Nico Rosberg (1:35.121) posted a dominant lap time early in qualifying for the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix that won him his first career pole and Merecedes its first since 1955. Though Lewis Hamilton’s time was second fastest, Michael Schumacher will make it a Mercedes front row due to a gearbox penalty for the British driver. Rosberg managed to emulate reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, sitting in the garage as his rivals remained unable to close on his time at the end of Q3. Vettel, constantly looking to rest upon his laurels after setting a moderately fast time ended up knocked out in Q2 as teammate Webber went fastest of all at the end of that session. Kobayshi, and Raikkonen completed the fastest five times. Q1 used rather a lot of soft tyres and shook up the typical order as multiple teams took the gamble to lose a set of tyres in favor of getting out of the first session. Though Vettel did look to be in some danger (ending that session only fifteenth fastest), Vergne joined Caterham, Marussia, and HRT in the knockout zone.
Hamilton led two of the three practice sessions, the first on Friday morning (1:36.106) in cold and damp conditions and the last on Saturday morning (1:35.940) in dry and occasionally nearly sunny conditions. Friday afternoon, the Briton still dominated much of the session with a quick lap time, but a late session surge from Schumacher (1:35.973) put the German on top of the timesheets. Both McLaren and Mercedes were powerful during all three practices, with Schumacher and Rosberg in the fastest five in all three practices. Button fared not quite so well as his teammate, but did not also suffer the same five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. Throughout all three generally uneventful but gripless sessions, Ferrari languished in slower times from both Alonso and Massa. Interestingly, it appeared that only McLaren and Mercedes bothered with the typical late FP3 quali runs, as most of the rest of the field settled in for race pace simulations to the end.
The sun stopped peeking through the smog as the twenty minutes of Q1 got underway. There was no rush, as Di Resta led the drivers out for the first session of the knockout qualifying, more than a minute into the session. Quickly thereafter a third of the drivers got going with the hint of rain possible but unlikely. Five minutes into Q1, Di Resta (1:38.190) set the first time, only to have Massa beat it. The Red Bull and Mercedes drivers still remained in the garage, but every other driver was on track to set a time. Early times soon shook out, with Hamilton (1:36.763) and Button taking an early lead. Vettel’s first lap put him third fastest while Webber still lacked a time.
However, his first lap (1:36.682) put him fastest, as Hamilton, Kobayashi, Vettel, Schumacher, Button, Raikkonen, Perez, Maldonado, and Alonso completed the top ten at halfway. Meanwhile, Petrov, Kovalainen, Pic, Glock, de la Rosa, Karthikeyan, and Rosberg were in the knockout zone, all having set times. Rosberg’s first faster lap put him seventh fastest as Vettel wondered if his time were enough to keep him moving forward to Q2. Most drivers were back in the garage with eight minutes to go, as Vergne joined Caterham, Marussia, and HRT in the knockout zone.
Massa used the softer tyres as he rejoined, looking well in danger of getting knocked out in sixteenth. Nearer the top, Schumacher went fourth fastest with just over six minutes remaining. Only he, Rosberg, Di Resta, Hulkenberg, Massa, and Kovalainen were on track at that time. Massa went fastest of all in his first sector on the soft tyres while the stewards informed the world that Maldonado and Kovalainen had come under investigation for blocking by the Venezuelan driver.
Grosjean, Senna, Di Resta, and Hulkenberg joined Massa on the soft tyres as the Brazilian went fastest of all, but only by just over a tenth. Other than Massa, the top eight remained in the garage with four minutes remaining. Kovalainen and Petrov (nineteenth and twentieth fastest) were still in the garage. Di Resta joined Massa at the top, going second fastest, while Button also joined the fray. Alonso in fourteenth also pulled the trigger on the soft tyre while the order at the top got shaken up by the six tenths gain on the softer tyre. With two to go, Vergne remaine din the knockout zone. Alonso had dropped down to seventeenth, but went fastest, only to be supplanted by Perez. With all this use of softs, Vettel dropped to fifteenth while still in the garage. Button, Hamilton, Schumacher, Raikkonen, Kobayashi, Rosberg, and Vettel had no way to get back out.
As the seconds ticked down, Vergne was unable to improve and did not make it across the line before the flag flew. In the end, Perez (1:36.198) led Alonso, Grosjean, Maldonado, Massa, Di Resta, Senna, Webber, Button, and Hamilton as the top ten in a messy order due to rather a lot of used soft tyres. All times were well within the 107% rule.
