Nico Rosberg took his first ever win in the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, ending a dominating twenty seconds ahead of Jenson Button. The Briton had a problem in a pit stop that cost him a fight for the win. Lewis Hamilton completed the podium, having participated in a ten car fight over eight positions in the third of the race. Kimi Raikkonen looked safe to finish on the podium, but drifted back to twelfth in that fight, as Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel completed the top five. It was a race of strategy, with teams using both two and three stop strategies. There was no rain, but plenty of clouds in a grand prix that saw plenty of dicing for position, and Michael Schumacher the only retirement.
Rosberg (1:35.121) set the pole winning time in a remarkable fashion, retiring to the garage after one fast run early in the final Q3 part of Saturday’s qualifying session. Though Hamilton qualified second fastest, a gearbox change penalty dropped the Briton back to the seventh starting position and put Schumacher on for a Mercedes front row. Not only is it Rosberg’s first pole ever, it is also the first pole for a Mercedes factory car since 1955, when two Silver Arrows also started on the front row in Italy. Hamilton and Schumacher set the fastest practice times, but neither’s quali lap was closer than a half second to Rosberg. Kobayashi qualified fourth fastest but began the race in third, with next to him on the grid. Button and Webber completed the third row of starters.
Webber contributed to teammate Vettel’s poor qualifying showing (he started only eleventh) by posting the fastest lap on the softer tyres in Q2 and knocking his teammate out in that session. Neither Red Bull looked to have any particular pace to match the Mercedes powered cars at the front in any of the practice sessions. Hamilton led both the Friday and Saturday morning sessions, with Schumacher taking the advantage at the end of the dry Friday afternoon session. Both Ferraris again struggled through the practices, but Alonso managed to qualify ninth and Massa twelfth. Despite the lack of grip and multitudinous slides and trips over kerbing, only Timo Glock suffered an incident during any of the sessions. He appeared to lose the front wing and nose cone entering Turn 1, leading to his skittering across the gravel and belting his Marussia into the tyre barrier. He was generally unhurt, though perplexed.
Vergne started from the pit lane after Toro Rosso made changes to the car overnight, but on the cloudy but dry grid, Rosberg and Schumacher got away cleanly at the front. Raikkonen slotted into third, then got passed by Button as much of the midfield shuffled into the first turn. There was a bit of contact between Massa’s rear and Senna’s front wing as well. As the lap progressed, Perez had moved up to get next to teammate Kobayashi by getting around Webber. Kobayashi had slid backward as Button and Raikkonen swamped him from either side into the the first turn. The Australian muscled his way through on Alonso as well. Still, Rosberg led Schumacher, Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Perez, Kobayashi, Alonso, Webber, and Massa as the top ten. Vettel dropped to fourteenth by the end of the first lap. On replay, Schumacher did a teammate’s job keeping the rest of the field cleanly behind Rosberg on the start.
At the front, Rosberg gained a one and a half second gap on Schumacher, with the older German gaining nearly precisely the same gap on Button to complete the top three as the third lap ended. Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Perez, and Kobayashi were all within a second of each other as DRS became enabled. Rosberg continued to gain at the front as the early laps ticked off, while Vettel complained that he could not get around Di Resta on the straights. Webber was the first to pit, from eleventh, on L7 for the harder, medium compound tyre. He dropped to twentieth. At the front, Rosberg was up to 3.5s ahead of his teammate, while Schumacher, Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, and Perez were all less than a second apart. Webber, well down the order, was faring very well, posting the race fast lap on his new tyres. Despite a massive amount of DRS passing last year, there was little of it in the early stages of this race.
Pit Stops Begin/End L10:
Sauber took a look at Webber’s fast time and brought in Kobayashi on L10. Vettel and Hulkenberg also pitted that lap. That shook up the Rosberg, Schumacher, Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Perez, Alonso, Massa, Grosjean, Senna order as L10 ended. Button, Raikkonen, and Hamilton were having a right old battle without any parry or thrust, leading to Raikkonen and Hamilton pitting on the next lap for the harder tyres. McLaren barely got Hamilton out on the stop, as the two drivers went down the pit lane side-by-side. They came out as Webber came by. The Australian took Raikkonen through Turn 1, with the Finn attempting to fight back mightily. He did not manage to retak the position, as Webber wet off to take a look at Hamilton. Raikkonen returned Webber’s favor as Button and a train of cars made their way through the pits for new tyres. Schumacher pitted on L13, as did Alonso and Senna, leaving Rosberg, Perez, and Massa the top three. They had not yet pitted.
