Vettel aims for rare hat trick
Sebastian Vettel will attempt to become the first driver in seven years to start the Formula One season with three straight wins when the series moves to the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend.
The Red Bull driver won back-to-back races from the pole position in Australia and Malaysia to start the year, although his margin of victory was slimmer last weekend in Sepang than it was in Melbourne.
Michael Schumacher was the last driver to win three straight races to open the season, in 2004.
There's only a seven-day break between Malaysia and China, which should give Vettel an advantage as his rival teams will largely have the same parts as they had in the first two races.
But Red Bull's strong start hasn't been completely flawless, with its KERS energy boost system malfunctioning in both Australia and Malaysia.
In Melbourne, the team ditched it entirely for both qualifying and the race. At Sepang, Vettel's system was inoperable for the middle part of the race, while teammate Mark Webber's device didn't work at all during Sunday's race.
The Shanghai circuit has the longest straightaway of any track on the F1 calendar, making it imperative that Red Bull diagnose the problem with the KERS system and get it fixed.
The long straight also will put a premium on maximizing usage of the adjustable rear wing - an innovation that worked just as intended in Malaysia to help overtaking on the main straight and should create plenty of passing in China, too.
The adjustable rear wing is set by the push of a button from inside the cockpit, which lowers a flap that increases straight-line speed and makes it easier to pass.
The rear wing malfunctioned on Fernando Alonso's Ferrari in Malaysia, leading to a collision with his old rival, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren. Had it worked, Alonso would have comfortably passed Hamilton, but instead he had to try to pass the old-fashioned way and ended up clipping Hamilton's rear tire, forcing a pit stop to repair the damage.
Both drivers were assessed 20-second time penalties after the race - Alonso for causing the collision and Hamilton for changing position more than once to try to block him.
While the penalty didn't affect Alonso's sixth-place finish, the extra time dropped Hamilton from seventh to eighth, providing more fodder for the long-running antagonism between the drivers and their teams.
Hamilton had been in second place for much of the race in Malaysia, and was less than four seconds behind Vettel at the midpoint. But in the second half of the race, he began to struggle with tire wear and was forced into what appeared to be an unplanned stop with just four laps to go as the team tried to stop his slide back through the field.
The Pirelli tires introduced this season were designed to degrade more quickly than the hardier Bridgestones, which caused Hamilton problems, as his tire management is often less than prudent.
McLaren teammate Jenson Button, however, is known for conserving his tires, and that helped him in Malaysia, where he finished second, only three seconds behind Vettel.
The Pirelli degradation is likely to be even more pronounced in Shanghai, as preseason testing showed that they wear more quickly in cool conditions. Temperatures are forecast to reach highs of about 68 degree this weekend in Shanghai, much cooler than the tropical heat of Malaysia.
The degradation of the tires was evident in Malaysia, where the track was carpeted in ''marbles'' - the small balls of rubber that come off the tires - by the end of the race, with only the racing line clear.
Renault's Vitaly Petrov blamed the marbles for contributing to his spectacular crash last weekend, when he ran off the track and hit a drainage ditch that launched him through the air, across the track and into a brake distance marker.
That put the Russian, who finished third in Melbourne, out of the race, although teammate Nick Heidfeld managed to take third to give the team back-to-back podiums.
The Renault is a strong car, albeit a bit down on speed, and the team can only wonder what results it might be seeing if it had its top driver Robert Kubica, who is likely out for the season with injuries sustained in a rally crash.
The Shanghai race could be won in the garages. If Red Bull can fix its KERS problems, it will be even harder to beat. If Ferrari can solve its rear-wing issues and find some more speed in qualifying, it may be a genuine challenger.
And if McLaren can take another forward step as it did in Australia and Malaysia following a troubled offseason, it may be good enough to win the race.