Rosberg shock in China GP
IF YOU were any other F1 team than Mercedes, you might have left China last night hearing the unmistakable clamour of alarm bells. The silver arrows of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher had been fast in qualifying for the opening two races of the season, but ate their tyres voraciously in the races. Not this time. Careful changes had transformed them.
Having floored everyone with a superb pole position, his first, former world champion Keke Rosberg's boy converted it into his maiden victory while everyone else fell over themselves as, at one stage, nine drivers battled wheel-to-wheel for second place in a gripping encounter.
If there was a downside for Mercedes, as they took their first victory as a 'works' since Juan Manuel Fangio triumphed in the Italian GP at Monza way back in 1955, it was that a snafu during Michael Schumacher's pit stop on the 12th lap left him stranded by the roadside with a loose wheel and gave him the unenviable title of the race's sole retirement.
But all the attention was on Rosberg on his day of days. The young German made an early break and never looked back, building a lead of more than 25 seconds as, in his wake, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Romain Grosjean, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton, Bruno Senna, Pastor Maldonado and Fernando Alonso duked it out. And the Saubers of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez were in there, too, within striking distance.
It was a race that was all about tyre stops and strategies, which made it even more ironic that Mercedes should win after their previous embarrassments in 2012. Rosberg, Vettel, Grosjean, Senna, Maldonado, Perez and Raikkonen opted for two pit stops, while Button, Hamilton, Webber, Alonso and Kobayashi went for three. Thus things would see-saw between them all as the respective strategies played out and the different rates of the Pirelli tyres' wear had their effect.
Raikkonen confidently held second for Lotus until the 47th lap despite the close pursuit, but his tyres were finished and within two laps he had plunged to 12th after sliding wide under Vettel's intense pressure.
But the world champion could not relax, because his tyres were also nearing the edge. On the 52nd lap Button slipped by, and two laps later Hamilton out-braved Vettel for the final podium slot.
Then team-mate Mark Webber moved in too. The Australian had earlier survived an alarming moment when he launched his Red Bull over a kerb. As the front wheels jumped three feet off the deck it looked horribly like an impending repeat of his 360-degree back flip in Valencia two years ago, but he calmly gathered it all up and made a move stick on Vettel further round the 54th lap to snatch fourth place. Assuredly, the reigning champion is having a tough season.
"We made it hard for ourselves in our final stop when I lost a lot of time because of a problem with a rear wheel," Button said. "But, hey, these things happen. I can't remember how many cars I overtook, and most of it was very clean, which was great to see.
"It was all going to plan up to the last stop, but after that it was more difficult running in the train of cars behind Kimi with all of us using our DRS wings at the same time. Until Seb had a go at Kimi I couldn't try to get him, but passing Seb was the best part of the race."
Could McLaren have won if, as planned, Button had come out ahead of the train of cars after that final stop instead of in the middle of it? "That was the aim but you never know if that would have been possible," he said; "it was a big gap to chase down. And congratulations to Nico, because he drove a great race. He beat me by two, because it took me 113 starts before I won for the first time, and he did it in 111."
Hamilton was happy with his third third place of the season, which put him into a two-point lead over Button in the title chase. "I had my work cut out today," he grinned. "It was a fantastic race and I really enjoyed it. At the start I just wanted to move forwards, and I had a good start and good stops. But what an incredible race, with so many drivers in a train fighting each other! It was great to see racing like that.
"If I'd started higher up it might have been a bit better for us but Nico did a fantastic job and congratulations to him. I don't remember being in a race like that for some time - the last time was probably in karting!"
But the day belonged to Rosberg and Mercedes, so often the underdogs who have been overlooked but who must now be viewed as genuine world championship contenders along with McLaren and Red Bull.
"Turning my maiden pole into my maiden win is an unbelievable feeling, very cool," Rosberg beamed. "It's been a long time coming for me and the team, and now that it's finally there it's just amazing.
"It's great to see how quickly we are progressing, because I hadn't expected to be so fast today. We just improved the set-up of the car, and today it all came good. At the beginning of the year we were very strong in qualifying, and now we are strong in the race too and I'm sure we can continue this on-going development.
"We were also very strong on strategy. We have some great people involved, a lot of competence in the team. And the tyres lasted for exactly the number of laps we were hoping for."
No wonder the sudden arrival in Victory Lane of Mercedes, who also have the advantage of an innovative and hard-to-duplicate front and rear wing system that significantly boosts their straight-line speed, and has caused so much consternation up and down the pit lane in Shanghai. Not that they will care.
FIA Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai
Final Positions (56 Laps):
1 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1hr 36mins 26.929secs
2 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:36:47.555
3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:36:52.941
4 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:36:54.853
5 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:36:57.412
6 R Grosjean (Swit) Lotus F1 Team 1:36:58.420
7 B Senna (Br) Williams 1:37:01.526
8 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:37:02.572
9 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:37:04.185
10 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:37:05.649
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 45pts
2 J Button (GB) McLaren 43
3 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 37
4 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 36
5 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 28
6 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 25
7 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 22
8 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 16
9 B Senna (Br) Williams 14
10 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 9
1 McLaren 88pts
2 Red Bull 64
3 Ferrari 37
4 Sauber-Ferrari 31
5 Mercedes GP 26
6 Lotus F1 Team 24
7 Williams 18
8 Force India 9
9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 6
10=Marussia, Caterham, HRT-F1 0 0