Two points for ninth place was the sum total that Scuderia Ferrari took away from the Chinese Grand Prix, thanks to a ninth place for Fernando Alonso. Team-mate Felipe Massa finished in thirteenth spot. Nico Rosberg had a perfect weekend, converting Saturday’s pole into a commanding win, his very first in the top category of motorsport. It was also a maiden victory for his Mercedes team in its current incarnation. Completing the podium with the German were the two McLaren drivers, in the order Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. As expected, Fernando thus loses the lead in the Drivers’ championship, slipping to third behind the two McLaren men, this time in the order Hamilton, Button. The Scuderia is third in the Constructors’ classification.
Tyres and traffic were the key factor today with the Prime seemingly the most suited to the track conditions. There was a variety of strategies in use, with the winner opting for a two stop and his two closest pursuers using four sets of tyres, which would only work if they kept clear of traffic.This would later affect Fernando as he spent time stuck behind slower cars, unable to get by because of the F2012’s lack of top speed. Not only were the number of stops varied, but the difference in stint length also made for a fascinating race as drivers fought one another with different rates of tyre wear.
Everyone got away cleanly at the start, with Vergne starting from pit lane in the Toro Rosso. Rosberg and Schumacher maintained their front row grid positions for Mercedes, while Fernando Alonso went from ninth to eighth on the opening lap and Felipe Massa went from twelfth to tenth. The Brazilian made up an extra place when Webber ahead of him made an early stop on lap 7 to switch to the Prime tyre, however, the Ferrari man had the Lotus of Grosjean just half a second behind him. Vettel was the next to pit in the Red Bull on lap 10 followed by Hulkenberg who also changed the nose on his Force India. Raikkonen and Hamilton pitted together and the McLaren got the advantage as they went down pit lane side by side. Back on track, Webber also managed to get past the Lotus.
On lap 14, Rosberg pitted from the lead, one lap after Schumacher parked out on track to retire, so this meant Perez was leading in the Sauber. Felipe, also yet to stop, was lying second while Fernando, who had pitted on lap 12 was eighth. Rosberg was third at this point, followed by the McLarens of Button and Hamilton, then Webber and Raikkonen. Completing the top ten behind Fernando were Kobayashi and Grosjean. Felipe, still on the Prime tyre, took the lead on lap 17 when Perez pitted the Sauber.
Felipe made his first pit stop on lap 18, which dropped him down to fourteenth, also finding himself in traffic, while Fernando was sixth. At the front, on lap 20 the order was Rosberg, Button, Hamilton, Webber, Raikkonen. The Australian Red Bull driver was again the first driver to make the second stop on lap 22, as Fernando was closing on fourth placed Raikkonen. Hamilton pitted on lap 23 from third taking on the Prime tyre. Lap 24 saw Fernando still fourth behind Raikkonen while Felipe was now 12th behind Di Resta in the Force India. Button made a second stop on lap 25, which meant Fernando was lying third, behind Rosberg and Raikkonen. One lap later, Hamilton managed to squeeze himself past Felipe who thus dropped to thirteenth and on lap 27, Webber got past the F2012 at the same point on the track. Fernando pitted for a second time and the Ferrari rejoined in 13th, one place behind his team-mate. On different strategies, the Spaniard, who was three stopping, was able to pass the two-stopping Brazilian on lap 31 and then moved up to ninth, passing Di Resta. As Vettel pitted from seventh, the two Ferraris each moved up a place on lap 32. Grosjean pitted from second on lap 33, with Button now in second place, faster than anyone, running a three stop strategy, but 14.5 seconds adrift of Rosberg.
Behind the Englishman, Perez, Hamilton and Webber were having a fantastic scrap for third place, until the Sauber pitted on lap 36. Rosberg made his second and final stop, rejoining behind a new leader, Jenson Button, with the Mercedes hoping to go to the end of the race from here while the McLaren would visit the pits once more. Fernando was now fourth with Felipe, yet to make his second stop, behind him but over eight seconds down. Lap 38 and Hamilton came in just ahead of Fernando, the two men battling for third, rejoining 10th and 11th. While the McLaren would now be able to work its way past slower cars, the Ferrari man could not. Button came in from the lead on lap 40, but a delay on changing the left rear cost him too much time and he rejoined sixth.
