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Merc Power Rules Friday’s Practice Sessions in Shanghai

Friday practice in Shanghai has produced few surprises. For the most part, the usual suspect occupy the top third of the time sheets.  In both FP1 and FP2, McLaren and Mercedes occupied the top four slots on the time sheets.  Both teams are powered by the same engines, so this is probably an indication that the Mercedes is still the powerplant to beat.  Adrian Sutil, in the Mercedes-powered Force India, continued to shine, as well.  He was in the top ten in both sessions.

The Renault powered teams (Renault and Red Bull) seemed, on balance, to form the second tier in terms of sheer grunt.  Red Bull have obviously been doing very well with the Renault powerplants, and the Renault factory team (if you can still call it that, considering that the manufacturer has reduced its stake to about 20%) have made a significant leap this year, so clearly the Renault engines are strong performers.

The Ferrari powered cars are also in the mix, although the factory team, in what is becoming a Friday ritual, seemed focused on running with heavy fuel loads during both the morning and the afternoon sessions, working on their race setup, and saving most of their qualifying work for Saturday’s FP3.

Shanghai is a track that has three long straights that connect a series of Mickey Mouse infield turns (a Herman Tilke specialty), a layout that forces the teams to devise settings that find a compromise between low and high downforce.  Clearly McLaren have pioneered an ingenious solution to the problem with their F-duct device.

FIA regulations prohibit moveable rear wing elements, but the F-duct, which “stalls” downforce on the rear wing, is the next best thing.  The McLaren drivers are able to trim downforce on the straights, adding about 6 mph to their straight line speed. They can dial up the downforce level when they hit the infield turns.

As the McLaren was said to be hurting for downforce in early testing, this device will allow them to run the rear wing elements at a steeper angle without compromising their straight line speed.  At a track like Shanghai, this will prove very effective, and will help mask some of the other deficiencies of the McLaren.  Naturally, the other teams will be quick to follow suit, in order to prevent McLaren from having an edge at all the high speed venues on this year’s calendar.  Theoretically, the F-duct would give less of an advantage at high downforce circuits such as Monaco and Hungary.

Also noteworthy on Friday:  Fernando Alonso blew an engine in FP1.  This could be problematic for the Spaniard later in the season if he’s locked in a close title fight with championship rivals.  In FP2, Alonso’s car was outfitted with its third engine of the season, in only the fourth race.  Drivers are allotted a total of eight engines for the entire season of 19 races.  If they use more than their sanctioned allotment, they are penalized 10 starting grid positions in two races.

And Michael Schuamcher, while in the top four in both of Friday’s session, was again pipped by his team mate Nico Rosberg.  This situation must be getting frustrating for Schumacher.  While Schumi appeared to be quicker than Rosberg in pre-season testing, Rosberg has outpaced the German ace in practice, qualifying and on race day at all of the first three venues of the season.  The trend has continued on Friday at Shanghai.

The F1 cars of 2010, with narrower front tires and heavier fuel loads, are much more prone to understeer than the cars of previous years.  Schumacher is noted for liking a nervous setup (i.e. prone to oversteer) on his car, and has found it difficult to adjust his driving style accordingly.  Rosberg, on the other hand, finds understeer much more congenial to his natural style.  If there’s an irony here, it’s that 10 or 15 years ago, you never heard Schumacher complain about such issues.  Whatever the handling issues the car might have had, he always managed to find a way to drive around them.

Free Practice 1:

Free Practice 2:

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