Conclusions From The Chinese GP
In praise of Nico, F1's new best friend, and some of Shanghai's understandably unsung heroes...
Last Updated: 04/05/12 10:25am
Three different winners, another unexpected twist, 2012 is proving to be the year of the classic...
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Rosberg Finally Gives His Answer
So Britney has finally gone to number one again. Nico Rosberg's maiden F1 victory in Shanghai - his first in any format since a win in the GP2 series in 2005, the first for a first-time victor in F1 since Mark Webber at the Nurburgring in 2009, and the first for Mercedes since 1955 - wasn't so much as a long time coming as long overdue. 111 races after his debut, Nico has finally come of age.
All of which made the manner of his win all the more impressive. "Perfectly judged" in the view of Ross Brawn, who certainly knows a thing or two about perfectly-judged victories, it was a display which suggests that even though his arrival into the big time has been belated, he could now be here to stay. In the W03 - quickest by half a second on Saturday, quickest when it mattered on Sunday - he certainly possesses the machinery to book a long stay amongst the elite.
Nerveless from the start, still nerveless at the finish, and faultless in the long time inbetween, Rosberg drove like a veteran of victory rather than a virgin. For a driver who immediately cracked under pressure in Australia and Malaysia, it was a remarkable display. And very possibly a breakthrough one.
His challenge now, inevitably, is to sustain this level of performance, starting in Bahrain next weekend in conditions that are not expected to favour Mercedes and the reputedly heat-sensitive W03. That much is obvious; that much is for next week.
What matters at the culmination of this terrific weekend is that Rosberg, at long overdue last, has a trenchant reply to the what-has-he-ever-actually-done question that has hung over him, unanswered, for too many years. Finally, Nico has arrived in a sport he first joined half a decade ago.
F1 Has An Extra Powerhouse
For Mercedes, meanwhile, this was a massive victory. For F1 itself, it was perhaps just as significant. The sport has seen too many cash-rich manufacturers come and ignominiously go in the very recent past - most obviously, Toyota, BMW, and Honda - to have afforded another high-profile casualty to its relentless, finger-burning competitiveness.
For its long-term good, F1 needed Mercedes to make a breakthrough almost as much as Rosberg needed his own. The pinnacle of motorsport needs the biggest names in motorsport and, though there was no suggestion that Mercedes' commitment was waning just two years after their return to the sport, this weekend's victory will prevent any awkward questions being asked about what sort of return they are receiving from their massive investment.
Equally welcome is the message sent from a sporting perspective. Mercedes are the third different team to win in a season three races young. They have the pace - although perhaps not the durability - to rip up a pecking order that is already in complete disorder. F1 could not ask for more.
The Pirellis Are The New F1 Critical Ingredient
So much for the notion that F1 needs gimmicks then. No rain, no sign of the safety car, and almost no DRS overtakes and still Shanghai served up a classic. Thank Pirelli, because their rubber is the best thing to happen to F1 since the invention of the wheel.
The entirely-unpredicted twist in a tale that slowburned until its epic culmination was that only Mercedes, the team considered to be the tyre eater in the field, managed to make their rubber last the distance whilst two-stopping, while the close proximity of the field meant that the anticipated DRS-overtaking fest never - literally - came to pass. On the one hand, none of the frontrunners wanted to run the risk of flat-spotting their precious tyres into Turn 14. On the other, with the cars from position two to twelve running in single formation during the closing stages, over half the field was able to run the DRS at the same time, cancelling its effect. Cue the queue.
All the while, it remained a fabulous spectacle and the reward was a finale that saw Kimi Raikkonen fall from second to twelfth in the space of two laps, the World Champion lose three places and his rag, and the three-stoppers finally able to make their pace pay. Strategy is F1's new best friend.
McLaren Lose Clear Sight
The closest finish that never was? Whether Jenson Button would have been able to thwart Rosberg and deny Mercedes their first win since the fifties is one of those great sporting imponderables which, given the satisfaction delivered by such an epic race, is perhaps best left unpondered. Or at least that might be the view of the hapless - or luckless, depending on the results of McLaren's forthcoming internal enquiry - crew member whose botch-job undid Button's grand plan.
According to McLaren's calculations, a clear stop would have seen Button return to the track three seconds clear of Felipe Massa and then catch Rosberg two laps before the chequered flag. Yet for that calculation to reach prescience, Button would have to claw back twelve seconds in around fifteen laps - a tall order in any race, in any conditions. Perhaps the pressure of pursuit might have seen Rosberg over-extend his rubber and suffer a similar late fate to that of Raikkonen and Vettel, but it's far preferable to applaud Rosberg for the consistency of his lap-times from start to finish than intimate that a sticky wheel nut was the race's decisive protagonist.
One of Button's other post-race observations was especially telling: "As soon as you are in traffic, the tyres start to grain." What we've seen time after time - and very probably meant that Rosberg wouldn't have fallen back into Button's clutches even if his stop had been razor-sharp - is that frontrunning track position pays a massive dividend on the Pirellis.
