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Chinese GP: Max Verstappen predicts 'chaos' amid Shanghai International Circuit 'painted' track mystery

F1 returns to China for the first time since 2019 and it's also the first Sprint weekend of the season; watch Sprint Qualifying on Friday at 8.30am, with the Sprint on Saturday at 4am and the Chinese GP itself at 8am on Sunday - live on Sky Sports F1

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Red Bull's Max Verstappen says the Chinese Grand Prix is an 'unknown' to them and added they are unsure how the car will perform over the weekend.

Max Verstappen says he is expecting "chaos" when the cars hit the track on Friday on Formula 1's return to China after a five-year absence.

The sport's latest generation of cars have not been tested at the Shanghai International Circuit, while the fact that the Chinese Grand Prix is the first Sprint weekend of the 2024 season adds further uncertainty with just one 60-minute practice session before Friday's Sprint Qualifying session, live on Sky Sports at 8.30am.

Most drivers walked the track on Thursday and noticed what appeared to be a newly painted, rather than resurfaced, circuit. However, the track has in fact been given a bitumen surface treatment, which sees the substance laid down on the track in fluid form, with its purpose to prevent disintegration and eliminate dust.

"With the new cars, it will be a bit of an unknown. From the track side, it looks like they have repainted it, rather than resurfaced it," said Verstappen, who leads the Drivers' Championship by 13 points from Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

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Ted Kravitz gives us a first look at the paddock as the Chinese Grand Prix returns to Formula One for the first time since 2019.

"I don't know what that does to the grip of the track, so that's something we have to get on top of. It's the same for everybody but we just have to have a good FP1 and hopefully we don't have to finetune too much with the car. That will help hit the ground running for the rest of the weekend."

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Formula 1 is back in China for the first time in five years this weekend and with it, the first sprint race of the season - can we expect a Shanghai surprise?

Verstappen has begun his quest for a fourth successive drivers' title with three wins from the opening four races, with his latest dominant victory streak only ended by a brake failure that forced him out of the Australian Grand Prix.

Although he largely successfully navigated his way through last year's Sprint weekends during a historically dominant campaign, the Dutchman is wary of the jeopardy provided the format's first appearance of 2024.

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SHANGHAI INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT, CHINA - APRIL 18: Circuit detail and Aramco trackside branding during the Chinese GP at Shanghai International Circuit on Thursday April 18, 2024 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Steven Tee / LAT Images)
Image: The Shanghai International Circuit has been given a bitumen surface treatment

"I think overall with the Sprint it's always a bit more of a question mark and always a bit more chaos involved, which I guess in a way is a good thing for F1," said Verstappen.

"From my side at the moment it's just quite unknown. We haven't driven here with these new cars so I don't really know how we are going to perform here. Time will tell and I'm not too worried about it."

There has been a tweak to the weekend format, with the Sprint Qualifying that used to take place on Saturday morning now on Friday, with the Sprint itself the first action on Saturday, before normal Qualifying for the Grand Prix.

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Everything you need to know about F1's new Sprint format for six races in 2024.

The new format has enabled the creation of two separate sets of parc ferme restrictions, which means teams will be able to change the setups of the cars after the Sprint race and before Qualifying on a Saturday, which wasn't the case previously.

Verstappen, who has repeatedly criticised Sprint weekends in the past, added: "The new format makes more sense. The most annoying thing about it before is after FP1, you could go into qualifying and if you didn't nail the setup, you were stuck with it for the rest of the weekend.

"That can really hurt your weekend and now we have another opportunity to make it perfect and I think that's better for racing overall."

Leclerc: Ferrari should be closer to Red Bull

Despite the wriggle room added in by the updated format, quickly landing on a strong car setup will remain crucial to having strong Sprint weekends.

Red Bull's nearest challengers are once more expected to be Ferrari, who backed up their one-two in Australia by having Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc finish third and fourth, respectively, behind Verstappen and Perez in Japan.

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Max Verstappen is back to winning ways in Japan, while Sergio Perez makes it a Red Bull 1-2 and Carlos Sainz beats Charles Leclerc to third.

