With the Chinese Grand Prix now nestled in the history books, are Formula One fans any closer to knowing which team looks to be the strongest or favorite for the title in 2012? The Australian GP was a street course, the Malaysian GP was a wet weekend and China was a proper racing circuit with dry weather and a historical result. Mercedes AMG Petronas marked their first win in over 50 years. Does that mean that Mercedes has sorted their tire-wear issues and are now firmly the team to beat? The jury is out on that notion.
The thrice-approved rear wing of Mercedes certainly is credited for improving the team qualifying pace as they made it an all-Mercedes front row in China to start the race. How effective the rear wing is during the race is up for debate but the first two races of the season showed the team slowly moving backward during the race and many expected the team to follow suit in China but that, as history records, didn't happen.
McLaren started from 5th and 7th on the grid and their recovery from poor pit stops and traffic to finish 2nd and 3rd may very well signal that they are, perhaps, still the team to beat in pure pace. While Jenson Button finished 2nd in the race, his bungled pit stop cost him any real chance of taking the fight to Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg. Red Bull also seemed feisty during the race and in the hands of Mark Webber but the team are running two different exhaust systems to help determine the best way forward.
One of the more obvious elements to the Chinese Grand Prix was the tire performance. Not much has been said post-race about the degradation and amount of rolled-up rubber (marbles) on the circuit but it was massive. The marbles make the act of going off the racing line to pass an opponent nearly impossible as Lotus F1′s Kimi Raikkonen discovered. Running 2nd and dropping to 14th was not his plan but the race did show serious pace from the Lotus F1 team and perhaps they also have a strong position amongst the top teams.
Mercedes proved the naysayers wrong and managed to keep their tires intact for the balance of the race. There is no telling how much tire grip Rosberg had left or whether he would have been able to hold off a charging Jenson Button, had the Brit not suffer from a poor pit stop, but suffice to say that the demon of tire-wear didn't seem to plague the German team like it had int he first two races. While Nico Rosberg gave himself his first-ever win and MErcedes its first win since 1955, his teammate Michael Schumacher retired from the race due to a wheel nut that was not secured properly. Some wonder if Sunday would have been a MErcedes 1, 2 for the finish had the 7-time champion stayed in the race.
So what do F1 fans know now? Who is the fastest team? Who has the pace during qualifying and the race to make a claim at the constructor's championship? Has Mercedes exercised its tire-wear demons? Has Red Bull discovered what their next move will be with the load of data they acquired using two different exhaust systems in China? Can McLaren firmly hold their title position and squarely claim to be the fastest team right now? What have we learned about the grid in the first three races?
Heat is an issue for the Mercedes and the team said they missed the set up in Australia and generated too much heat. In Malaysia they said they over compensated and didn't generate enough heat in their tires. In China the temperature dropped two degrees during qualifying and the car came alive. The assumption is that Mercedes cars like cooler temps and that ins't what the Bahrain Grand Prix will most likely promise this weekend. The marbles in China were an issue and while Mercedes and Ferrar seem to do better with cooler temperatures, the tires were really the biggest impact on the race. The teams opted for the Prime tire over the Option tire and the wear-rate was high for the softer compound as evidenced by the mass of rolled-up rubber off line.
So how will the heat play a factor in the Mercedes AMG Petronas team's strategy? Will it play a role? Can the team deal with hot weather and high tire temps? Will McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus all clamor back to Europe with a new dual DRS rear wing copy to keep up with the folks at Mercedes? Has that trick element afforded Mercedes a position it most likely wouldn't be holding now? Will it be worth the investment for the other teams to copy the technology? A lot of questions and few answers after three races and perhaps that is the very reason this year could be very exciting.