Mercedes’ first mod­ern-era race-win­ner – the W03

The first of the new-era Sil­ver Ar­rows to hit its tar­get


Mercedes re­turned to For­mula 1 in 2010 af­ter a 55-year break, to high hopes all round. They took over the cham­pion Brawn GP team and lured seven-time world cham­pion Michael Schu­macher out of re­tire­ment to join the tal­ented Nico Ros­berg. Now all they needed was a car to make them win­ners again.

In truth, this long-awaited come­back didn’t bear fruit straight away, with only three podi­ums for Ros­berg in 2010 and none at all in 2011. De­spite their hugely ex­pe­ri­enced staff and the ad­van­tage of hav­ing their own en­gine plant in nearby Brix­worth, it was time to step per­for­mances up a notch.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of a rel­a­tively sta­ble set of reg­u­la­tions, 2012’s Mercedes F1 W03 was largely based on the pre­vi­ous car, the MGP W02. There were, how­ever, two sig­nif­i­cant reg­u­la­tory changes that did af­fect the 2012 cars. The first of th­ese was a ban on blown dif­fusers, and the sec­ond, which would pro­foundly al­ter the look of the cars, was a change to the max­i­mum height of the front body­work. The lat­ter re­sulted in the dis­tinc­tive stepped-nose de­signs of nearly all of the cars, and Mercedes’ take on this was to fea­ture two bumps on ei­ther side of the front of the mono­coque to cre­ate smoother air­flow over the cen­tre­line of the car.

Team prin­ci­pal Ross Brawn was con­fi­dent that the W03 was just what was needed. “Last year, we pro­duced a very bold car,” he ad­mit­ted. “Although its more rad­i­cal el­e­ments didn’t al­ways de­liver the re­sults we had hoped for, the ex­pe­ri­ence we gained has been in­valu­able to the de­sign of the 2012 car. The F1 W03 is also a more in­te­grated pack­age, which re­flects the ever-strength­en­ing ties be­tween our tech­ni­cal teams in Brack­ley and Brix­worth, and is tak­ing the next step for­ward in terms of on-track per­for­mance.”

Nico Ros­berg echoed this sen­ti­ment, say­ing: “Ev­ery­one is mo­ti­vated to get going, to im­prove the car, im­prove the team and get closer to the front. That is what we all want and there is a great drive to achieve that. Of course, podi­ums would be great. The tar­get is to move for­ward as a team though – that’s what is im­por­tant, and we are going to do that.”

Mercedes de­lib­er­ately chose not to take the W03 to the first pre-sea­son test at Jerez, to al­low more time to de­velop the car. How­ever, the team did test a tweak here and there on their 2011 car, which threat­ened to over­shadow the start of the sea­son. Their dou­ble-drs (drag re­duc­tion sys­tem) was one of th­ese. When ac­ti­vated by a driver, two aper­tures were cre­ated in the rear-wing end­plates and the high-pres­sure air cap­tured was fed through two pipes in the end­plates and back to the front wing. Air ex­ited through small slots be­neath the fron­twing el­e­ments with the pur­pose of stalling the front wing.

The team were adamant that their sys­tem was le­gal, but Lo­tus and Red Bull be­lieved oth­er­wise, since the de­vice was ac­ti­vated by the driver. The dis­pute rum­bled on un­til the dou­ble-drs was fi­nally de­clared le­gal on the Thurs­day be­fore the sea­son opener in Aus­tralia.

The de­vice did not have the kind of im­me­di­ate ef­fect that rival teams had been wor­ry­ing about. Although Schu­macher and Ros­berg qual­i­fied fourth and sev­enth, and ran as high as third and fourth early in the race, Schu­macher re­tired with

a gear­box prob­lem and Ros­berg limped home in 12th af­ter a late-race punc­ture. And at the sec­ond race in Malaysia, Schu­macher started P3 but stum­bled home in P10, col­lect­ing the team’s first point in chaotic mon­soon con­di­tions.

So to China. The week­end started well for Mercedes when the FIA dis­missed an of­fi­cial protest from Lo­tus over the dou­ble-drs, and then in qual­i­fy­ing Ros­berg set an early time of 1min 35.121s with six min­utes left. Then, still with two min­utes to go, he got out of his car, con­fi­dent that this lap would be enough. And so it proved. Team­mate Michael Schu­macher and Mclaren’s Lewis Hamil­ton were more than 0.5s adrift and a one-three be­came an all-mercedes front row when Hamil­ton was hit with a five­place grid penalty for a gear­box change.

This was Ros­berg’s first pole po­si­tion in his 111 grand prix starts, and it was Mercedes’ first since 1955. Even so, the ex­pec­ta­tion was that the Sil­ver Ar­rows would strug­gle here, just as they had in the first two races, on Pirelli rub­ber. Dur­ing the early laps of the race, Ros­berg man­aged to ex­tend a four­sec­ond lead over his team-mate. Then, when Schu­macher’s race was ended by an in­cor­rectly fit­ted front-right wheel on his first pit­stop, Jen­son But­ton’s Mclaren was the main threat to Ros­berg’s maiden vic­tory. A text­book two-stop strat­egy en­sured that Ros­berg stayed well ahead and he took the che­quered flag over 20 sec­onds clear of But­ton.

Ros­berg was nat­u­rally elated af­ter the race, if a lit­tle sur­prised. “It is an un­be­liev­able feel­ing. I am very cool, very happy and very ex­cited,” said Ros­berg. “It’s been a long time com­ing for me and the team. We knew we had a good chance to be in the front but we didn’t ex­pect to be that fast. Thanks to the whole team for work­ing very hard, and for im­prov­ing the setup. I was strug­gling in the first two races with race pace but here it came good. It’s been the per­fect week­end.”

This turned out to be the high point for the W03. Ros­berg man­aged sec­ond place in Monaco and Schu­macher fin­ished third in Va­len­cia – his only podium fin­ish dur­ing his sec­ond stint in For­mula 1. Af­ter that, the re­sults started to tail off. The con­tro­ver­sial dou­ble-drs had added lit­tle in terms of per­for­mance and was dropped at the fi­nal race in Brazil, in the knowl­edge that it would be banned for 2013.

But that sole vic­tory fore­shad­owed the crush­ing dom­i­na­tion to come. In the mean­time, the Mercedes F1 W03 had made dreams come true, and re­turned a great name to the win­ner’s cir­cle for the first time in more than half a cen­tury.

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