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Shanghai Preview

Teams barely had time to catch a breath before moving on to Shanghai for the third round of the 2011 Championship series. A look at Friday's practices shows Vettel appeared to be unstoppable again, with two trouble-free sessions. The 23-year-old Red Bull driver turned in a Friday morning time of 1m 38.739s on Pirelli's hard compounds, and improved in the afternoon session with time of 1m 37.688s on the softs. Hamilton was just .166s slower in the afternoon session, a tremendous improvement oner a morning session that showed him a full two seconds off Vettel's pace. The morning was troubled for teammate Jenson Button, but he finished the afternoon just .247 seconds back of Vettel.

After a fantastic performance in Malaysia, Nick Heidfeld had trouble staying just staying on the slippery track, going off-track and into tire walls in both sessions. In addition to providing little data to engineers, he added to the challenge by wrecking the only version of the team's new front wing. Rosberg and Schumacher were much improved after the second round, showing the fourth and fifth best times, respectively. Shanghai was Schumacher's last win and podium finish, so perhaps the circuit will be kind to him for old times sake. Felipe Massa finished the afternoon with the sixth-best time, while teammate Fernando Alonso finished twelfth and fourteenth, his Ferrari suffering from hydraulic problems. Red Bull teammate Mark Webber started strong in the morning session with the second fastest time, but ended the afternoon in tenth.

The track is another Tilke-design, and offers high-speed turns that demand crucial downforce as well as straights requiring reduced drag, so set-up poses the greatest challenge to the teams. Turns 1 and 2 are particularly hard on tires, with drivers coming into T1 in seventh gear, pulling 3.2 G's through the turn. Speeds are still high through T2, in sixth gear, then drivers slam down into second for T3, so look forward to an exciting start.

Shanghai's circuit offers the longest straight of the series, measuring 1,170m between Turns thirteen and fourteen, so to prevent overtaking from becoming too easy on an already passing-friendly track, the FIA has limited the only DRS activation zone allowed to the first half of the back straight. The zone is 902m before the hairpin at T14, but the distance between drivers will be measured at T12. Even with the limited use of the FIA-inspired passing aid, spectators can expect to see its impact this weekend, with plenty of passing--maybe even re-passing--along the back straight.

The battle between Red Bull and McLaren rages on this weekend, and with Red Bull running without KERS for the third time combined with McLaren closing the gap in practice sessions, it's game time for both teams. Red Bull's speed may be matched by McLaren's ability to use KERS, which gives tire strategy a key role in Shanghai. With track temperatures at 30 degrees, less degradation will lead to fewer pit stops than we saw in Malaysia. In fact, Pirelli expects most teams to use a typical two-stop strategy, but that some of the fastest teams may need to employ a three-stop plan.

The Malaysian Grand Prix was a welcome change from the parades of races past, and this weekend's event should be equally exciting. Will McLaren finally take the reins from Red Bull, or is Vettel just too fast and too skilled to beat? It all begins with qualifying tomorrow morning.

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