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Chinese GP: F1 returns to Shanghai amid predictions of unpredictability on first Sprint weekend of 2024

Drivers, teams and pundits predict challenges and unpredictability as F1 returns to Shanghai's overtaking-friendly circuit; watch the first Chinese GP since 2019 - which hosts this year's first of six Sprints - live on Sky Sports F1 from Friday, with Sunday's race at 8am

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Watch back the moment that Max Verstappen locked up and knocked Sebastian Vettel into a spin at the hairpin during the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

The combination of F1's first Chinese GP in five years and the first Sprint weekend of the 2024 season is set to prove a "big challenge" and "spice up" the season's fifth race weekend, according to leading figures in the sport.

F1 is returning to the Shanghai International Circuit for the first time since 2019, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic, this weekend and a circuit that gained a reputation for producing exciting racing during its first 15-year stint on the calendar.

The sport's officials have also chosen China as the venue for the first of the year's six Sprint events, the weekends which feature a 100km race on the Saturday in addition to the usual Sunday Grand Prix. In addition to standalone qualifying sessions for both races, Sprint weekends significantly also just feature a single practice session instead of the usual three.

The majority of F1's 2024 grid have driven in Shanghai but not with the current generation of ground-effect cars or since the advent of the Sprint format which increases competitive track sessions and limits set-up time.

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The moment Sebastien Buemi had both his front tires explode off his Toro Rosso car during practice at the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix

Speaking after the last race in Japan, several leading drivers questioned the wisdom of staging the Sprint in China after such a long absence from the venue - but nonetheless agreed it was likely to make for an unpredictable weekend.

World championship leader Max Verstappen, a long-standing critic of the Sprint format generally, said of the China schedule: "I think it's not great, let's say like that, to do that.

"Because when you have been away from a track for quite a while, I think you never know what you're going to experience, right?

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"So 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."

The new schedule on Sprint weekends

Friday Practice One Sprint Qualifying
Saturday Sprint Qualifying
Sunday Grand Prix

His Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez concurred: "I just hope that there are no issues with the track, with any drain holes, any issues like that.

"That will just put us out of sync. But I think for the show, probably it's good. It's a good thing. But I think from the preparation side, it's going to be definitely one that is going to be really hard because, I mean, I've never raced there, for example, with Red Bull so it's going to be quite a lot to do in a single practice."

Ferrari's Carlos Sainz said that on the one hand it "makes sense" to hold a Sprint weekend in Shanghai given it is a "great racing track" that "offers a good possibility to overtake".

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A quick look back at some of the biggest moments from the Chinese Grand Prix over the years...

But on the other, Sainz added: "At the same time, it's what we said in the drivers' briefing, we say to FIA and Formula 1, with these kind of cars to go to a track with one hour of practice and straight into qualifying, with the regulations that they put us, with the plank wear and things like this, and how tricky one bump could make the car, I think it's not a good choice to choose to put the Sprint after four or five years absence.

"We also heard there's been resurfacing going on, so Istanbul 2.0 maybe on the cards! Yeah, I hope not. So yeah, it just shows the uncertainty. Maybe for you guys at home it's exciting, but for engineers and drivers, it's something that for me, in my opinion, we shouldn't take the risk and have a normal weekend."

'We want them going into the unknown'

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Speaking on the Sky Sports F1 podcast, Martin Brundle explains the challenges that Mercedes are facing, insisting the situation is 'very worrying'

Speaking on the latest Sky Sports F1 podcast, Martin Brundle and Karun Chandhok had their say on the challenge of holding a Sprint in China and whether the drivers debating its wisdom had a point:

Martin Brundle: "They know their way around there, the simulators are pretty good and pretty realistic and they will have all been working hard on those.

"So they will turn up pretty well prepared, the cars won't be a million miles off on set-up, and they'll just get on with it.

"It's an extra challenge but I don't see it as a factor, personally."

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Speaking on the Sky F1 Podcast, Martin Brundle discusses the current pecking order in the 2024 Formula 1 season

Karun Chandhok: "If I was a driver or a team member, I'd hate it! But now on the other side of the fence we are now, I think it's great.

"We want them going into the unknown. We want them to go into that Friday evening qualifying for the Sprint not knowing 100 per cent of the set-up is right.

"And, guess what, with the change of the format from last year to this year in terms of the order of the sessions, it means that they'll have the opportunity to change the car and change the set-up.

"So you'll get two bites of the cherry and actually they don't just go into parc ferme after FP1, which is an important change. So I think it's fine, it's going to be a fun weekend to watch."

Who won on F1's last visits to China?

Year Winning driver and team
2019 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
2018 Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull
2017 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
2016 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes
2015 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

How are teams preparing for 2024's first Sprint weekend?

In the latest change to the schedule and rules around Sprints since the format was introduced in 2021 at select events, those six weekends in 2024 will now run in a more chronological order.

Sprint Qualifying and then the Sprint itself will take place before the corresponding sessions for the main Grand Prix.

Image: The last F1 race start in China back in 2019

Another significant change is that teams are now able to make changes to their cars after the Sprint and before qualifying for the Grand Prix, whereas previously they could not make any changes beyond opening practice.

Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes' trackside engineering director, says the Brackley team - who dominated at Shanghai when F1 last raced there, winning six of the final eight grands prix - are going through lots of past Chinese GP data to help them prepare for the race's return.

"It's a good challenge that because not just have we not been there for a while, we're straight into a sprint race and it's also the new format where you've got two parc fermes, so a sprint qualifying and a sprint race, then an opportunity to change the car and then the main qualifying and the main race," explained Shovlin.

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Speaking on the Sky Sports F1 podcast, Martin Brundle explains the challenges that Mercedes are facing, insisting the situation is 'very worrying'

"But we're reviewing the historical data, now we've not been there with this generation of cars so the tyres are different, the aerodynamics is very different, there's a lot of work that we need to do and the bulk of that work gets done in simulation, but there is also a bit of just re-reading old notes, looking at how the tyres were performing in terms of tyre wear, what was driving degradation to try and build that picture.

"But we've only got one hour of free practice before we're going straight into that qualifying session so definitely a big challenge, but it's quite fun and there's good motivation to work on it because if you can get it right, the opportunities at a sprint race are always greater because someone else may have got it wrong."

Sky Sports F1's live Chinese GP schedule

China schedule

Thursday April 18
5.30am: Drivers' press conference

Friday April 19
4am: Chinese GP Practice One (session starts at 4.30am)*
8am: Chinese GP Sprint Qualifying (session starts at 8.30am)*

Saturday April 20
3.30am: Chinese GP Sprint (race starts at 4am)*
7am: Chinese GP Qualifying build-up*
8am: Chinese GP Qualifying*
10am: Ted's Qualifying Notebook*

Sunday April 21
7am: Grand Prix Sunday: Chinese GP build-up*
10am: Chequered Flag: Chinese GP reaction*
11am: Ted's Notebook*

*also live on Sky Sports Main Event

Next up is the return of the Chinese Grand Prix on April 19-21, which is also the first Sprint weekend of the season. You can watch every session live on Sky Sports F1 and steam every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership - No contract, cancel anytime

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