Knocked Out in Q1:
18. Jean-Eric Vergne
19. Heikki Kovalainen
20. Vitaly Petrov
21. Timio Glock
22. Charles Pic
23. Pedro de la Rosa
24. Narain Karthikeyan
There was again no rush to start off the second, fifteen minute, session of qualifying, as nearly two minutes passed before Kobayashi set off to post a time. Quickly thereafter, Raikkonen and Perez joined him, as did Alonso and Rosberg all on soft tyres. Obviously, the Japanese driver set the first time (1:35.962), but he was soon supplanted by Raikkonen, then Rosberg. Alonso was the slowest of the early men to set times, until Di Resta’s time came in slower than the Spaniard’s. Rosberg was the last out, with just nine minutes remaining. Times continued to come in as the minutes ticked down.
At halfway, the cars were back in the garage with Rosberg (1:35.725) leading Schuamcher, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Kobayashi, Vettel, Button, Perez, Webber, and Alonso as the top ten. Maldonado, Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, Senna, Di Resta, Massa, and Grosjean (without a time due to a bad final sector) were in the knockout zone. Vettel wondered if his time was enough, but his engineer noted that he would have to go back out, adding that the more important question was if they should continue on those used tyres or try a new set.
Only the Red Bulls (sixth and ninth) were on track as the final five minutes began, then Alonso joined them. Only those in the knockout zone or on the bubble were out with four to go, as Kobayashi and Perez joined them a minute later. Still, Ricciardo and Grosjean remained in the garage. Hamilton went back out, as did Vettel, Button, and Webber with two to go. That left only the Mercedes drivers and Raikkonen resting on their laurels. Alonso moved up to sixth fastest with time for just one more lap. Massa moved up to tenth moments later. There was much movement within the knockout zone, but little movement to get outside it. Massa looked safe as drivers continued to be unable to improve, but for a fast lap from Perez going third fastest and dropping Massa to eleventh. In the end, a final fast lap from Webber (1:35.700) put him fastest over Rosberg but more importantly knocked Vettel out. The German was behind him on track and did not improve his time. Webber led Rosberg, Schumacher, Perez, Kobayashi, Hamilton, Grosjean, Raikkonen, Button, and Alonso as those moving on to Q3.
Knocked Out in Q2:
11. Sebastian Vettel
12. Felipe Massa
13. Pastor Maldonado
14. Bruno Senna
15. Paul Di Resta
16. Nico Hulkenberg
17. Daniel Ricciardo
Raikkonen kicked off the ten minute fight to pole in Q3, followed by Rosberg a few seconds later. Just four drivers were circulating two minutes into the session as others held onto soft tyres. Schumacher, Rosberg, and Raikkonen all had an extra set, but Hamilton was also on course to post a time in case it rained, though the forecast indicated that it would not. Raikkonen’s first lap (1:35.898) was quickly bettered by more than seven tenths by Rosberg. Schumacher slotted between them, only to have Hamilton supplant him as second fastest as the sky continued to darken.
Webber joined them with barely more than five minutes to go. The others remained in the garage at halfway. As the top four returned to the garage, Perez left. Kobayashi was the next to venture out, as Button and Alonso left only Grosjean sitting out the session with three to go. Raikkonen also rejoined. All but Rosberg, who was out of his car, were out at the clock hit two minutes remaining. Webber managed only fifth fastest on his first lap. Perez went sixth fastest in the final seconds with enough time for another lap. Webebr gave up from fifth, pitting at the end. Button’s first lap was his only one, giving him sixth. Kobayashi popped up to fourth as Alonso slotted into ninth. Hamilton’s lap was well off Rosberg’s time, as was Schumacher’s. The final laps were not enough to close on Rosberg’s time, giving the young German his first ever pole while sitting in the garage just like Vettel in 2011. It is Mercedes’ first pole since 1955.
Final Qualifying Times for the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix:
Driver Team Time Laps 1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:35.121 11 2. Lewis Hamilton* McLaren 1:35.626 14 3. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:35.691 13 4. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1:35.784 13 5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:35.898 15 6. Jenson Button McLaren 1:36.191 16 7. Mark Webber Red Bull 1:36.290 14 8. Sergio Perez Sauber 1:36.524 17 9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:36.622 17 10. Romain Grosjean Lotus no time 15 11. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:36.031 11 12. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:36.255 14 13. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:36.283 14 14. Bruno Senna Williams 1:36.289 14 15. Paul Di Resta Force India 1:36.317 14 16. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:36.745 14 17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:36.956 14 18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:37.714 8 19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1:38.463 9 20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1:38.677 7 21. Timo Glock Marussia 1:39.282 10 22. Charles Pic Marussia 1:39.717 10 23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1:40.411 7 24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1:41.000 10
*to be assessed a five-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race start