Victory prerogative for stronger Rosberg
15 April 2012
Nico Rosberg defied suggestions that his Mercedes could not make its tyres last longer than the rest of the field and would not have the race pace to keep them at bay to claim his first F1 victory at the Chinese Grand Prix.
The German led an eventful race from start to finish, initially pulling away from team-mate Michael Schumacher and then resisting pressure from McLaren's Jenson Button to take a comfortable 20-second victory over the Briton, while Lewis Hamilton came through from his penalty-induced seventh on the grid to complete a Mercedes-powered podium.
All three drivers made perfect getaways, with Rosberg jumping out into an immediate lead which team-mate Schumacher floundered a little under pressure from row two. At turn one, however, it wasn't either Kimi Raikkonen or Kamui Kobayashi that proved to be the seven-time champion's biggest threat, but Button, who scythed around those ahead of him to challenge for second place. Hamilton, too, made gains off the line, vaulting from seventh to fifth as Kobayashi, in particular, got swamped.
Neither Red Bull made the best of starts, with Mark Webber slipping back to ninth and world champion Sebastian Vettel getting excess wheelspin from the inside of row six and finding himself 14th after also experiencing the inevitable consequences of mid-grid rough-and-tumble. The contact was not as hefty as the thump that Bruno Senna gave Felipe Massa, however, but both cars managed to escape unscathed.
By the end of lap two, Rosberg was a second clear of the pack, the cooler conditions of the late Shanghai afternoon clearly suiting the Mercedes, and it was a surprise when the majority of the field stopped ahead of the German. Webber was the first to succumb, the left front on his RB8 showing the strain of coping with the more tortuous parts of SIC by lap six. Two laps later, and Vettel, Kobayashi - from eighth - and Nico Hulkenberg followed suit, although the Force India driver was also in need of a new nose.
Raikkonen and Hamilton provided a little extra excitement when they pitted together on lap ten, the pair recreating Hamilton's battle in and out of pit-lane with Vettel from a couple of seasons ago. This time, the McLaren man came off best, the mechanics turning him around quicker than Lotus managed to handle Raikkonen, then leaving the Finn in no doubt who was coming out first as they headed for the funnel at pit exit. Surprisingly, however, Hamilton - like Button a lap later - was re-shoe'd with another set of Pirelli's soft 'option' tyre while the majority of their peers opted for the harder medium.
Mercedes, meanwhile, continued to pound around for another lap before Schumacher stopped, and went to lap 13 with Rosberg, although the younger German showed just how much he was struggling by locking up and running wide at turn six before making his stop. While both stops appeared slick, Schumacher's wasn't so, the 43-year old being mistakenly released as his front left changer reached for a replacement wheel gun. As a result he made it only part way around the next lap before being forced to park up. The German would prove to be the race's only retirement....
Although Malaysian GP hero Sergio Perez briefly assumed control of the race when Rosberg stopped, and Felipe Massa took over when the Mexican exited for tyres, Rosberg was quickly back in front, passing the Ferrari at the turn 14 hairpin. Schumacher's retirement promoted Button to second place, but the Briton was still close to five seconds behind as the race reached lap 20. McLaren was already showing its intent, with Hamilton up into third, but the supposedly tyre-troubled Mercedes was still showing better performance on the medium Pirelli than its rivals could find in the soft.
Again, it was Webber who stopped first for a third set of rubber, the Australian ducking out of fourth place and allowing Raikkonen, Alonso, Kobayashi and Grosjean to move up. Vettel, meanwhile, has recovered to the lower reaches of the points, passing Perez for ninth after the Sauber drive recovered from a slow return from his stop. When Hamilton and Button followed Webber's lead, it became clear that most of the contenders were aiming for a three-stop race, but both Rosberg and Vettel continued to plug away, guessing that two stops may be the way to go for different reasons.
Such was the closeness of the field that the two McLarens rejoined outside the points, but both were soon on the move again, although Hamilton would have wondered what was in store for him as he came up behind 2011 nemesis Massa. Approaching half-distance, the only lapped runner was Narain Karthikeyan, although Heikki Kovalainen soon joined the Indian after a problematic pit-stop forced the Caterham team to recall the Finn for a third visit. By the chequered flag, only the 2010 newcomers had fallen a lap down on the leaders, and that was without a single safety car, despite the action that was to come.
What had started out as a largely processional race, thanks in part to the DRS zone not being long enough to produce the anticipated overtaking in the pack, suddenly livened up as it went into its second half.
