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Nico Rosberg is celebrating his maiden Formula 1 victory, having won Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix in dominant fashion. After starting from pole, the son of 1982 World Champion Keke was aided by a pit-stop problem for Jenson Button as Lewis Hamilton finished third to lead the Drivers’ Championship.
In one of the most dramatic races the sport has witnessed for some time, Rosberg led commandingly from pole as his lead extended to 25 seconds thanks to an efficient strategy and a number of scenarios behind him. The 26-year-old, who made his debut with Williams in 2006, becomes the seventh German to win in F1 history and also marks a significant milestone for Mercedes, which returned as a works team two years ago. The company last won with Juan Manuel Fangio at Monza in 1955.
Judging by the starting grid, Sunday’s race always was going to be dramatic, with Rosberg leading and all-Mercedes front row from Kamui Kobayashi and Kimi Räikkönen. However, the McLarens of Button and Hamilton – starting fifth and seventh, respectively – were tipped by many for a one-two finish. Following much work overnight, Jean-Éric Vergne’s Toro Rosso started from the pit lane.
A clean start allowed Rosberg to lead without issues, as Michael Schumacher held second but began to lose pace and drop into the clutches of Button, whose own stunning start saw him seize third place on the outside of Turn 1. Further back, Bruno Senna tapped the back of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari and broke a front wing end plate on his Williams. From 11th on the grid, a frustrating afternoon for World Champion Sebastian Vettel began with a plummet to 15th.
Rosberg’s lead continued to increase as Schumacher looked threatened by those behind; however, the seven-time Champion became the only retirement on only Lap 12, as a pit-stop error resulted in a loose wheel. The German duly pulled off the circuit as Button took up second place from Hamilton and Mark Webber, whose speed had been sufficient to jump several cars during the opening pit-stop window. Massa and Sergio Pérez enjoyed stints in the lead but, in a race which featured many hard but fair passing manoeuvres throughout the field, were soon engulfed by the quicker cars. Vettel also benefitted from the stops, recovering to his grid position of 11th after the opening round of pit lane visits.
Prior to Lap 39, Button led Rosberg for five laps, with the Englishman and German on respective three and two-stop strategies. The McLaren driver would be required to pit and then catch the Mercedes, but a sticking left-rear wheel lost him at least six seconds and dropped the 2009 title winner into the chasing pack; McLaren’s second pit-stop mistake in as many races allowed Rosberg to extend a massive lead and he was then able to control the pace.
Having pitted earlier than most but now on much older tyres, Räikkönen found himself second, but the Finn’s dramatic demise came as he lost ten places in just two laps. On the 48th tour, Vettel – on a similar race plan – overtook the Finn at Turn 6. Making the most of the opportunity, Hamilton saw Webber challenge Räikkönen and quickly capitalised, overhauling both men for fourth. Both McLarens and Webber then proceeded to catch and pass Vettel, demoting the number one car to fifth by the time the chequered flag fell.
Unlike team-mate Räikkönen, Romain Grosjean pitted later and preserved his tyres well; escaping from an off-track excursion at Turn 6, the Franco-Swiss registered not just his first finish of the season, but a career-best with sixth place. Bruno Senna delivered another highly respectable performance to come home seventh, with Pastor Maldonado confirming a superb day for Williams in eighth spot.
The top ten was rounded out by former championship leader Fernando Alonso – who did not help his cause by running off the track on Lap 43 – and Kobayashi, who could not capitalise on his starting position. Both men demoted Sepang star Pérez, who missed out on the final point and therefore drops from fifth to seventh in the standings.
A dramatic start to the 2012 season has now brought Formula 1 its 103rd different race winner, as Rosberg slowed in the closing stages but still won by 20 seconds. There is now a McLaren one-two in the drivers’ table, with Hamilton leading Button by just two points after yet another third place finish. For Constructors’ honours, McLaren extends its lead over Red Bull to 24 points as F1 prepares to return to Bahrain.
Formula 1 continues with the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend
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