The Pit Stop: Rosberg’s maiden triumph puts Mercedes back at the front

Nico Rosberg joined the elite club of Formula One race winners with a consummate performance in the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend. But just as important as far as the season ahead is concerned, he demonstrated Mercedes have become genuine contenders for race victory. And when you can win races, you can win championships.

However, Rosberg would have had a more difficult task had three crucial things not fallen in his favour.

First, Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty. Yes, Rosberg was quicker than Hamilton in qualifying anyway. But Hamilton’s relegation from second to seventh condemned him to a race mostly spent in traffic, unable to reel in the flying Mercedes.

Second, Mark Webber’s aggressive three-stop strategy, which forced several of Rosberg’s closest challengers, such as Jenson Button, to run riskier strategies in order to keep Webber at bay.

And finally, Button’s slow pit stop on lap 40. Button had been cutting huge lumps out of Rosberg’s lead up until that time.

But a cross-threaded left-rear wheel nut kept him stationary for an extra six seconds. That left Button stuck in traffic when he should have been homing in on Rosberg for what would have been a thrilling end to the race.

Mercedes return to the front

Mercedes were F1’s powerhouse team of the mid-fifties. They returned as a factory entrant in 2010 following a 55-year absence. Rosberg’s win on Sunday was their tenth in a world championship race. If they can sustain that performance over the remaining 17 rounds, they can be championship contenders.

There are a couple of compelling reasons to take them seriously. First, their controversial ‘Double DRS’ system, which enhances their straight-line speed in qualifying, was ruled legal for the third weekend in a row in China.

The other teams clearly recognised the potential of the system, as they began protesting Mercedes before they started winning races and pole positions. As the device has been repeatedly declared legal, they have no choice but to develop their own. That may be easier said than done. The system requires ducting to run from the car’s rear wing all the way to the front. This may require significant reworking of the internals, where space and packaging requirements are already pushed to their limit.

The second reason is that Mercedes introduced their new car later than their rivals did, and arrived in Australia with less testing under their belts. In the first two races they experienced wildly differing tyre performance – first very high degradation, then an inability to get the tyres up to operating temperature.

They seemed to crack it in China – despite problems in practice, they were able to manage the wear on Rosberg’s tyres during the race.

Early betting for Bahrain and beyond

The Double DRS makes the W03 a strong proposition in qualifying, particularly at tracks with lots of straights. That’s certainly the case at the Bahrain International Circuit, scene of this weekend’s race, which has four long straights which place a premium on top speed. With that in mind, prices of 5.0 for Rosberg and 8.0 for team mate Michael Schumacher to take pole position look like good value indeed.

Steer clear of those Red Bulls, though, as Sebastian Vettel ended the last race complaining about the RB8’s poor performance on the straights.

Note also that Fernando Alonso’s odds of winning the world championship have risen again and now stand at 15.0. Alonso is just eight points behind leader Lewis Hamilton at present, with 425 left to be won. Ferrari are planning a significant upgrade for their troublesome F2012 in the test following this weekend’s race.

He’s already conjured one improbable win out of the car this year and, in the absence of a single driver dominating the championship, it’s too early to rule him out. But there’s a lot riding on that upgrade.

Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic