It takes a lot to make Ross Brawn emotional. But he does have his moments. One was when Jenson Button clinched the 2009 World Championship at the end of the incredible single year of F1 for the Brawn team. And another was this weekend in China when Nico Rosberg took the pressure off himself – and, more notably in Brawn’s case, off Mercedes – by scoring a maiden win for both at the end of an action-packed 56 laps.
Action-packed, that is, for everyone but the winner. Rosberg, having won half the battle by taking his first pole, made a perfect start and was never challenged again. Rosberg focused on looking after his tyres and he was surprised to hear about what seemed like half the field fighting over second place.
First, it was his team-mate, Michael Schumacher, but a one-two for Mercedes was denied when a problem with the right-front wheel during his first pit stop was made much worse when the automatic light system gave Schuey the green even before the hapless mechanic had reached for the back-up wheel gun.
Then it was Felipe Massa for a short period, then Kimi Raikkonen into second place, only for the Lotus team to seriously misjudge his two-stop strategy as the performance of the Pirellis dropped off the proverbial cliff and sent Raikkonen from second to 12th in three laps.
And then there was Jenson Button who, for a long time, had looked like being Rosberg’s biggest threat as he led the race briefly just after Nico’s second and final stop.
When Button came in for his third (and final) stop five laps later, it all went wrong. A cross-threaded nut on the left-rear cost Button five seconds, enough to deliver the McLaren into heavy traffic as a bunch of eight cars formed an unruly mob behind what was then Raikkonen’s second-place Lotus. Had Button returned in the planned clear air, the McLaren computer said he would have caught Rosberg with two laps to go.
Whether Button would have got ahead is another matter but his pace with fresher tyres would have forced Rosberg to push hard. As it was, Nico now had a very comfortable gap of more than 20 seconds; exactly what he needed in a race that was all about managing tyres. And, based on the first two races in which Mercedes had managed to score just a single point, that was the silver team’s Achilles Heel. Or so everyone thought.
“Yeah, we thought that might continue to be a problem here on Friday,” said Brawn. “The window of tyre performance is very narrow but, after changes to the setup, we were suddenly much happier, particularly on (heavy) full during FP3 (Free Practice 3 on Saturday morning). The difference this weekend was that, unlike Australia and Malaysia, we had consistent (dry) conditions all the way through practice and that really helped us find the sweet spot with the tyres. We knew the way to go – if we could do it – would be two stops. Three stops risked getting caught in traffic. But it was going to be an incredibly narrow window. Nico did the rest with an absolutely brilliant performance all weekend.”
Lewis Hamilton finished third behind Button to lead the championship, proving that consistency could reap rewards in what looks like being an extraordinary season with three different winners and six different drivers on the podium so far. And Hamilton has finished no higher than third.