Nico Rosberg claimed his maiden F1 victory for Mercedes at the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix with a perfectly controlled drive from pole position. The last time a works Mercedes entered car won a race was with Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1955 Italian GP. Back in F1 as a constructor after they bought out the 2009 championship winning Brawn GP team, their first victory was always going to be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Rosberg delivered in style on a hazy Sunday afternoon as he led home the McLaren duo of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in second and third.
With the mercury reading a cold 24 °C (75 °F) on the track surface, it was a race where tyre management and strategy would inevitably prove to be decisive. Mercedes’s tyre eating W03 had flattered to deceive previously after strong qualifying pace came at the expense of raceday durability, severely compromising the team’s race strategies. The fact that Rosberg started from pole with his teammate Michael Schumacher alongside him looked promising for Mercedes nevertheless.
Rosberg got a clean start away from Schumacher as the lights went out. Kamui Kobayashi lost places to Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and teammate Sergio Perez as they headed into the first corner. Button even managed to get past Raikkonen who slotted right in front of Hamilton. Both the Red Bulls were slow off the line and dropped a few places. By Lap 3, Button still had Raikkonen sniffing on his gearbox and Hamilton had the chasing Perez tucked into his DRS tow. Mark Webber was the first to pit on Lap 6. As he re-joined the race in P20, Rosberg had managed to pull out 3.5 seconds on Schumacher who now had a train of cars behind him. Webber immediately set the fastest lap, prompting other teams to react as Kobayashi, Vettel, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Button, Schumacher, Alonso and Senna pitted for tyres between Laps 9 and 12.
Hamilton and Raikkonen exited the pitlane side by side and re-joined around Webber. Hamilton then made a move stick on the Red Bull and got past him. Raikkonen tried very hard going into the outside of Turn 6 but Webber closed the door and defended track position. As race leader Rosberg pitted on Lap 13, there was some drama at Mercedes as it turned out that Schumacher’s right front wheel was loose following a pit stop error. He eventually had to park his car out and retire. By Lap 19, Rosberg had a 4.7 second advantage to second placed Jenson Button. As Webber kicked off the second round of pitstops on Lap 21, both the McLarens followed in within the next two laps. As Button rejoined behind Sebastian Vettel and Perez, Hamilton came out behind the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. Hamilton made an edgy move into Turn 6 stick past Massa on Lap 26. A lap later, Webber managed to get past Massa at exactly the same point. By Lap 31, Button had managed to overtake both Perez and Vettel using DRS. The Briton took no prisoners as he set the fastest lap of the race, a 1:40.908, making his intentions clear to Rosberg.
Button’s hopes of a fight with Rosberg waned as he came in for his third stop on Lap 39. A botched stop from his pit crew meant he was held stationary for 6 seconds longer than usual. As a direct result, instead of rejoining with fresh tyres only a few seconds behind Rosberg , he came out in massive traffic behind Raikkonen and Vettel. Both the Lotus and the Red Bull were on a two stop strategy. By this time in the race, Rosberg led by 23 seconds from Raikkonen who had seven cars bottled up directly behind. None of them were willing to attempt a move off the racing line due to severe marbles on the track risking a loss of grip.
The closing leg of the race turned into a real humdinger. It all started on Lap 46 with a spectacular three-car overtaking sequence between Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado and Perez. Grosjean and Maldonado nearly banged wheels all through the Turn 12-13 complex and exited onto the back straight with Grosjean slightly ahead. As Pastor kept at it, the closely following Perez attempted to go past both using his Sauber’s superior top speed. Pastor braked latest of all into the hairpin, keeping the inside line ahead of them. However, as Perez tucked in behind Pastor, Grosjean braked early and took the wider line into the turn, getting a better exit and retaking Pastor and Perez down into the penultimate corner. Some racing that. They now formed a part of the incredible twelve car queue behind Raikkonen in second.
On Lap 48, Raikkonen’s spent tyres completely fell off, allowing Vettel to make the move on him into second. As Raikkonen ran wide and all over the place, he was dramatically overtaken by ten cars on that lap and found himself in twelfth. With the end drawing close, the frontrunners behind Rosberg attacked the cars in front in a busy reshuffle. Button moved past Vettel and Hamilton trumped Webber. Vettel, on a similar strategy to Raikkonen, found it difficult as both Hamilton and Webber closed in fast. Further down the road, Pastor fought hard to hold out from the attacking duo of Kobayashi and Alonso. Hamilton finally made the move stick on Vettel in the penultimate lap, outbraking him into the Turn 14 hairpin. With his tyres completely gone, Vettel had to relinquish fourth place to Webber on the final lap.
As an elated yet controlled Nico Rosberg crossed the finish line, it felt like a significant moment for F1. With the sport’s competitiveness spelling out the fateful disappearance of BMW, Toyota and Honda, the pinnacle of motorsport could do with the success of a giant name. The W03 was brushed aside as a car that devours its tyres more than it drives them and critics of the sport turned their backs on Nico Rosberg as another promising talent who might never deliver. The irony that Mercedes would win the race on two tyre stops when most others did three in a race where strategy was critical foretells something about the driver. For sure Nico Rosberg has arrived. And his reply has been blunt.
F1 travels to Bahrain from April 20-22. It is hot and dusty. There have been three different winners in a three race old season. It gets better. Stay tuned.