It was also the first win logged by Mercedes in the modern era, and thus an early sign of what was to come.
Eight years on and with six double World Championships in the history books it’s easy to forget what a breakthrough that success in Shanghai was for a team that wasn’t yet regarded as a contender. Think of where Renault or McLaren are now and it will remind you of the leap that Mercedes subsequently made.
Brawn GP had won the 2009 title on the back of its initial double diffuser advantage and the victories Jenson Button logged early in the year. When Mercedes took over at the end of the season and brought in Michael Schumacher and Rosberg, it was logical to assume that the winning momentum would be maintained.
The reality wasn’t like that, and through 2010 and 2011 the team was firmly stuck in fourth place, lagging far behind behind Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. The former Honda team had shrunk so much during its Brawn GP season that building it back up was a tougher job than expected.
Ross Brawn worked hard to put the pieces in place, recruiting the likes of Bob Bell, Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis, all men who had won with teams up and down the pitlane, and knew exactly what was needed.
All that experience contributed to 2012’s Mercedes W03, a car that featured an inspired if cheeky bit of innovation known as the Double DRS. Its presence on the car, along with the confident manner in which Brawn and his men introduced it and defended its legality, were signs that the team was starting to find its mojo.
However the first two races of the season in Australia and Malaysia were disasters as Mercedes struggled in race trim to get on top of the tricky Pirellis, which were very sensitive to temperature.
The team devoted considerable resource to resolving its problems, and the went to China confident that it now knew what it was doing. And that homework paid off.
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W03
Qualifying saw a breakthrough as Rosberg took the team’s first pole since the Mercedes takeover and the first of his career, while Schumacher was promoted to the other front row spot after McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was penalised for a gearbox change.
Up and down the paddock rivals assumed that it would all fall apart again in the race for the Silver Arrows. However Brawn had faith.
“We’ve made a fair commitment this weekend to try and get the car in the best shape we can for the race,” he explained on Saturday afternoon.
“And then qualifying – as with all teams I think – comes as a second consideration. If we can carry over what we saw with our high fuel run then we can have some confidence that we can have a better race tomorrow.
“One of the things we have to achieve going forward is a broader sweet spot for the car. I think today we managed to get the car right in those conditions, with the tyres and the low fuel, and we’ve got to find ways of translating that into the race.”
The critical thing was to anticipate race day temperatures. In the first two races there had been significant changes between Saturday and Sunday, and a car that worked well in qualifying was suddenly in trouble.
“I think we’ve got a better chance because the conditions tomorrow are going to be more consistent,” Brawn explained.
“We’ve had a couple of days of setting the car up. Both Melbourne, with a much hotter race day, and Malaysia, with a much colder race day, presented some challenges. We were not on the top of the job in those two races.”
Having nailed it in qualifying, Rosberg now had to do the same in the race, which meant getting safely away and – above all else – not getting involved in a tangle with his teammate.
Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W03
He managed the start to perfection, and had a clean run into Turn 1. At the end of the first lap he was 0.7s ahead of Schumacher, and by the end of the second, he was clear of any DRS threat from the other W03.
As ever there was no substitute for being out front in clean air, able to run your own pace, control the race, and manage your tyres to the optimum.
“It’s easier because you can run a pace you want and haven’t got the disturbed air of the car in front,” said Brawn after the flag on Sunday. “It’s really why Michael fell back a bit, just to make sure that he could look after the tyres.”
Schumacher gradually slipped back as the first stint unfolded, the gap extending to as much as 5.2s by lap 10. Nico was repeating in metronomic fashion the half second advantage he had in qualifying.
As the first stops rolled around, Mercedes had its preferred strategy mapped out.
“We had to make our own plan and stick with it,” said Brawn. “From what we saw, the information we had, the work we’d done, and just stay with what we thought was best. It’s very easy to get distracted and diverted during a race if you’re not careful.”
The plan was to make to the end on two stops, as long as the first stint could be stretched out far enough to make it viable.
“That was always the strategy, to try and do two, and we had to get to lap 13 or 14 to make it work. The tyres naturally are going to start going away, and it’s important that they don’t collapse, and they just ease away a little bit, and that’s what both drivers were able to do.”
