Hamilton proves too hot to handle in Hungary

If pole position was a surprise for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, victory at the Hungaroring would have come as a massive shock to both driver and team. Throughout Friday practice it looked as though Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel had the pace in Budapest, not just to take pole, but also for victory. In the end, of course, they took neither.

As we know, the three-week gap between the last race at the Nurburgring and round 10 in Hungary was punctuated by the “Young Driver Test” at Silverstone, which the Mercedes team missed as punishment for an illegal Pirelli tyre test earlier in the season. The Young Driver Test turned into a test for the new Pirelli tyres that the teams will run for the rest of the season, and everyone expected that Mercedes’s lack of running on those tyres would prove to be a massive disadvantage to them at the Hungaroring.

Certainly it looked that way in practice as Mercedes, while not slow, were not competing at the very front with Red Bull and Lotus. Things changed in qualifying, though. All of a sudden Mercedes, and Hamilton in particular, came alive, snatching pole position from Red Bull Racing and Vettel with a lap that the Briton wasn’t particularly happy with. Hamilton thought that he could have gone a couple of tenths quicker and his surprise at taking pole position was evident from team radio.

As we have seen all too often this season, though, pole position is all well and good for Mercedes and Hamilton, but race victories have been far harder to find. That was a trend that everyone expected to continue in Budapest. Everything looked set up for Mercedes to fall backwards: a lack of running on the new tyres, extremely high track temperatures which has previously exacerbated Mercedes’s high tyre degradation issues, and Red Bull and Lotus cars that were looking fast.

Again, though, Mercedes and Hamilton confounded experts and fans alike to take a brilliant victory on Sunday. One which Hamilton and his fans would have felt was long overdue after some bad luck earlier in the season, in particular his tyre failure at his home race at Silverstone. In Hungary, Hamilton didn’t put a foot, or wheel, wrong.

Hamilton leads into turn one at the Hungaroring

Hamilton leads into turn one at the Hungaroring

For me, Hamilton’s victory in Hungary was down to four crucial parts of the race that went perfectly for the 2008 world drivers’ champion. The first of these was the start. Formula 1 fans know how tricky overtaking can be in Hungary, which makes track position a vital factor. If Hamilton was going to win the race it was critical that he started well, kept Vettel behind him, and controlled the first stint of the race. As it turned out he did all of these things, but that, of course, wasn’t enough, on its own, for him to win the race.

Hamilton makes his crucial move on Button

Hamilton makes his crucial move on Button

Hamilton pitted first on lap 10 as he felt his option tyres start to reach the end of their life, but emerged from the pits behind his old McLaren team-mate, Jenson Button, who had started the race on the harder prime tyres and was not planning pit stop for quite some time. Hamilton knew that if he was to stand any chance of winning the race he couldn’t afford to be held up behind Button’s slower McLaren, and the Stevenage born driver’s decisive pass on his countryman at the end of the pit straight just one lap later was the second crucial point in the race.

Just one more lap later, it was the Red Bull mechanics that were out in the pit lane to change Sebastian Vettel’s tyres and the German emerged from the pits still behind Hamilton and, crucially, behind Button’s McLaren. While Hamilton had quickly jumped ahead of Button, Vettel couldn’t do the same, however. Indeed, it took the reigning world drivers’ champion another 12 laps to pass the McLaren, finally moving ahead of Button on lap 24, followed almost immediately by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.

Vettel makes contact with Button while attempting to pass in Hungary

Vettel makes contact with Button while
attempting to pass in Hungary

The damage had been done, though. In those 12 laps, Vettel had been told repeatedly to cool his car, which was in danger of overheating, and damaged his front wing attempting to pass, while Hamilton had built up a double-digit lead, which he never relinquished. The race, though, was 70 laps long, and while Hamilton was in a great position at that point, the job was far from over.

The third of the four key points in the race came not long after Hamilton made his second pit stop on lap 32. The Mercedes driver emerged from the pits in fourth place, behind the second Red Bull of Mark Webber and Alonso’s Ferrari. Webber, like Button, was on a different strategy to Hamilton, having started the race on the hard medium compound Pirelli tyres after technical problems in qualifying saw the Australian qualify down in 10th place.

Just like the situation after Hamilton’s first pit stop, the Englishman knew that he could not afford to get held up behind a driver on tyres that were older and past their best. With that in mind, I’m sure, Hamilton was decisive yet again, passing Webber around the outside of turn two on lap 34 before immediately closing in on Alonso, who shot into the pits just a lap later, without holding up the Mercedes driver. Vettel stopped at the same point, emerging once again behind Button’s McLaren, which he quickly passed on lap 37.

