SHANGHAI // Stroll through central Shanghai and you would not know the Chinese Grand Prix was taking place. Promotion is conspicuous by its absence and the crowd, traditionally small, reflects as much. China has an estimated population of about 1.3 billion, but the spectator banks have so far been almost empty. There are, though, pockets of vocal support - as well as a solitary flag proclaiming Nick Heidfeld, the Mercedes GP reserve who is not actually competing - and most of it is directed at Michael Schumacher.
The seven-time champion has a mixed record at Shanghai. He was off the pace in 2004 and crashed during the formation lap one year later, although he scored the most recent of his 91 victories here with a masterful drive in 2006, shortly before his three-year sabbatical. Yesterday, though, he qualified only ninth, 0.773 seconds behind teammate Nico Rosberg - a chasm in F1 terms. The younger German has outqualified Schumacher four times in as many races and amassed 24 more world championship points, but until yesterday the gap between the two had shown signs of diminishing.
If Schumacher is feeling the pressure, it does not show. He was in a relaxed mood during yesterday evening's media briefing and smiled his way through a barrage of questions about his relative lack of pace. "I need to spend more time looking at the data to understand what happened," he said, "but generally I'm struggling for traction exiting slower corners." Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal who worked alongside Schumacher during each of his title seasons, was at a loss to explain his talisman's predicament.
"Usually," he said, "most time tends to be lost in quick corners, so it's a bit of a mystery. When the season began, in Bahrain, Michael naturally took time to get back into the swing of things after his time away. "He was still catching up because the sport has changed and we do so little testing nowadays. Since then I have seen very strong progress and he has a very quick teammate in Nico, which gives us a great yardstick. Today's problems were a surprise because they fly in the face of everything we've seen so far."
Mercedes are running some new parts this weekend - including a device similar to McLaren's pioneering aero vent, which stalls the rear wing to reduce drag and increase straight-line speeds. Both drivers used it during qualifying, but it is a work in progress and further developments are expected in Spain. That is assuming the sport is able to transport kit and personnel to Barcelona in time for the next race, on May 9. With much of Europe gridlocked by a rogue volcanic cloud, most of the paddock is preparing for a lengthy, unplanned holiday in Shanghai.