F1 Field Facing Unknowns With China Return, First Sprint of Season

f1 grand prix of china practice  qualifying
F1 Field Facing Unknowns With China Return, SprintQian Jun/MB Media - Getty Images

Formula 1 steps into a relative unknown this weekend with the return of the F1 Chinese Grand Prix, as well as the first Sprint race of the 2024 season.

Formula 1 does not have any new venues on the 2024 calendar, marking a step toward stability after recent seasons featured a plethora of new events—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Miami, Las Vegas. There have also been a string of unexpected stand-in locations—the likes of Istanbul Park, Portimão, and Mugello—during the pandemic.

The closest thing Formula 1 will have in terms of unknown territory in 2024 is this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, which is back on the calendar after the pandemic and the nation’s consequent long-lasting travel restrictions.


It has been just over five years since Formula 1 cars last competed at the Shanghai International Circuit, with the last edition, in 2019, coinciding with the championship’s 1,00th Grand Prix. Back then Mercedes was Formula 1’s dominant force, a title-less Max Verstappen had won only five Grands Prix, and an impressive crop of rookies included Lando Norris, George Russell, and Alex Albon.

This time around, four of the teams have also changed names (one of them twice) and only two have the same team principal at the helm.

f1 grand prix of china practice qualifying
George Russell hits the Shanghai circuit on Friday.Qian Jun/MB Media - Getty Images

Bracing for Bumps

Formula 1 teams and drivers will therefore have to go back to their notes to remember the nuances of the front-limited 5.4 km Shanghai circuit, in particular the emergence of any potential bumps, given the circuit was built on swampland where ground movement is regular.

Work has been undertaken to remove some bumps, but it will still be the first time the current-spec ground effect cars have tackled Shanghai, and there is also uncertainty about how the track surface has evolved, given the venue’s limited use in the pandemic.

Then There's Sprint

The added challenge for teams and drivers comes in the form of China being selected as the first of six venues in 2024 for F1 Sprint.

It means there will be just a single one-hour practice session on Friday before the real business of the weekend gets underway.

That adds to the complication for teams to evaluate updated components, with Haas and Alpine among those set to introduce minor revisions, while it gives RB’s Daniel Ricciardo just one session to get up to speed in his new chassis, which has been introduced to remove lingering doubts in his mind over recent subdued displays.

There have been revisions to the F1 Sprint schedule after a lukewarm reaction to the 2023 version.

f1 grand prix of china practice qualifying
Max Verstappen is expecting a big more chaos during the Sprint weekend.Eurasia Sport Images - Getty Images

Sprint Shootout—the session which determines the grid for F1 Sprint—has been moved to Friday afternoon, with the Sprint Race now the first track activity on a Saturday.

That restores qualifying for Sunday’s grand prix back to its traditional slot on a Saturday afternoon.

In another rule change teams are allowed to tweak set-ups after Sprint and before Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, a move which has been welcomed after drivers were frustrated in 2023 by adjustments being prohibited after Friday’s sole practice session.

“With Sprint it’s always a bit more of a question mark, and a bit more chaos involved, which I guess in a way is a good thing for Formula 1,” said Verstappen. “At the moment it’s quite unknown, we haven’t driven here with these new cars, but time will tell.”

Added Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez: “I think it’ll be interesting, coming back to China after five years, and to Sprint, not having done any practice here, we all come here pretty blind, so it’ll be interesting to see where the asphalt is, where the grip level is, and we’ll go from there.”

History in the Making

There will also be a piece of history made this weekend as Zhou Guanyu becomes the first Chinese driver to compete at the Chinese Grand Prix.

Zhou was among the spectators at the first few Chinese rounds in the mid-2000s, before moving to the UK aged 12 to pursue the Formula 1 dream, debuting in 2022.

Zhou’s popularity in his homeland has surged and there is even a documentary charting his journey to Formula 1—titled The First One—being released in cinemas on Friday.

“To be the first Chinese driver ever to compete in Formula 1 in China means a lot to me – it fills me with immense joy, pride and responsibility,” said Zhou.

“It isn’t just a race for me: after four years off the calendar, the championship finally returns, and with a Chinese driver on the grid, we will write history. It’s an opportunity to inspire and pave the path for future generations being interested in the sport.”