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Team orders fallout hangs over China

Mercedes Formula One driver Nico Rosberg of Germany looks on in the garage during the first practice session of the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix
Mercedes Formula One driver Nico Rosberg of Germany looks on in the garage during the first practice session of the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix

By Alan Baldwin

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Memories of China would have given Nico Rosberg plenty of extra motivation on his return to Shanghai this weekend, even without a 'team orders' furor that blew up at the last race in Malaysia.

While Red Bull caught the full force of the storm at Sepang, with triple world champion Sebastian Vettel winning after ignoring instructions from his pitwall to stay behind team mate Mark Webber, Mercedes were buffeted by their own drama.

"Remember this one," Rosberg told Mercedes principal Ross Brawn over the radio after obeying the boss's orders and finishing fourth behind team mate Lewis Hamilton despite believing he was faster.

Brawn, who said he imposed the orders to prevent his cars running out of fuel, would rather think back a bit further to last year's race in China when Rosberg secured Mercedes's first win as a works team since 1955.

The German, son of Finland's 1982 champion Keke, has a special relationship with the monumental Shanghai circuit and Sunday's race could bring an immediate payback.

He has led the last three races in China and his success, in a car that was off the pace for much of the rest of the season, marked a big breakthrough as his first grand prix victory.

Brawn saw no reason why the run could not continue, particularly with a car that has looked much more competitive.

"It was a very special day," the burly Briton said of 2012. "We always seem to go quite well in China and in particular Nico is very strong there.

"It seems to be a track that suits him. it's a track which is front tire-limited (where the front tires are under greater stress) because of the nature of the corners, not rear tire-limited. possibly over the last few years we've been a bit weak in terms of rear tire durability.

"I think that's better now. There's no reason why we shouldn't be in that leading group, we've got some steps we want to do with the car and the car seems to be behaving pretty well and (we've got) two great drivers," said Brawn.

RED BULL RIVALRY

Hamilton's third place in Malaysia was the 2008 world champion's first podium since he left McLaren at the end of last season and the Briton also has a strong record in China.

The only driver to have won twice in Shanghai, his 2011 success means Mercedes now have the last two Chinese GP winners in their cars.

"We've had a better start than we expected and to have finished in fifth and third places so far is really positive," said Hamilton. "I know there is much more to come..."

Champions Red Bull will be the focus of much of the media attention, despite Vettel apologizing to the team and to Webber after the Malaysian race.

Team principal Christian Horner has said the matter has now been dealt with, and Red Bull's unusually bland race preview made no mention of the controversy, but it is sure to be simmering still.

Webber, but not Vettel, has been listed for Thursday's regular FIA news conference at the circuit which will give the Australian a platform to get any lingering grievances off his chest even if the initial fury has subsided.

McLaren, who have won three times in China, are looking for a marked improvement after two disappointing opening races that have left 2009 champion Jenson Button with just two points.

"In a funny way, the Chinese Grand Prix almost feels like something of a reboot of the start of my season," said Button, whose China memories run the gamut from victory in 2010 to embarrassment in 2011 when he pulled in at the Red Bull garage instead of McLaren's.

"I think everybody in the team has picked themselves up and really attacked the task of addressing our car's issues," added the Briton. "We know where we're losing performance so I think we're actually all looking forward to seeing just what we can achieve."

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso will be keen to get his championship campaign back on track after crashing out in Malaysia while Kimi Raikkonen is another force to reckon with in the Lotus.

Memories of China may also play on Adrian Sutil's mind, although the Force India driver would rather forget them as he makes his return for the first time since a 2011 night club brawl in Shanghai almost ended the German's career.

The German, handed a suspended jail sentence and fined, was dropped by the team for the 2012 season before making a comeback this year. Shanghai partygoers are unlikely to see him among their number on Sunday night.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)

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