What a fantastic weekend of F1 racing at its best we had in Shanghai! I can't recall a qualifying session that was so close across the grid and the race was a fascinating battle of strategy and wheel to wheel racing for track position. There was so much overtaking going on that at times it seemed like a Formula Ford race rather than an F1 snoozefest of recent years. It really looks like the DRS / Pirelli era of F1 has answered the age old problem of "no overtaking" and full credit to Paul Hembrey and Charlie Whiting and their respective teams.
One man who didn't have to do any overtaking was Nico Rosberg. The race winner's performance was sublime both in qualifying and throughout the grand prix. Mercedes GP have been threatening to challenge the podium in Australia and Malaysia but couldn't quite get a handle on the 2012 spec tyres for the races. A lot of people, myself included I admit, had doubts whether Mercedes would really be able to fix their tyre woes but they answered all their critics in the best possible way with a race win on a strategy that had one less pitstop than most expected them to make.
There's no doubt that their "super DRS" is helping them with straight line speed and therefore a Mercedes car on pole position was a pretty easy conclusion to reach before the weekend. The more interesting fact for me is that even in the race, Nico had good pace and was able to take the win. I still question whether he had a faster race pace than the McLarens but ultimately, the combination of qualifying at the front and having track position early on was enough for him to convert pole position to a comfortable lead. Nico was able to manage the tyres just beautifully and the team were brave enough to leave him out on track for a few laps at the end of each stint despite the fact they were sometimes losing up to 2 seconds per lap to Jenson. It was a fantastically managed race in the car and on the pitwall.
The only downside to the whole weekend was the problem during Michael Schumacher's pitstop. That was a real shame for Michael and the team because I think he was in genuine contention for a podium there. I don't think Michael would've beaten Nico - If you look at the gap after 10 laps, it was up to 5.2 seconds which was pretty similar to his 0.5 second deficit in qualifying, but his first podium after the comeback certainly looked on.
The McLaren duo will be pretty pleased with the points gathered. Jenson was robbed of a real chance at victory I think with that slow final pitstop which not only cost him 6 seconds but dropped him in traffic. Lewis was on the back foot even before the weekend with his 5 place grid penalty for the gearbox change. He'll be reasonably pleased with a podium after an action pack race of wheel to wheel battles. Their 3 stop strategies worked reasonably well and you really do get the feeling that in race trim, the McLaren is still the best car on the grid. It's early days yet, but I'm slowly starting to get the feeling that the World Championship battle could end up being a straight fight between the McLaren drivers unless Red Bull and Ferrari can recover quickly and Mercedes are able to show consistent pace on all types of circuits.
Red Bull Racing have a real challenge on their hands this year. For the first time since 2009, they've started the season not having the best car and the in-season development race this year is going to be crucial for them. With the midfield being so closely bunched to each other and to the leading pack in qualifying, Red Bull have to be careful not to get caught out more often like Vettel did on Saturday, where a mere 3 tenths of a second was the gap between Webber who was fastest and the reigning World Champion in 11th.
The midfield teams confused me a bit with their form this weekend. Lotus seemed to have pretty good pace and looked in good shape for at least a top 5 with Kimi but then decided to try and do 28 laps on one set of tyres in the last stint which really made no sense to me. It seemed like 18 laps was about the limit of having decent pace and then you could extend for 2 or 3 to get into the strategy window if you needed to but after that the drop off was massive. It seemed like the team opted for a high risk strategy with Kimi to try and get a podium when realistically, a more conventional strategy would've got them good points in 4th or 5th.
Williams once again showed mediocre qualifying speed but fantastic race pace and were very good on the tyres to record a double points finish. If you take away Pastor's last lap mistake in Australia and the retirement at the end in Malaysia, the team would've had 5 out of 6 points scoring finishes. In my mind, they really are the most improved team of the winter, although to be fair, things couldn't really get much worse last year!
Sauber was the disappointment of Sunday I think. Kamui did an outstanding job in qualifying, getting through to Q3 with a set of new option tyres to spare. In the race, both cars looked reasonably competitive on the soft tyre but as soon as they put on the mediums, their pace just fell away and I think the cooler track conditions probably hurt a team that is traditionally very good on tyres. The cooler conditions may have left them slightly out of the critical tyre temperature window hurting performance more dramatically than in the Bridgestone era.
Three races in and this season already is building up to be one of the best in F1 history. Three different teams have won races so far; Lotus, Williams and Sauber are locked into a fantastic midfield battle with each of them having an outside shot of a podium every time; Ferrari are in a bit of a mess until they can make big changes to the car and the McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes arrive at the circuit every weekend knowing they have a real chance of victory!