Lewis Hamilton's bid for a third Chinese Grand Prix victory was rocked a little yesterday when it emerged that he will receive a five-place grid penalty in Sunday's race.
Final inspection of his McLaren within the last 48 hours revealed that it will need a change of gearbox, which means that the 2008 and 2010 winner will at best start from sixth, if his recent form of setting the fastest qualifying lap continues.
"We have a gearbox issue and we will change it on Saturday morning so I will get the penalty, but hopefully we will be quick enough to still move forward," Hamilton said.
With updates on his McLaren MP4-27, which he and his team-mate, Jenson Button, believe will maintain its supremacy in qualifying, and the threat of Shanghai's notoriously light but persistent rain on raceday, Hamilton believes he can still have a strong chance of scoring his first victory of the 2012 season, after finishing third in the two opening races. He started both from pole position.
"We can still have a good weekend," Hamilton said. "I started from third last year here and won, and in the last race winner Fernando Alonso started quite far back, so anything is possible. I don't like starting at the back and not going anywhere but if you have a quick car, which we do, then we still have a fighting chance from wherever I have to start. I'll try to minimise the damage by trying to qualify as high as possible."
As the reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, winless thus far in 2012, reverts to an older-style exhaust system for the first practice session, in a bid to find the speed to put Red Bull back into their customary top slot, the Malaysian Grand Prix winner, Alonso, played down Ferrari's likely form.
"We'll be conducting some evaluation work between the two cars," said the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner. "With testing not allowed during the season, Friday is the best opportunity to do some track testing and we are using the opportunity to look at an earlier iteration of exhaust and a further iteration of what we ran in Malaysia. Obviously we'll then look at the data and then draw our conclusions from there."
"We will struggle to get into Q3 on Saturday afternoon," said Alonso, of Ferrari's place in the pecking order, the Spaniard's opportunist win in Sepang notwithstanding. And team principal Stefano Domenicali echoed the sentiment when he admitted that they were still a second off the pace.
Meanwhile, after weeks of grumbling since the Australian Grand Prix in the middle of March, Lotus yesterday lodged a formal protest against the innovative DRS rear wing used by Mercedes. Ever since it raced in Melbourne, the FIA has insisted, via the technical delegate Charlie Whiting, that the Mercedes wing is legal, after careful explanation and examination of the underlying science behind it. And ever since then Lotus and Red Bull have grumbled about it.
This is the first time anyone has stumped up the money to launch a protest which will oblige the FIA to explain why the Mercedes rear wing does not contravene the part of the technical regulations which say that "with the exception of the parts necessary for the adjustment described in Article 3.15, any car system, device or procedure which uses driver movement as a means of altering the aerodynamics of the car is prohibited".
When the driver activates the DRS (drag-reducing system) which stalls the rear wing and boosts maximum speed on the straight, it also opens up pipes which feed air forward through channels within the carbon fibre chassis to the underside of the front wing where it exits to achieve a similar stalling effect and thus further cuts drag and enhances straightline velocity. The system is more of an advantage in qualifying, where teams can use the DRS anywhere they like, than in the race, when it may only be activated in FIA-mandated zones.
Lotus and Mercedes representatives met with the FIA's engineers here yesterday, as the former lodged the €2,000 fee. The race stewards unanimously rejected Lotus's protest late last night, clearing the way for Mercedes to continue running their system.