"It is much, much easier when you have clean air and are at the front," added Lewis Hamilton in a separate conversation. With their compounds the instrumental component in Sunday's riveting spectacle, now is not the time to utter any degree of criticism of F1's sole tyre maker, but it is a significant and long-running pity that the Pirellis tend to fall away because of traffic rather than tracktime.
It can't simply be that, in defiance of everything we have seen so far this year, that the W03 suddenly became a tyre nursemaid in China while the Lotus of Raikkonen, the Red Bull of Vettel and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa all spectacularly unravelled on a near-identical two-stop strategy, can it?
The bad news for Mercedes, then, is that Sunday's clean-air victory may have been deceptive and their much-alleged tyre weakness may still be a reality. The good news, though, is that any such weakness, if it truly exists, might not matter very much if they can continue to take a front-running lead in qualifying.
The World Champ Suffers Without Power
For Sebastian Vettel, meanwhile, the essential problem is that he is no longer taking the lead in qualifying. The Red Bull's lack of straightline speed might be "ridiculous", but the RB7 dominated 2011 despite being one of the field's slowest cars in a speedtrap.
What's changed this year is that Vettel is unable to dominate Saturday and has lost charge of Sunday in the process. Nor can he make a charge; without the straightline speed that is a prerequisite for overtaking, he had no realistic choice but to adopt a strategy of endurance in Shanghai even though his failure to reach Q3 meant he had an extra set of soft tyres available. The World Champion nearly made his strategy work and was just five laps shy of second place, but his post-race irritation was the literal giveaway that his title tilt is currently unhealthily underpowered and that's he now stuck in a vicious circle from which there is no straightforward escape.
Underdogs Show Their Class
If there was a downside to all the many good things served up in Shanghai, it's that there was too much to fully appreciate everything occurring further afield. Webber, who seems to be handling the RB8 better than Vettel and continues to excel at close quarters, maintained his revival with another his third fourth place in succession, while Romain Grosjean's exploitation of his team-mate's sudden drop-off to get the jump on both Williamses is worth repeated replay. If there was an actual disappointment, it was the non-appearance of the two Saubers as contenders. Even Marussia impressed, instructing Charles Pic to take a voluntary drive-through in order not to impede the train of cars queued up behind Raikkonen.
As for Lewis Hamilton, he was excellent despite being relatively subdued. No, make that excellent because he was relatively subdued. In damage-limitation mode from Thursday onwards when he calmly broke the news of his grid demotion to the press, Lewis was as mature in Shanghai as he was stroppy in Melbourne.
JEV Needs A Star Act - And Quickly
Whatever the exact definition of the star quality that both Jamie Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi lacked to bring about their sudden ousting at Toro Rosso in December, it's reasonable to assume that it doesn't include failing to reach Q2 on successive Saturdays. Jean-Eric Vergne, a faller at the first hurdle in both Malaysia and China, having been out-qualified by Daniel Ricciardo in Australia, had better buck up his qualifying ideas then. And fast.
His laps on intermediates tyres when rain lashed the Sepang stadium suggests that the Frenchman is neither lacking talent nor car control, but, having intimated such a strict criteria to their latest pair of trialists, that won't interest Red Bull in the slightest without proof of pace.
Because it is so heavily biased towards aerodynamic performance rather than driver skill, Spain is a Noah's Ark sort of place with team-mates tending to line grid two-by-two. If he isn't to find himself in uncomfortably close proximity to pressure so very early into his F1 career, Vergne had best be in very close proximity to Ricciardo either next weekend in Bahrain or next month in Barcelona.
Caterham Struggles Show How Far Back Marussia And HRT Remain
It's still nothing much to write about, even if this missive was sent direct to HRT's new Spanish home, but the grid's very-far-back backmarkers are slowly improving. Slow, of course, is still the operative word, yet from being more than seven seconds off the pace in Q1 at Albert Park, the shortest of the three circuits visited hitherhto, HRT have since trimmed the chasm to five seconds in Malaysia and to a near-respectable four seconds at Shanghai.
Conversely, detecting progress this season from the newbie backmarker which has already proved its respectability, Caterham, is less straightforward. Having entered the season aiming to join the midfield pack, they have exited Q1 in formation on every occasion with Heikki Kovalainen 19th and Vitaly Petrov 20th. Never once has either driver finished within 2.2 seconds of the fastest Q1 time; never once has either finished in excess of 2.8 seconds adrift. Caterham are themselves adrift, stuck in a field of their own somewhere between the back-backmarkers and the midfield bunch.
Not that's there any shame in that. On account of their ambition and realism, two often-conflicting virtues the team have successfully married, Caterham are the team that everyone supports (well, at least a little bit). Their difficulty in making that critical, class-upgrading next step is disappointing, but it's also a sign of F1's own progress as proof back-handed of just how credible and competitive the easily-overlooked midfield runners are. No Wigans, Blackburns or Wolves here; in any other sport, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso would be frontrunning challengers. As someone else has remarked this weekend, F1 now boasts the best midfield in sport outside of Barcelona.
Which, to return our original point, is no comfort for HRT and their like, Marussia. Whatever their progress this season, it's been sobered into irrelevance by its absence at Caterham. At very best, Marussia and HRT are years away from making a step up. Long years.