Michael Schumacher, Mercedes AMG F1 W03
Schumacher’s stop was marginally on the early side but the team had to get it out of the way to give Rosberg the ideal slot. Unfortunately as the former World Champion came out of the pits he felt that his right front was loose, and he had to pull over and stop. It was a devastating blow for the Mercedes crew.
His retirement did at least allow Brawn and his strategists to focus on a single car in what was a complex race.
The next challenge was for Rosberg to have an effective middle stint on the first set of new primes. The crucial thing was to make the second stop as late as possible. The danger was that he would be vulnerable if that final set went past its best, and others had the chance to catch up on fresher rubber.
The previous year in Shanghai, Sebastian Vettel had attempted to go the distance on two stops only for Hamilton on three to successfully chase him down. McLaren thus knew how well an aggressive three-stop strategy could pan out.
The 2012 race saw a repeat, albeit with different players. It became clear that Button, on a three-stopper, was a serious threat. Indeed, after his second stop on lap 24, Button had tyres that were 11 laps younger than Rosberg’s. The gap was 23.4s, and both men now had a single stop to come, so it was all about pace on the track. It was nicely poised.
In fact as he approached the end of that middle stint Rosberg began to lose huge chunks of time to Button, the gap tumbling by two seconds a lap at one point. However, to make the strategy work he had to stay out and minimise the length of his final stint.
Just prior to his second and final stop on lap 34 the gap had come down to 12.3s, and it was getting interesting.
Rosberg now had to run 22 laps on that set. For a few laps he was able to take advantage of being on fresh tyres while Button’s were now 10 laps older, and he gained around 3s in the five laps before the McLaren driver came in for his crucial last stop on lap 39.
However, any shot Button had of chasing Rosberg down was ruined by a pit stop delay that not only cost him six seconds in the pitlane but also put him back in the pack, and thus with a lot of fighting to do before he made it into clean air. Mercedes could relax just a little.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking,” said Brawn. “And no doubt we were helped by the fact that Jenson had a slow pit stop. If he’d come out in front of that group, I think it would have been a much closer race.
“Having said that I think Nico had a reasonable amount in his hand, particularly in the last stint. He was running to the lap times we were telling him.”
Podium: Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1
We’ll never know if Button could have caught Rosberg, never mind pass him. In the end the German had a very comfortable margin, crossing the line 20.6s clear after a sublime drive to his first win.
It was a brilliant job too by the team. The tyre homework had paid dividends, and strategist James Vowles pulled a blinder.
“The weekend has been reasonably consistent, that’s the important thing for us,” said Brawn. “We had to get the car set-up, take it through Friday and Saturday, and not have to change. For us it worked out, and I think there will be other races, as we demonstrated in the first two, where you can get it awfully wrong.”
Much credit was due also to Rosberg, who had shown that he was worthy of a place in the elite group.
“He was exceptional, absolutely exceptional,” Brawn noted. “And it’s going to be fascinating to see how things develop with Nico now he’s won a race. I think it will be a great boost for him.”
The result also opened up the tantalising prospect of Schumacher having his hands on a winning car once more at the age of 43.
In fact it was to be a false dawn. Schumacher landed a third place in Valencia, and Rosberg scored a strong second in Monaco, but they were to be the only other podium finishes of 2012. The team slipped to fifth in the constructors’ table, and the three-year points trend of 214, 165 and 142 didn’t look too encouraging.
Nevertheless China had shown that Mercedes could win races, and Hamilton took that on board in September when considering his options for 2013 and beyond.
Brawn and Stuttgart advisor Niki Lauda were able to convince him that the 2013 car would be a step forward and – most importantly – that the hybrid V6 package coming for 2014 would be the winning ticket.
That winter there were more changes as Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe came on board. In the final year of V8s in 2013 Mercedes won four races, took eight poles and moved up to second in the World Championship, more than doubling the previous year’s points total to 360.
Momentum was building – and that hybrid power unit was coming…
Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W03 celebrates in parc ferme