Although Vettel offered little in the way of resistance when Button came upon him to reclaim third spot shortly after half-distance, there was some frantic dicing in the lower reaches of the top ten, highlighted initially by Hamilton's attempts to pass a stubborn Perez. The Mexican would repeatedly lock up into the hairpin, but the flaccidity of DRS meant that Hamilton couldn't quite get close enough to pull off the move until his adversary pitted. By then, the McLaren was under pressure from both Alonso and Webber, although an aerial moment over the kerbs for the Australian temporarily removed him from the battle and the main protagonists pitted again soon after.
Button, meanwhile, had been making his fresher medium rubber work better than Rosberg's ageing examples, suddenly closing on the Mercedes by around two seconds a lap. The Briton inherited the lead when Rosberg made his second stop, but needed to build on his new-found 9.5secs advantage if he was to make McLaren's strategy work out in his favour. Sadly, both for Button and those hoping for a nail-biting showdown between the strategists, a cross-threaded nut on the MP4-27's left rear wheel scuppered his charge.
The Briton later revealed that a perfect stop would have left him with a clear road three seconds ahead of Massa's Ferrari, but the precious moments lost while the wheel was secured saw him emerge not only behind the Brazilian, but also Raikkonen, Vettel and Romain Grosjean, who formed a train behind the Limping Horse. Quickly disposing of the Lotus, Button was then promoted back to fourth when Massa stopped for his final set of tyres, but he then faced the unenviable task of passing Vettel, with the German now having an unlikely podium in his sights.
With Rosberg enjoying a comfortable lead, the attention switched to what was happening further back, and again Alonso - having hauled the recalcitrant Ferrari higher than perhaps it deserved to be - was in the thick of it, going wheel-to-wheel with an uncompromising Pastor Maldonado before being forced onto the marbles. Rejoining from the unplanned excursion, the double champion nearly collected Sepang adversary Perez who, fittingly for a season marked by unpredictability, was now running outside the points. Webber, too, was back indulging in the cut-and-thrust, thinking he had passed Grosjean only to find the Frenchman fighting back. This time it was the Lotus who ran out of room, rejoining in time to go three-wide with Maldonado and Perez as they diced over eighth place.
Even as the first warnings to nurse his tyres went out to Rosberg, the leader's advantage was still 13 times greater than the margin that covered his immediate pursuers, as Raikkonen, Vettel, Button, Webber and Hamilton were blanketed by just 1.8secs. The Finn was clearly using all of his KERS to defend from Vettel down the long back straight, but the world champion was similarly hampered by a lack of straight-line speed, not to mention running on tyres similarly past their best.
Vettel, however, was the first of the squabbling group to make a move stick and it triggered a dramatic reversal of fortune for Raikkonen. The German's move left his rival out on the marbles and, without the performance to respond, Raikkonen was quickly gobbled up by those immediately behind the Red Bull. Button slipped through in Vettel's wake, while Hamilton took full advantage of a slip by Webber to not only pass the Australian but also launch his own attack on the Lotus going into the hairpin. Webber, having recovered, then took advantage exiting the corner. The true extent of Raikkonen's plight followed on the next lap, however, as both Senna and Grosjean went through at turns one and two, and Maldonado and Alonso followed soon afterwards. By the end of the lap, even the warring Saubers - Perez almost had Kobayashi off heading into turn 14 as he jinked out from behind the Lotus - has subjugated the Finn, who eventually ended the day down in 14th.
Button finally got the better of Vettel at the hairpin on lap 52 and, in trouble with his tyres, the German again made life simpler for McLaren by allowing Hamilton safe passage two laps later. Only when Webber appeared in his mirrors did the German put up a fight, before the inevitable happened on the penultimate run through the final turn. Behind the two Red Bulls, Grosjean salvaged sixth for Lotus, securing his first race finish of 2012 and initial points in the top flight after a fraught part-season as Alonso's team-mate at Renault in 2009, ahead of Williams twins Senna and Maldonado, Alonso and Kobayashi, whose evasive move to avoid his team-mate was rewarded with the final point of the day.
In parc ferme, there was hardly a dissenting voice as Rosberg and Mercedes lapped up the plaudits for a job well done. The German's first F1 win - and his first of any kind since claiming a brace in the 2005 GP2 finale - came 30 years after father Keke achieved the same feat at Dijon en route to the 1982 world title. While expecting Rosberg to take emulation that far may be stretching the imagination a little at this point, Mercedes clearly appears to have taken strides to cure its early-season woes, and should be a threat to the likes of McLaren at every stop on the schedule.
For now, and despite the short turnaround before Bahrain, 'Britney' will be the one singing when he's winning.....