Schumacher rejoined in fifth, but Hamilton was around him immediately. Schumacher, though, did not continue, having pulled off and radioed the team, “I’m losing my wheel. Out of the race.” On replay, it was clear that the right front mechanic was waving to stop the release as Schumacher had already begun leaving the pit stall. Meanwhile, Rosberg had a clean stop from the lead, rejoining in third. Perez led Massa as L15 ended, though neither had yet stopped. Rosberg, Button, Hamilton, Webber, and Raikkonen were the nominal top five behind them. Perez finally pitted on L17 after a massive lock up. He rejoined in tenth, between Grosjean and Vettel. Massa led, but only for a few moments as Rosberg swamped him down the back straight on fresh tyres and was quickly nearly a second ahead. Massa finally pitted on L19, dropping down to fourteenth and keeping the harder tyre on his Ferrari. Meanwhile, the race control announced that Mercedes would be investigated after the race for an unsafe release.
As L20 ended, Rosberg held nearly a five second lead over Button, with Hamilton two seconds behind his teammate in third. Webber was a lonely fourth while Raikkonen, Alonso, and Kobayashi were tightly compacted across the line. Grosjean, Vettel, and Perez completed the top ten, but that order would not last long.
Second Pit Stops Begin (L22):
Webber pitted on L22 for another set of the medium compound tyre. He returned to the track in fourteenth. Hamilton pitted for his second time on L23, dropping down to thirteenth, directly behind Massa and in front of the closing Webber. Button pitted next on L25 with a quick stop, He came back out in tenth, just behind Maldonado. He was quickly locked in a duel for position with the Venezuelan. Kobayashi pitted as Button used the DRS to get around the Williams. Hamilton continued to pressure Massa as Webber did the same from the Briton’s rear. He pushed his way through, forcing Massa wide, without any contact from either man, leaving the Brazilian to Webber’s tender mercies. Having watched Hamilton make his way through at the hairpin, Webber did the same. Massa attempted to push back beside, but the Red Bull remained in front. Alonso pitted for the softer tyre from third on L28. He rejoined eleventh.
Halfway (End L28)/Second Pit Stops Continue:
The order remained mixed up, with Rosberg leading at halfway without having stopped for a second time. Raikkonen pitted as L28 ended, leaving Grosjean, Vettel, Button, Perez, Maldonado, Hamilton, Senna, Webber, and Di Resta the top ten. Button, Hamilton, and Webber all stopped twice while the rest were still on their second set of tyres. Raikkonen returned to the race in thirteenth. Senna stopped next on L30, as did Petrov. Vettel pitted for yet another set of the harder tyre as Rosberg continued to lose time to Button in third. Without attempting a two stopper, Mercedes was in danger of losing the lead on a pit stop. Grosjean stopped on L33 from second, leaving Rosberg, Perez, Maldonado, and Massa of the top ten likely attempting a two stop strategy. Hamilton and Webber, meanwhile, were stacking up behind Perez as he looked to make the tyres on his Sauber last. Webber saw an opportunity to have a go at Hamilton at Turn 4, and pushed hard, but the Briton recovered and fought back. They maintained position.
Rosberg finally pitted on L35, as did Webber. It was the Australian’s third stop. While they did so, Sauber encouraged Perez to hold out for another few laps. Rosberg rejoined in second, nearly ten seconds behind Button as L35 ended. Perez pitted at that time, leaving clear track ahead of Hamilton who moved into third. The Briton may have had more than four seconds to catch Rosberg, but Alonso was just tenths behind his old teammate while his current one held station seven seconds back to round out the top five with twenty laps remaining. Well back in eleventh, Webber lost a bit of control over the kerbs, getting a bit of air for a wheelie in his Red Bull. He safely returned all four wheels to the ground and continued on.