Hamilton maintained his double-digit lead over Vettel before making his final pit stop on lap 51 of the race. Again, though, the Mercedes driver emerged just behind Mark Webber, who squeezed ahead into turn one as Hamilton emerged from the pit lane. With Vettel yet to make his final pit stop Hamilton, despite his previous large lead over the German, knew that getting held up behind the second Red Bull could give Vettel a sniff of victory. The Mercedes driver, though, was decisive yet again, using the opportunity presented by Webber coming up to lap Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber to pass the Australian around the outside of turn two for the second time in the race.

Raikkonen and Vettel celebrate on the podium

Raikkonen and Vettel celebrate on the podium

Vettel made his third and final pit stop four laps later, emerging just three seconds behind the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, who was on tyres that were 13 laps old. Raikkonen, though, was two stopping and would run to the end of the race on that set of tyres. Surely, with fresher rubber and 15 laps left to run, Vettel would pass the Finn? Not a bit of it. Raikkonen defended brilliantly and finished the race second, while Vettel had to settle for the final step of the podium. It was this defensive drive, coupled with Hamilton’s second decisive pass on Webber, which is the last of my four crucial elements that resulted in victory for Hamilton and Mercedes.

While all of this was going on Romain Grosjean, one of the pre race favourites for victory after qualifying third and looking impressively fast all weekend, had been given a drive through penalty for passing Massa with all four wheels off the track, while also being under investigation for causing a collision with Button as he overtook him on lap 24 (the Frenchman received a post race 20 second penalty for this incident, but it didn’t impact on the final result).

Rosberg retires in a cloud of engine smoke in the closing stages

Rosberg retires in a cloud of
engine smoke in the closing stages

Nico Rosberg, who was having an awful race after contact on the first lap of the race left him running way down the field, retired with an engine failure on lap 66, the second of the afternoon after Valtteri Bottas’s Renault engine let go on lap 52. It wasn’t all bad news for Williams, though, as Rosberg’s retirement promoted the second Williams of Pastor Maldonado into 10th position, allowing the team to score their first points of the season.

Even Rosberg’s retirement couldn’t dampen the celebrations at Mercedes, though. While Sebastian Vettel still leads the world drivers’ championship, there’s a glimmer of hope for Mercedes in particular as we head into the summer break. If the Mercedes can look after their tyres to win in the heat of Hungary, they should be able to do likewise in cooler conditions. Is the tide turning? It’s too early to say and we’ll have to wait at least until the next race – at Spa at the end of August – to find out.

Vettel bounces back as Mercedes struggle in Germany

Going in to the German grand prix at the Nurburgring, things did not bode well for reigning world drivers champion and current world drivers’ championship leader, Sebastian Vettel. The German had retired from the lead at last week’s British grand prix after suffering a gearbox failure and had never won a single F1 race in the month of July. The Red Bull driver had also never won his home grand prix, and after looking so strong in Saturday morning free practice, he found himself beaten to pole position by Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, the man who won the last German grand prix at this track in 2011.

Vettel and Webber passing Hamilton at the start of the race

Vettel and Webber passing
Hamilton at the start of the race

If all of these factors were weighing on Vettel’s shoulders you would never have guessed it from watching the race. The German got a great start and jumped ahead of Hamilton into the lead of the race and never really looked back. He was unable to streak clear of the field – the hallmark of so many of his past race victories – and he had to relinquish the lead as different tyre tactics came into play, but he drove a very controlled race. Although he came under pressure, from the Lotus cars of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, in the latter part of the race, he was never actually challenged for the lead.

Vettel was perhaps helped by the fact that the expected strong challenge from Mercedes never materialised. Hopes were high for the Brackley based team after a strong performance at the British grand prix, followed up by a stunning qualifying performance from Hamilton at the Nurburgring on Saturday. However, despite that pole position, Mercedes also erred on Saturday, misjudging the extent to which the track would improve resulting in Nico Rosberg being unceremoniously dumped out of Q2 while he sat in the pit lane.

Rosberg holds up Hamilton as Raikkonen looms large

Rosberg holds up Hamilton
as Raikkonen looms large

That sort of tactical misjudgement is not what you expect from a Mercedes team with renowned tactical genius Ross Brawn at the helm, but we saw further tactical mistakes from the team in the race, too. It soon became clear that Mercedes were struggling with tyre wear with a heavy car early in the race. Hamilton pitted on lap seven for fresh tyres, getting rid of his soft ‘option’ tyres and fitting fresh medium ‘prime’ rubber. The Briton continued to struggle on those tyres and found himself soon behind his team-mate who, after starting down in 11th place, had started the race on prime tyres and was on a completely different strategy to Hamilton.

