Michael Schumacher returned to Formula One in 2010, to great fanfare and expectation. Thus far, he has disappointed himself and his legions of fans. But his fortunes could be changing.
The primary reason for Schumacher’s lack of success since returning to the sport is the car. The 2010 Mercedes was off the pace. The 2011 car was quick in testing, but turned out to be slow during the season. In a sport as competitive as Formula One, a slow car makes victory all but impossible.
The 2012 Mercedes is something of a revelation. In pre-season testing, the car looked quick. Qualifying for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix showed good one-lap pace, as Schumacher qualified fourth. In Malaysia, he was third on the grid, and China saw Nico Rosberg leading the first all-Mercedes front row since the return of the Silver Arrows to Formula One.
Despite the car’s proven qualifying pace, there was a lingering concern that the W03 might not be able to look after its tyres in race conditions. Rosberg showed in resounding fashion that the car can be quick over a race distance and can manage tyre wear well, by comfortably winning the Chinese Grand Prix.
So the car is quick. In qualifying and race conditions. The team has proven it can put together a victorious race weekend. Schumacher has shown his pace in qualifying, and there is little doubt that he has the race pace to succeed. Unless Mercedes’ performance in China turns out to be a one-off, the product of perfect track conditions and set-up, Schumacher’s return to the top cannot be far away.
This weekend sees Formula One return to Bahrain after the 2011 race was cancelled following political protests. The media has been full of speculation as to whether the race will, or in fact should, go ahead. One side of the discussion has gone largely unexplored – the Bahraini authorities dare not fail in hosting the Grand Prix.
The Bahraini government has been accused of using the Grand Prix to show that all is well in the kingdom. That’s hardly surprising. Large-scale sporting events are always a show of strength and stability for the local authorities. In fact, the success of the Grand Prix, rather than simply being bolstering for the monarchy, is essential for the worldwide image of the regime.
If this weekend’s race is marred by protest action, to the point that the racing is disrupted, it will show, to a truly global audience, that all is very much not well in Bahrain. If a single person, whether high-profile driver or unknown team member, is injured, even for reasons not connected to the protests, it will be taken by the rest of the world as an indicator that the protesters have a point.
The protesters have far more to gain from the Grand Prix than the authorities. If all goes well, the protesters lose nothing. The worldwide media is against the Bahraini government, and will likely remain so regardless of how the race proceeds. If the race goes badly, the opposition will be vindicated, and anti-regime sentiment will spread.
In short, the safety of all concerned is of paramount importance to the monarchy. Failure is not an option.
After three races in the 2012 Formula One season, there is almost no indication of who is likely to take the title. Even at this early stage in previous seasons, some sort of hierarchy would normally have emerged. But not this year.
In three races, there have been three different winners, and six different drivers on the podium. Seven different teams featured in the top 10 in Australia, nine in Malaysia, and seven again in China. Aside from the “new teams” – Caterham, Marussia and HRT – only Felipe Massa has yet to score points.
Qualifying has been astonishingly close. In Q2 for China, World Champion Sebastian Vettel was only 0.330s behind Mark Webber, who was quickest in the session. That tiny gap meant that Vettel was 11th, and did not progress into Q3. In the same Q2 session, the fastest and slowest times were only 1.231s apart.
In an environment as tough as this year’s Formula One grid, consistency is essential. Any poor result is heavily penalised, as is obvious in the case of Jenson Button. After winning in Australia, Button was out of the points in Malaysia, but performed well to finish second in China. Even so, he is only second in the championship. Fernando Alonso has had similarly mixed results. Fifth in Australia, a win in Malaysia and ninth in China puts him only third in the standings.
In the midst of all this inconsistency, one driver emerges at the top of the table. Lewis Hamilton has three third places. Not great results for a driver of his class and with a car as good as the McLaren. But his consistency puts him ahead of everyone else, leading the championship by two points from team-mate Button.
Consistency has won the title before. Keke Rosberg, father of Chinese Grand Prix winner Nico Rosberg, won the 1982 title despite only one race win that season. Pironi, Watson, Prost, Lauda and Arnoux each won two races, but it was Rosberg who triumphed due to six podiums and ten points finishes.
2012 promises to be one of the most open seasons in Formula One history. Each race weekend has been thrilling from start to finish. It’s anyone’s guess who will win the next race, and that is fantastic for the sport.
Nico Rosberg has won the Chinese Grand Prix in dominant fashion, leading almost the entire race from pole position. Any doubts about the race pace of the Mercedes have now been decisively put to rest. Team-mate Michael Schumacher retired from the race with a loose wheel, preventing what could easily have been a one-two for Mercedes.
After taking his career first pole position yesterday, Rosberg kept his head at the start of the race to lead Schumacher off the line. From there on, he was untouchable, easily pulling away from the rest of the field. Only Jenson Button looked like he could challenge the Mercedes for pace. Button was on a three-stop strategy to Rosberg’s two-stop, which meant Button was much quicker leading up to Rosberg’s second stop. An error by the McLaren pit-crew ended Button’s challenge, which meant Rosberg could just bring the car home for a comfortable 20-second victory.
Behind Rosberg, the racing was surprisingly close. It is unusual to see 12 cars separated by only 22 seconds at the end of a Grand Prix, but that was the gap between Button in second and Massa in 13th place. A train of 5 or more cars fighting for second place is more commonly seen in Formula Ford than in Formula One, but that is how close the racing was today. Seven different teams featured in the top 10, underlining just how competitive the season has been so far.
McLaren, despite the disappointment of Button’s slow pitstop, performed well to finish second (Button) and third (Hamilton), after starting fifth and seventh respectively. The pace of the McLaren remains evident, but they are certainly not as dominant as suggested by their pace in Australia. The Red Bull pair of Vettel and Webber were able to fight with the McLarens, as were Lotus drivers Raikkonen and Grosjean. Raikkonen was running second towards the end of the race before his tyres ran out of grip. He ended up 14th, but Grosjean finished a strong sixth. Williams continued their impressive season with Senna seventh and Maldonado eighth. Ferrari struggled as expected, Alonso only managing ninth and Massa thirteenth. Massa had his strongest weekend of the season so far, finishing only five seconds behind team-leader Alonso.
Formula One in 2012 continues to produce close, exciting racing. Three races have been won by three different drivers. Six drivers have appeared on the podium. Only Lewis Hamilton has featured on the podium in all three races, showing just how competitive the field is. The big story of the weekend, however, is Mercedes’ return to the front of the grid. The car is quick and the drivers are performing. Rosberg has shown he can win. It surely can’t be long before Schumacher joins him on the podium.