t necessarily show it, but we made solid progress with our car in Japan,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “We are looking forward to building on that this weekend.”

Zhou Guanyu will give the Chinese crowd a first chance to cheer one of their own with China’s first and only Formula One driver making his home debut with Sauber.

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The race is sold out, previously a rarity, and the excitement is mounting.

“F1 is definitely more popular than before. In the past, tickets may have been discounted towards race day, but this year, it was actually hard to get a ticket,” said local chemistry teacher and F1 fan Li Qixiang.

“Everyone told me there were no tickets available, so it’s definitely more popular than in the years prior to the pandemic. The main reason for this must have something to do with the fact that Zhou Guanyu is driving this year.”

By JOE CASH

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