In this sort of situation, Rosberg should not have needed any encouragement or instruction to let his team-mate through. Knowing that he was on a different strategy, the German should have allowed Hamilton to pass, and in doing so help the team by holding up the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen who was close behind Hamilton. That, though, did not happen. Hamilton was trapped behind Rosberg for a number of laps losing vital time and track position to other cars. Eventually, we heard the radio call from Mercedes to Rosberg telling him “You are on a different strategy to Lewis so please don’t hold him up”. Still though, the pass didn’t happen, before finally Rosberg’s tyres dropped off allowing Hamilton to pass on lap 14, followed later that lap by Kimi Raikkonen.

The damage had been done, though. Hamilton, already struggling with his tyres, probably used the best of his new rubber as he tried, without success, to make his way ahead of his team-mate. Before long Raikkonen overtook the Englishman, who was soon under pressure from the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso before the Mercedes made its way into the pits for more fresh rubber on lap 23. As it turned out, even that didn’t really work out for Hamilton as the safety car came out just a couple of laps later and the Englishman found himself down in seventh place, behind not only Vettel, the Lotus cars and Alonso’s Ferrari, but also Jenson Button’s McLaren and Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber.

Hamilton eventually made his way up to fifth place after a late surge, while Rosberg managed to score a couple of points for ninth, but it was a race for forget on home soil for the Silver Arrows team. Hamilton had to bite his tongue when he was interviewed after the race, saying only that “I have to hold myself back because I’ve got nothing positive to say about these tyres”. At least, though, the Kevlar belted tyres used at this race did not puncture in the same way as the steel belted Pirellis that were used last week at Silverstone. While tyre safety was not an issue at the Nurburgring, there were two other worrying safety issues during the race. The first of these was tyre related, but on this occasion no blame could be attached to Pirelli.

Webber's loose wheel and the injured cameraman (both circled)

Webber’s loose wheel and the
injured cameraman (both circled)

You might have noticed that I’ve made no mention of Mark Webber up until now. The Australian started the race well and, along with his team-mate, managed to pass pole-sitter Hamilton going into turn one. Disaster struck for the Red Bull driver when he made his first pit stop on lap nine. Webber was released from his pit box with the right rear tyre not properly attached. He made it only a few yards down the pit lane before the wheel and tyre came loose, bouncing freely and striking a cameraman, who was knocked to the ground. Fortunately, it appears that the FOM cameraman, Paul Allen, was not seriously injured. A post race statement revealed that he remained conscious and was “treated at the circuit medical centre and then transported by helicopter to Koblenz Hospital”. At the time of writing, he remains there, under observation. Webber’s car was recovered by his team and he rejoined the race, doing well to collect points by finishing seventh. Red Bull received a 30,000 Euro fine for the unsafe pit release.

Bianchi's Marussia on fire just before it free-wheeled across the track

Bianchi’s Marussia on fire just before
it free-wheeled across the track

As worrying and concerning as the Webber tyre/wheel incident was, it is not something that hasn’t happened in Formula 1 previously. The second safety issue, though, was pretty unique, and it played a huge role in allowing Webber to unlap himself and score points. Frenchman Jules Bianchi’s Marussia ground to a halt on lap 24 leaving a trail of smoke and fire behind it as the Cosworth engine expired. As the marshals moved to recover the stricken vehicle it began rolling backwards back onto the track as its driver, and the marshals, looked on helplessly from the side of the track. Formula 1 can count itself extremely lucky that no other cars were close by as the Marussia freewheeled across the circuit but, unsurprisingly, the safety car was swiftly deployed.

These incidents only serve to show that while Formula 1 has made some huge strides on the safety front, the sport is still an inherently dangerous one. While no blame can be attached to Marussia or Bianchi, Red Bull Racing will almost certainly be punished for an unsafe pit release after allowing Webber to pull away without all of the tyres properly attached.

As we head into another three-week break before the next race in Hungary, though, Sebastian Vettel has once again extended his championship lead. His lead over Fernando Alonso, who finished fourth behind Vettel and both Lotus cars, has now grown to 34 world championship points. Alonso again looked quick in race conditions, but Ferrari need to address their qualifying pace urgently if the Spaniard is going to be able to stop Vettel from winning another world drivers’ championship.

Shoddy tyres fail to spoil the Silverstone spectacle

Well, after 52 laps of the British grand prix we saw a second win of the season for Mercedes.  Considering that the Silver Arrows locked out the front row of the grid after qualifying on Saturday this was perhaps not a massive surprise, but the fact that it was Nico Rosberg rather than pole sitter Lewis Hamilton who took victory was a bit of a disappointment for the home fans.