Ferrari have improved their tyre wear significantly over the last six months and the unpredictable factors in Shanghai could play into their hands, which Verstappen is aware of.

"Overall, so far they've been really close to us at most of the races," he said. "We really need to be on top of our own game to be able to win the races and I definitely think it's closer than last year, and of course that naturally makes it a bit harder."

Although Ferrari have no major upgrades for this weekend, Leclerc is confident of pushing Red Bull in both the Sprint and the Chinese Grand Prix.

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Ferrari's Charles Leclerc says Carlos Sainz has been doing a better job this season and admitted he'd been struggling more than his team-mate.

"I think in the race we will be closer yes. But let's see. It's been a very long time since we drove here," he said.

"I saw the track was painted or there was something strange on it, so we will have to see how our car behaves on that and what the main limitations are in the race but on paper I think we should be closer to them."

Leclerc has finished behind Sainz in all three of the races they have both featured in this season, but it's during Qualifying where the Monegasque is most focused on improving his performance.

"I think the level of confidence is quite stable since the beginning of the season," he added. "On paper, I think it's a track where we could be a bit stronger compared to Suzuka but we will just approach it the same way.

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Watch back the moment that Max Verstappen locked up and rammed into Sebastian Vettel on the hairpin during the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix.

"I still think that Red Bull will have the upper hand this weekend and we will just have to focus on ourselves because it can be very easy, as we have seen, especially in qualifying in Suzuka where I didn't do a good job on the Saturday.

"So it's going to be very important, especially with a Sprint weekend, we have got two qualifying sessions this weekend to extract the maximum out of the car in qualifying. Then in the race, I think we are quite strong this year."

Will Mercedes leapfrog McLaren?

McLaren were able to push Ferrari close in the battle behind the Red Bulls in Japan, but a different style of circuit in Shanghai could potentially alter the pecking order.

Mercedes have endured a dismal start to their campaign, taking just 34 points from the opening four races to trail Red Bull by 107 points, with McLaren 35 points ahead in third.

Lewis Hamilton confirmed that there will be no significant upgrades to the W15, Mercedes appear to be hopeful that data gathered in Japan and a more favourable circuit could help the Silver Arrows take a step forward.

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Lewis Hamilton says Mercedes are bringing learnings to the Chinese GP, while George Russell added the team is not satisfied with their start to the season and can only focus on improvements.

"Nothing's changed with our car, so it's going to be the same car this weekend," Hamilton said. "But we understand it a little bit more. On the last weekend, we did make improvements and so [we're] bringing some of those learnings into this weekend and then, on top of that, some new direction again.

"I think if we could go back we would have done things differently. That's the benefit of hindsight and experience. So we're trying to bring that here this weekend and see if we can implement some of those changes we would have perhaps done further in Suzuka, and hopefully that can find us a bit of performance."

Hamilton's team-mate George Russell offered a more optimistic outlook, suggesting that more low-speed corners could help Mercedes to overturn what has been, more often than not, a deficit to McLaren during the opening rounds of the season.

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We return to China 2017 as Lewis Hamilton dominates in the Mercedes ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.

"We're in a battle of fine margins right now and I think we've been on the wrong end of that for the past two race weekends at two circuits that I don't think really suit characteristics of our car," Russell said.

"So I think this will be a really good test this weekend to see where we fall out, let's say compared with McLaren as well. They seem to be exceptionally strong in the high-speed corners and a bit weak in the low-speed corners. I think there is a lot more potential to be shown. I don't think we have optimised car and its setup at the last couple of races, so that's what we're homing in on."

Having pushed Ferrari all the way in Japan, Lando Norris accepted that McLaren's expectations are "not as high" as they were in Suzuka, given their car's inefficiency in longer, slower corners.

"We have got some things to try and we are constantly trying to improve these areas," Norris said. "But it's an area we know is one of our biggest weaknesses. Maybe we kind of get away with it in qualifying, but especially into the race it becomes a bigger problem for us."

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Sky Sports F1's live Chinese GP schedule

China schedule

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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