Third Pit Stops Begin (L39):
As L38 ended, Button led Rosberg, Hamilton, Alonso, Massa, Raikkonen, Kobayashi, Vettel, Grosjean, and Senna as the top ten. That order did not last as Hamilton, Alonso, and Kobayashi all pitted on L39. McLaren got Hamilton cleanly out ahead of Alonso, leaving the two men free to duel on similar rubber. Button pitted on the next lap for the harder tyre, leaving Rosberg in the lead. Button had a major problem with the left rear, dropping down to sixth with a terribly slow stop as the wheel gun did not want to properly attach the nut. Massa again moved up to second, having only stopped once by L41. Raikkonen and Vettel filled in the order ahead of Button, who had already disposed of Grosjean. The Frenchman was quickly dropping back, as Webber went around him on the next lap. Massa pitted on L42, leaving Raikkonen more than twenty-one seconds behind Rosberg. Vettel in third had also only stopped twice, but would have to stop again to switch tyre compounds as per the rules.
However, Raikkonen, Vettel, Button, Grosjean, Webber, Hamilton, Senna, Maldonado, and Alonso were all less than a second apart. Alonso had a go at Maldonado but got well off line and went wide, losing much position and nearly running into Perez when rejoining. Rosberg continued to gain on Raikkonen, over twenty-three seconds ahead of the former champion, and nearly safe to stop for the third time and maintain the lead. Webber pushed Grosjean hard for fifth, with the Lotus fighting back, then going off the track and losing that position and others.
10 Laps Remaining:
Rosberg had nearly twenty-five seconds on Raikkonen, who was under pressure from Vettel, with Button, Webber, and Hamilton all directly behind each other. Senna had some breathing room in seventh with Grosjean behind while Maldonado and Alonso completed the top ten with ten to go. Even on fading tyres, Rosberg continued to gain on the equally fagged Raikkonen as the laps ticked away. Hamilton had a look at Webber for fifth into Turn 1, but the Australain dove back and held his position. Vettel similarly pushed Raikkonen for second, forcing the Finn wide as Alonso had earlier. Vettel took second while confusion reigned with Webber also pushing and going off onto the grass. Raikkonen slid backward as Hamilton, then Senna, then Grosjean all made their way through on the Finn. Soon so did Maldonado and Alonso. Kobayashi and Perez also passed him, adding to the off line racing as Perez pushed his teammate extraordinarily wide to pass Raikkonen. The Finn dropped from second to twelfth in two laps on his rapidly degrading tyres.
Things had settled down momentarily as five laps remained, with Rosberg twenty-five seconds ahead of Vettel. Button was also comparatively safe in third, just a half second behind Vettel but two seconds ahead of his teammate Hamilton. It was not to be, though, as Button ended L51 by passing Vettel into the hairpin. That left Vettel just tenths ahead of Hamilton and part of the dice that included teammate Webber. Behind them, drivers had begun to gap a bit in the final laps. Still, Hamilton continued to push Vettel for the final podium position. Further back, Alonso looked ready to pass Maldonado as Kobayashi joined the mix to make it three wide. Ahead, Hamilton took third into the hairpin, but Vettel was beside him into the final turn. Hamilton made the pass stick and Vettel had to fend off Webber as two laps remained.
To begin the last lap, Webber pushed his way through on Vettel into the final turn and across the line. The big story was at the front, as Rosberg took his first ever win on the weekend he took his first ever pole. Button maintained his second place position, with Hamilton completing the podium. Only Schumacher did not complete the race.
Final Positions, 2012 Chinese Grand Prix:
Driver Team Gap Pit 1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 2 2. Jenson Button McLaren 0.6 3 3. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 26.0 3 4. Mark Webber Red Bull 27.9 3 5. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 30.4 2 6. Romain Grosjean Lotus 31.4 2 7. Bruno Senna Williams 34.5 2 8. Pastor Maldonado Williams 35.6 2 9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 37.2 3 10. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 38.7 3 11. Sergio Perez Sauber 41.0 2 12. Paul Di Resta Force India 42.2 2 13. Felipe Massa Ferrari 42.7 2 14. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 50.5 2 15. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 51.2 2 16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 51.7 3 17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 63.1 2 18. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1 Lap 2 19. Timo Glock Marussia 1 Lap 2 20. Charles Pic Marussia 1 Lap 3 21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1 Lap 2 22. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 2 Laps 2 23. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 3 Laps 4 Michael Schumacher Mercedes 44 Laps 1