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.