The Chinese GP’s return takes F1 into the unknown, NASCAR’s visit to Fort Worth

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The Chinese GP’s return takes F1 into the unknown, NASCAR’s visit to Fort Worth

Welcome back to Prime Tire, where we’ve wondered for years if we’re the only ones who tell ourselves “bless you” after we sneeze. Now we know it’s just us and Carlos Sainz.

I’m Patrick, and Madeline Coleman will be along shortly. Let’s dive into the first Chinese Grand Prix week in five years.

But first, a Texas detour

I grew up around Texas Motor Speedway. (Literally – one of the first things I learned when I got my driver’s license was to avoid I-35 West on race weekends unless I loved traffic.) I hadn’t been to a race in at least 15 years, so I of course jumped at the chance to join my The Athletic colleague Jeff Gluck for NASCAR’s visit to Fort Worth this past weekend.

I had some healthy skepticism. I knew all the criticisms of TMS coming in, and the grumblings about the quality of racing after Martinsville. I’ve watched the luster wear off this old cathedral of Texas speed. So when I left the track under the dying light that evening after a pretty terrific race, I allowed myself some hometown pride. We put on a good show.

If F1 engines sound like the scream of angels, the next-gen NASCARs sound like roaring gods. Late in the race, I stepped out of the press box elevator onto the concourse, and the thunderous sounds ricocheted off the walls. You feel like you’re underneath a colosseum full of giants. Like a chorus of deities are arguing in the room next door, and you’re unsure if you should step inside. What if they notice you?

FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 14: Denny Hamlin of the Yahoo! Toyota leads a pack of cars down the front straightaway during the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 in a NASCAR Cup Series race at the Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, April 14, 2024 in Fort Worth, TX. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

My first NASCAR race in years produced a good kind of mess. (Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Should NASCAR should adopt a tire system like F1’s, with hards, softs and mediums to choose from? Goodyear is under scrutiny for tires that last too long (NASCAR only provides one compound per race). One thing F1 has going for it is that the tire allotments and different compounds mean strategy is baked into every race. You’re guaranteed that entertaining variable, even if tire wear or safety cars don’t play a big factor. I’ve come to appreciate that.

For a hot second, it looked like Kyle Larson was about to run away with the race for the next 250 laps. A loose wheel ruined his day and led to plenty of action and chaos up front. Sound like the Australian GP to anyone else? Dominance, luck – racing.

The race was a mess, as you might expect from NASCAR’s most-maligned track. But a good mess. Sixteen cautions. Twenty-three lead changes. I told Jeff it reminded me of a superspeedway race, with a new hero/contender emerging seemingly every caution.

We got overtime and the sport’s most popular driver breaking his win drought, in front of one of TMS’s best crowds in years. And, three hours down the road at Circuit of the Americas, MotoGP put on one heck of show. A pretty good little day of racing in the Lone Star State. October and the United States GP can’t come soon enough.

To China we go

China’s heavy restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic kept F1 from racing at the Shanghai International Circuit for five years. We’re finally back this weekend. So are sprint races, which, as Madeline writes today, has some drivers raising their eyebrows. Here’s what we’re thinking about as we venture into Chinese GP week.

Zhou Guanyu. Hard not to be happy for the Sauber driver this week, as he finally gets to race in front of his home fans. Of course, that will mean a whirlwind of off-track commitments, appearances and fan meet-and-greets. By the time practice finally rolls around, he’ll be grateful to just be behind the wheel again. The pressure will be on his team to deliver a reliable car for him – Zhou retired in Japan with a gearbox issue and the Sauber drivers have averaged P15 in the first four races.

The kids. Four drivers have never raced at Shanghai: Zhou, Oscar Piastri, Yuki Tsunoda and Logan Sargeant. Alex Albon, Lando Norris and George Russell were rookies during the last Chinese GP. And Norris ran 50 laps in a damaged car that day. That’s a whole third of the grid with little experience at this track.

Kick Sauber's Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu arrives to take part in the drivers' parade before the start of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix race at the Suzuka circuit in Suzuka, Mie prefecture on April 7, 2024. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP)

Sauber’s Zhou Guanyu gets to race his home GP for the first time this weekend. (Philip FONG / AFP)

Max Verstappen. Of all 24 circuits on the 2024 calendar, Shanghai is one of two Verstappen hasn’t won at yet. (The other is Singapore.) In fact, he’s only reached the podium once in China, way back in 2017. The heavy odds are that he’ll rectify that on Sunday.

The Ferrari drivers. The technical Shanghai circuit tends to wear down front tires, which, in theory, should suit Ferrari well. Carlos Sainz has shared the podium with the Red Bull drivers at most races this season, so the margin for error in the Verstappen and Sergio Pérez garages is still fairly thin. We’re eager to see if Charles Leclerc can return to his pole-setting ways.

Lewis Hamilton. The veteran driver has six wins at Shanghai, but the Mercedes team arrives in China once again scratching their heads about their car. So far, Hamilton and teammate Russell have been unable to extract expected performance from the car. With Hamilton’s history of success here, Mercedes will hope a return to China will right the ship.

Inside the Paddock with Madeline Coleman: Will the Chinese GP become ‘Istanbul 2.0’?

“We also heard there’s been resurfacing going on, so Istanbul 2.0 may be on the cards. Yeah, I hope not.”

Following the Japanese Grand Prix, Max Verstappen, Sergio Pérez and Carlos Sainz were asked about their thoughts on China being a sprint weekend this season, the first of the year. F1 hasn’t raced at the Shanghai International Circuit since 2019, and the sprint weekend schedule only has one practice session.

This generation of cars hasn’t raced at the Shanghai International Circuit, and these cars are more sensitive to bumps. Remember, this track was built on top of swampland. As Sainz noted, the track has been resurfaced, raising the concern of an “Istanbul 2.0” as Sainz noted.

This is in reference to the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix weekend. The track was resurfaced a few weeks before F1’s return, and between cooler temperatures (the race was in November), hard tires and the refreshed track surface, the drivers struggled with tire grip during the Friday practice sessions. According to Sky Sports, the lap times were 10 seconds slower than the expected speeds. Numerous drivers described the track surface as “an ice rink.”

The F1 teams face several unknowns heading into the Chinese GP weekend, even with their simulators. While most of the grid has driven on the track, they have new cars and new tires compared to the last time they were here. “It’s not great 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?” Verstappen said in Japan. “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.”

Outside the points

  • Last week, The Athletic’s Luke Smith brought you the news that Andretti’s F1 team is still pushing to join the grid in 2026. Today, Luke dropped a full feature from the opening of Andretti F1’s facility in Silverstone.
  • Haas boss Ayao Komatsu said the outfit hadn’t been “functioning as a team” in the last few seasons, especially with communication issues.
  • And F1 released its first Impact Report, laying out the initial results from its strategy to make the sport more sustainable.

(Lead photo of Max Verstappen ahead of the 2019 Chinese GP: Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)