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GP Week : Issue 149
nut had been properly secured – itself a function of eliminating the fail-safe ‘guns in the air’ step from the wheel change procedure in the name of speed. It was a rear wheel that left Michael’s Mercedes at Spa in Q1 in 2011; this time, feeling the vibration, Michael cruised quickly to a halt. Later in the race, stopping for the third time – and this time from the lead – Jenson Button was delayed in his stop by a skewed left-rear wheel nut. Nico, though, had no such problems. He stopped the lap after Michael, by which time the Mercedes crew had re-grouped. Everything happened fast – but in slow motion. Just as it should be. And then, later in the race, for his second stop, the crew were even slicker. Could it be, then, some mis-management of the tyres? Or a strategy error? Again, Nico’s day was perfect. Despite the F1 W03’s apparent early-season propensity to eat its Pirellis for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Ross Brawn and Bob Bell and the boys planned – assuming no variables came seriously into play – to race a two-stopper: softs off the line, obviously, followed by two new sets of mediums – a tyre on which the car seemed particularly happy in Shanghai. With other teams looking at three-stop strategies, Mercedes’ plan was either going to be a master-stroke or a disaster. It all depended on Nico’s start, his opening laps – and on what was going on behind him. There would be margin with which to play but the window for decision – two stops or three – would nonetheless arrive mid-race. That meant a strong, McLaren-breaking, 20-lap middle stint in which Nico not only had to massage the tyres into the unknown but also maintain the pace. With their three-stop strategy, by contrast, McLaren and Jenson Button were obliged to produce the sort of race that involves no hold-ups in traffic and smooth pit stops at exactly the right time. This looked feasible when Jenson took the lead as Nico stopped on lap 34, for, although Jenson had looked very out of synch on his second set of (used) soft Pirellis (taken on lap 11), he looked much more comfortable on the set of new mediums he took 13 laps later. At this stage of the race – in the build-up to Nico’s second stop - Jenson was the fastest man on the Tilke circuit by the margin of over a second. Nico was leading Jenson by a tense-looking 12.3 seconds when he stopped for the second time. Jenson lost an additional six seconds with that delayed third stop – and the issue was compounded by the traffic he found as a result. Kimi Raikkonen had qualified an excellent fifth for LotusF1 (ahead of Jenson) and had started fourth thanks to Lewis’s penalty. He had driven beautifully in the early stages; and now, with his used Pirelli mediums already 13 laps old, he was running up in second place with a long train of cars banked up behind him. Jenson slotted in behind Seb Vettel, who was again driving well in traffic after a slow start (Webber fans take note!), and ahead of Kimi’s team-mate, the hard-charging Romain Grosjean. It was frantic and it was close – and, on this day, DRS didn’t come much into play, for the activation point was about half-way down the back straight (as distinct from being active for most of its length). By the time your rear wing was down, and you were picking up revs, the braking area was looming. (The Red Bulls were 25 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: F1 >>> CHINA