Rosberg was back in command, now with Felipe second, 17.5 behind, followed very closely by Raikkonen, Vettel, Button and Grosjean. As Felipe made his second stop, on lap 41he dropped down to 14th. Fernando slipped off the track trying to pass Maldonaldo. With nine laps remaining there was a massive crocodile of six cars behind second placed Raikkonen, all of them nose to tail. The final laps were chaotic, conditioned by tyre wear and the Finn spiralled down the order, eventually finishing 14th, just behind Felipe. Vettel was second for a while but he could not fend off the two McLarens or his team-mate Mark Webber who finished fourth, with the reigning world champion in fifth. Grosjean came home sixth for Lotus ahead of the two Williams of Senna and Maldonaldo, while in the final points place behind Fernando, came the Sauber of Kobayashi.
Packing up the cars and equipment is a high-speed operation at the Shanghai Circuit as there are just four days to go before the engines are fired up again, this time at the Sakhir Circuit which hosts next Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
Stefano Domenicali: “There’s no point denying we are disappointed. We had the potential to get a better result than this, but we did not manage it. The lack of top speed, one of the weak points of this F2012, prevented Fernando especially of making the most of a strategy, which at one point, had put him in a situation where he could fight for a place in the top five. Felipe went for a two stopper, counting on others having higher tyre degradation, but this only turned out to be the case for a few cars. It was quite an unusual race, as indeed was qualifying, which still delivered some surprises compared to what was being predicted and I think it is worth analysing the way it went in depth to try and understand how best to tackle the next round. In Bahrain we will again have to be racing on the defensive but that doesn’t mean we will go there in a resigned state of mind. We have seen three different winners in three races, with performance levels of some cars changing very significantly from race to race. At this stage, we must do the maximum on track and exploit every opportunity, but the most important work is that done in Maranello, especially on the aerodynamic development. We need to accelerate the introduction of updates and change gear. This is very long and unpredictable championship, where things can change very quickly. Finally, I’d like to congratulate Nico Rosberg on his first win in Formula 1 and Mercedes for a return to victory after a gap of 57 years.”
Fernando Alonso: “We knew this would be a difficult race and that’s how it turned out. We were always in traffic, without an opportunity to exploit the car’s potential and when you are behind other cars, the tyres get worn much more easily. Choosing to do three stops clearly meant we would be forced to do some overtaking, but with the top speed we had, it turned out to be almost impossible on the main straight, so I had to invent some overtaking moves at other points on the track, where I could make better use of the car. Obviously, this does not leave me very optimistic for Bahrain, on a track where traction and speed are vital, exactly the areas where we are weakest. Once again next week it will be mainly a case of damage limitation. I don’t want to think of the classification because the priority is to improve the performance of the F2012. This does not mean however, that I have lost hope, quite the contrary. Last year, we believed all the way to Spa and there’s no reason not to at the moment, when we are third in the classification, just eight points off the leader. Sure, we definitely need to make a good step forward to make the car quicker. In Spain we will have major updates but so will the others and so it’s not that I’m expecting a miracle of going one second quicker than the others.”
Felipe Massa: “I tried to do my best in a very close fought race. Sure, thirteenth place is not something I can be happy about, but I think that as far as my race was concerned, this was a step forward compared to the first two races of the season. At least I managed to run a normal race and I know I did everything that I could. The decision to make two stops was the right one, given my position, but maybe, in the light of how the race went, it would have been better to stop at different times: however, that’s easy to say now, after the chequered flag. Each and every time I found myself in traffic and paid for the lack of top speed, one of the major problems with our car at the moment. The Sakhir circuit, for the next round of the championship, does not look like being very favourable for us, given how things have gone so far. For me, it is a race where I have always done well, but I’m not under any illusions. As always, we will try and give it our best shot.”
Pat Fry: Definitely an interesting race for the spectators, but very frustrating for us. Traffic was the decisive factor in this race, which was easily predictable, given where our cars were on the grid. We split the strategies, also in light of the fact that with Felipe, we could choose which type of tyre he could start on. Seeing where we came out of the third pit stop with Fernando – alongside Hamilton, I think the choice was the right one, but we will analyse the way the race played out carefully to understand if we could have done anything differently. Clearly today, we paid a very heavy price for the lack of a good top speed on a track like this. The result does not represent the car’s true potential in race configuration but we have to accept it. We lack performance, we know it, but there is no point in beating ourselves up over it: rather we need to concentrate all our efforts on improving car performance. Next week in Bahrain we won’t have any particularly significant updates, so we cannot expect a miracle: we must try and squeeze the maximum out of what we have to work with. I want to finish on a positive note, complimenting the pit stop guys, who once again today did a great job, as the times can testify.”