Thrills back on track: Rosberg stuns field in fight to the finish
21:59 GMT, 15 April 2012
After searching for the antidote to a processional 2011 campaign in which Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel romped to the title, the world of motor-racing has discovered the perfect formula.
At last year’s Chinese Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and McLaren did not miss a beat in ensuring Vettel did not win, but predicting the outcome of the 2012 instalment would prove to be an exercise in futility even for the most talented of soothsayers.
No one could have predicted that Mercedes, notorious for chewing their tyres across a race distance, would require just two stops to McLaren’s three, thus allowing Nico Rosberg to earn a maiden victory at the 111th attempt.
Champagne moment: Nico Rosberg celebrates his win in China with Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton
Neither would they recall a time when, on lap 42, no fewer than eight cars behind the leader would each be separated by less than a second as contrasting fortunes during pit stops led to breathtaking overtaking and driver skill.
Hamilton and Jenson Button did their best to overcome a disappointing qualifying session by the time they reached the first corner, each making up two places: Button to third and Hamilton to fifth.
The first two rounds of pit stops for
the McLaren men were smooth and rapid, but such was the competitiveness
of this battle that both were required to demonstrate an ability to
cope with traffic like a Shanghai taxi driver.
Notable examples were Hamilton’s move
on Felipe Massa on lap 26 and Button’s DRS pass on Vettel into the
hairpin four laps later.
No 1: Rosberg recorded his first ever grand prix win in China having led from start to finish
In fairness to their rivals, such daredevil overtakes were repeated up and down the order and it is to the drivers’ enormous credit that Michael Schumacher, courtesy of a loose front right wheel, was the only driver not to finish in such testing circumstances. Mercedes were later fined 45,000 for allowing him to leave the pit lane without a front wheel being properly attached.
Second best: Button finished behind Rosberg in his McLaren in China
Button, however, could be forgiven for cursing his need to be quite as adventurous after a cross-threaded nut on his left rear wheel cost him six seconds in the pit lane during his third and final stop and more on the road as the delay ensured he was released into a 200mph traffic jam.
The misfortune at the end of lap 39 robbed him of an outside chance of overhauling Rosberg. Thankfully, however, the issue ensured that Button played a starring role in a barnstorming finish that will live long in the memory.
In the pack: Hamilton fought his way onto the podium after starting seventh on the grid
On lap 45, fans who made the trip to the Shanghai circuit, along with a global television audience well in excess of the sprawling city’s 23 million population, were treated to a battle royal between Hamilton and Mark Webber for fifth place while Button heaped pressure on Vettel for third.
Three laps on, hearts were in mouths as Vettel pressured Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus into running wide, allowing Button to sail through. Seconds later Hamilton took advantage of Webber running wide to pull off yet another pass.
‘Five laps to go’ flashed on the screen, the cue for Button to pinch second from Vettel under braking into the hairpin. One lap to go and it was Hamilton’s turn to cope with the pressure of being in a Red Bull sandwich before taking Vettel to make it a hat-trick of third places this season.
Depair: Michael Schumacher was an early casualty in China having started on the front row
It really was racing as it should be, harking back to the halcyon days of the sport when driver skill and not technical wizardry was paramount. Such was the spectacle that even McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh was in no way depressed despite seeing Button robbed of the chance to fight for his second win of the season.
Standing tall: Rosberg celebrates his win in China, his first in Formula One
‘This is a season where you have got to take the chances and deal with traffic,’ said Whitmarsh. ‘You can’t just always drop drivers into clear air. You are having to drop them into traffic and they have got to do their job; they have got to overtake on the circuit. Both of our guys did a fantastic job of that. If that is what this championship is going to be about then we have got two great drivers for that.’
Leading the way: Rosberg got off to the best possible start in China
Pirelli tyres and the banning of the exhaust blown diffuser which Vettel and Red Bull used to such devastating effect last season have been instrumental in such a levelling of the playing field.
In a week when the sport’s power brokers handled the Bahrain issue poorly, they should at least be congratulated for providing grand prix racing with a set of rules which creates action of this calibre.