Chinese GP track breakdown: F1 returns to Shanghai’s never-ending corners

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Chinese GP track breakdown: F1 returns to Shanghai’s never-ending corners

Much has changed since Formula One last raced in China.

The last Chinese Grand Prix took place in April 2019, and it was a 1-2 finish for then-Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel rounded out the podium, competing for Ferrari at that time, and Max Verstappen finished fourth, 27.627 seconds off Hamilton. But by the end of the year, COVID-19 had been discovered in the country. The World Health Organization declared the disease a pandemic in March 2020.

Since then, Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen have retired (and Romain Grosjean, Daniil Kyvat and Antonio Giovinazzi have left the grid), Verstappen has risen to dominance, and F1 has experienced a significant boom in popularity, in part thanks to Netflix docuseries “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.” Because of China’s heavy COVID-19 restrictions and lengthy lockdown, F1 hasn’t returned, even when countryman Zhou Guanyu joined the grid in 2022. But that changed for 2024 and now, China’s first F1 driver Zhou Guanyu will experience his home F1 grand prix weekend.

The Shanghai International Circuit rests in a marshland area, and parts of the complex honor Chinese culture. Per F1, it was laid out to resemble the shape of the character for ‘shang’ (上), which means upwards. It appears no expense was spared when designing and creating the Asian circuit, which took only 18 months to build.

Over time, it’s become a favorite among F1 drivers. “China as a race circuit is a great one. I think it’s one of our favorite ones for everyone,” Carlos Sainz said in 2024. “It’s just a great racing track and a track that offers a good possibility to overtake.”

Before the cars start barreling towards what feels like a never-ending turn sequence at the beginning of the lap, here’s what you need to know about the Shanghai International Circuit.

Key Specs

Chinese GP Shanghai International Circuit map

(Drew Jordan/The Athletic)

Swampland and a massive budget

Located northwest from the lights of Shanghai rests a Hermann Tilke-designed track that was built in 18 months and cost around $450 million.

The Shanghai International Circuit rests on reclaimed marshland in the Jiading District and required significant groundwork as part of the project. According to Red Bull Racing, it’s believed that the marsh is as deep as 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) in some areas, which means it can’t simply be drained by ditches. The circuit is built on top of thousands of concrete pilings, which are around 40 meters (131 feet) to 80 meters (262 feet) deep, per Red Bull. They’re topped by a concrete base and 16 meters (52 feet) of polystyrene.

The paddock also nods to Chinese culture, and is massive. The layout appears to resemble the famous Yu Garden in the northeast of Old City Shanghai and next to the City God Temple, with each team having its own building on pavilions around a lake.

Other series have raced at this track before, like MotoGP from 2005-2008 and Formula E, which will be in Shanghai in late May.

Points of interest

Most tracks have some sort of recognizable feature, whether a nearby landmark or a thrilling sequence of turns. The Shanghai International Circuit offers a few points that fans should keep an eye on come race day, such as the opening few turns.

“It’s always been a very, very interesting track, very nice track to drive on and a track where there are many, many different lines possible, especially in Turns 1-2-3 and all those long corners,” Charles Leclerc said ahead of the 2024 race. “There are very different ways of taking those corners, which makes it exciting for us.” 

In 2018, then-Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley said, “I quite like the track, it’s very technical and very hard on tires with such a long Turn 1 — where I think there’s 10 different options and lines, and there’s always some crazy passes on the inside, which is good for the driver and fun for the fans.”

Turns 1 and 2 could eat away at the front left tire, and drivers have to balance just how quickly they enter the corner, especially coming off of the start/finish straight. “This combination really sucks you in as the corner goes on a long time after a really fast entry, but you are shedding speed thereafter as it gets tighter and tighter in a corner that seems to go on forever before spitting you out into the downhill, tight Turn 3,” Nico Hülkenberg said in 2017.

From there, the circuit layout is a mix, ranging from low-speed (like Turns 1-3) to high-speed sections (like the esses at Turns 7 and 8), and this can make finding a balanced car setup a challenge. Drivers enter another somewhat snail-shaped combination with Turns 11-12-13 before heading into a 1.2 kilometer (about 4,000 feet) straight. Hülkenberg said it’s so long, drivers “have enough time to complete your tax return and have an espresso as you’re going in straight line with your foot hard down for so long, then you wake up and you’re hard on the brakes.”

Then comes the hairpin at Turn 14, a potential overtaking point. As Esteban Ocon noted in 2024, “(The track) opens up for good racing opportunities as well, just before the long straight for the traction and at the end of the straight is where you have a big braking. So I think it’s quite a cool one for racing also.” 

It’s key to remember heading into the 2024 grand prix weekend that there’s plenty of unknowns for the paddock given the years-long hiatus. As noted by Pirelli, “Five years ago, the 13 inch tyres were still in use, fitted to the previous generation of car, which had a flat floor and completely different aerodynamics to the current car. In fact, for the drivers, the teams and indeed for Pirelli, it’s pretty much a matter of starting from scratch, given that the references are very vague.”

It’s a new chapter for the Shanghai International Circuit, and unknowns remain. Some changes have been made ahead of the 2024 race, like bumps being removed at Turns 1 and 8, and a resurfacing of the track. But the essence is still there. As multiple drivers noted during the 2024 press conference, it’s known for its overtaking and the potential for good racing. 

“I think definitely won’t be a boring race on the weekend,” Zhou said.

(Track video courtesy of EA Sports F1 — learn more about “F1 24″ here.)

(Graphics: Drew Jordan/The Athletic. Lead image: Johannes Eisele/AFP, Mark Thompson via Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton, Drew Jordan/The Athletic)