nick-heidfeld-renault Randy Bautista/Flickr

At this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel has the chance to be the first driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004 to win the first three races of the F1 season. But can anyone else spoil Seb’s party?

Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull – 1st (50pts)
Two races, two poles, two wins. It all looks so easy, and even being told not to use KERS after team-mate Mark Webber’s trials with the system in Malaysia made no difference. And Seb’s been quickest already in both Friday practice sessions in Shanghai, though the McLarens kept him honest in the second session with only a quarter of a second covering Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. The world champion is sounding an optimistic but cautious note: “We had a good day today, but it’s only Friday and so it’s early in the race weekend,” he commented. “We found a good rhythm and we’re happy with the car. There’s still a lot to do and I think it will be tight tomorrow and on Sunday, so we’ll look where we can improve. But, today we had no big issues.”

Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren – 2nd (26pts)
While his team-mate has been making all the headlines with unusually outspoken comments not from the McLaren hymnsheet and buying Prince’s old guitar for a cool $100,000, Jenson has meanwhile been going quietly about his work, coming across as ultra-professional, calm and not prone to overstatement on his way to a sixth and a second place so far. Swapping second- and third-quickest times with Hamilton in Friday’s two sessions didn’t change that: “This morning was reasonably good,” he commented. “It’s not as hot as it was in Malaysia, so I don’t think the tyres will be as much of an issue to look after. If we sort out the balance tomorrow, we’ll be closer to Red Bull.”

Mark Webber (AUS), Red Bull – 4th (22pts)
Mark was one of the drivers of the day in Malaysia, recovering from a terrible start, thanks to his KERS failing, to move up from the midfield to fourth by the end of play with some aggressive on-track manoeuvres and canny stops for tyres (no fewer than four, in fact). Tenth place in second Friday practice was due to new-tyre running, but at least Webber is happier about the KERS situation in China. “We’ll look at KERS tonight – we’d like to run it this weekend, of course,” said the Aussie. “Generally it was a good Friday, we learned a lot and the car was reliable.”

Fernando Alonso (SPA), Ferrari – 5th (20pts)
Ferrari have watched with dismay as their promise in testing has evaporated in the two grands prix so far while McLaren have dramatically improved, with the misery compounded at Sepang by Fernando Alonso’s collision with old sparring partner Lewis Hamilton and his subsequent time penalty. And China has barely been better, as hydraulic issues with the F150 left Fernando 12th and 14th in the two Friday sessions and unable truly to gauge whether or not Ferrari’s aero package is getting much nearer their rivals Red Bull and McLaren. “At the moment, we are not capable of fighting for the win,” said the Spaniard, “but that doesn’t mean we won’t be trying.”

Nick Heidfeld (GER), Renault – 7th (15pts)
In his previous long stay in F1, Nick Heidfeld (pictured in his Renault, top) famously flattered to deceive. Never a winner like team-mate Robert Kubica, he nevertheless came mighty close (in rain-soaked Spa at the 2008 Belgian GP, a change of tyres on his BMW almost did it – while Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen slipped and slid about in the dying moments). Having had time out as a Mercedes and Pirelli tyre tester and only a brief comeback for Sauber in place of Pedro de la Rosa part way through 2010, the irony of replacing his onetime team-mate Kubica at Renault only because of the Pole’s Italian rally crash has been lost on the diminutive German, who sits a handy seventh after one failure (not his fault) in Melbourne and then a brilliant third place for Renault (aka Black Lotus) at Sepang. But with this under his belt, Nick made life hard on himself in China on Friday: “Today obviously wasn’t what we wanted, after I spun off in the first session and then again in the second, which were both my fault,” he commented. “I hope it’s a good omen because in Malaysia we also didn’t have many laps on the Friday and then we had a good result…”

Selected others…
Sébastien Buemi (SUI)/Jaime Alguersuari (SPA), Toro Rosso – You can barely slide a cigarette paper between them so far, and the presence of Daniel Ricciardo in Friday practice sessions has given this season a real edge for the pair. They both want points. Pastor Maldonado (VEN), Williams – two races, two DNFs, neither the Venezuelan rookie’s fault as Williams struggle. Can he just get going and finish in China? Vitaly Petrov (RUS), Renault – despite two offs for Heidfeld, Petrov finished Friday in his team-mate’s shadow again with P9/P9. After somehow getting airborne via a drainage culvert at Sepang, continues to veer between greatness and mediocrity. Sergio Perez (MEX), Sauber – a piece of debris entering the cockpit and narrowly missing the rookie in Malaysia raised more general fears in the sport about driver safety. That DNF and a DSQ from the points in Australia mean that Perez’s luck needs and deserves to change in Shanghai.

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