Lewis Hamilton limping back to the bits after his tyre deflation

Lewis Hamilton limping back to
the pits after his tyre deflation

Indeed, in the opening laps of the race it looked like Hamilton was in complete control while Rosberg had slipped from second to third, behind Sebastian Vettel.  The first seven laps went perfectly for Hamilton.  Having started brilliantly from pole position, he gradually increased his lead over the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel to around two seconds at the start of lap eight.  For reasons outside of Hamilton’s or his team’s control, though, disaster struck for the Englishman as he made his way down the Wellington straight on lap eight.  His left rear tyre suddenly deflated, forcing him to crawl back to the pits as the field streamed passed.  Hamilton rejoined in last place.

Given the tyre issues from earlier in the season and the recent furore over the Pirelli/Mercedes tyre test at Barcelona, one tyre failure in the race at Silverstone would perhaps not have been a massive talking point, especially given that it occurred on a Mercedes; the team that have suffered most with tyre wear this season.  However, the fact that the failure occurred just eight laps into the race – early in the race, where degradation wouldn’t have been a big factor – might have served as an indicator of what was to come for other drivers.

By the time all 52 laps had been completed we had seen not one, not two, but four left rear Pirelli tyre failures, plus a failure on the front left of Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber.  Just three laps after Hamilton’s incident, the Ferrari of Felipe Massa was sent spinning off the track after another rapid tyre deflation.  Like Hamilton, the Brazilian rejoined the track and managed to trundle slowly back to the pits for a new set of rubber.

There goes another one! Vergne's tyre explodes at the end of the straight

There goes another one! Vergne’s
tyre explodes at the end of the straight

As I mentioned, though, there were four left rear tyre failures.  Number three arrived just a few laps after Massa’s and this time the debris on the circuit led to the safety car being deployed.  This time it was the Toro Rosso of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne that was serenely making its way down the Wellington straight when his tyre suddenly exploded.  It could have been worse as the safety car allowed race leader Sebastian Vettel, and many others, to pit and change tyres.  We soon heard on Mark Webber’s team radio that Vettel’s left rear tyre was also cut; there would certainly have been a tyre failure on his car had it not been for the safety car.

As it turned out, we didn’t see another tyre failure until lap 46 of the race.  This time, it was the McLaren of Sergio Perez which had a left rear tyre explode going down the Wellington straight.  This came immediately after the race restarted following the retirement of the leading Red Bull of reigning world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel.  Luck had been on Vettel’s side with Hamilton’s tyre failure and his own non-tyre failure earlier in the race, but luck had deserted the German in the closing stages of the race as his Red Bull ground to a halt with transmission failure, allowing the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg to take a lead that he never relinquished, despite some heavy late pressure from the second Red Bull of Mark Webber, who recovered brilliantly after a dreadful start which saw him drop down to 15th after being sideswiped by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus at turn 1.

Fernando Alonso on his way to a third place finish

Fernando Alonso on his way to a third place finish

Another two drivers who recovered brilliantly were Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.  Despite the former driving with a badly damaged car following his tyre failure, by the end of the race the 2008 world driver’s champion managed to fight his way back up to fourth place, narrowly missing out on a podium finish.   It was Alonso who took the final podium position behind Rosberg and Webber, though, with a thrilling late surge which saw him pass a number of cars, including the McLaren’s of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez – in the case of the latter, just as his tyre was exploding – and the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen.  A stunning drive from the Spaniard after his poor showing in Saturday qualifying and a lacklustre start to the race.

We mustn’t forget the race winner, though.  Nico Rosberg’s third career victory was merely a footnote in the post race coverage.  The German’s victory was perhaps a little fortunate, given the early tyre problem for his team-mate Lewis Hamilton and the retirement of Sebastian Vettel.  Rosberg even survived a post race visit to the stewards for failing to slow for yellow flags, receiving just a reprimand and showing that his luck was well and truly in.  Lucky or not, though, it’s hard to begrudge Rosberg his second win of the season.

All of the attention was, unfortunately, on the Pirelli tyres, though.  A number of the drivers were heavily critical of the Italian manufacturer after the race.  Hamilton called the situation “unacceptable”, saying that “safety is the biggest issue…Someone could’ve crashed. I was thinking behind the safety car that it’s only when someone gets hurt that something will be done about it”.  Perez, Button and Massa were similarly critical, while Alonso dismissed speculation that the kerbs were in any way to blame.

Jean Tody has acted quickly to call Wednesday's meeting in Paris

Jean Todt has acted quickly to call
Wednesday’s meeting in Germany

The consensus seemed to be that something needed to be done, and quickly.  To their credit, the FIA have acted quickly:  FIA President Jean Todt has called an emergency meeting of Sporting Working Group on Wednesday.  The meeting, at the Nurburgring, will include Pirelli and representatives of all 11 Formula 1 teams and one solution could be the introduction of the tyres that Mercedes had tested at Barcelona.

Whether that comes in time for the next race in Germany is doubtful, though.  What is certain, though, is that Mercedes head in to the remainder of the season with a car that finally seems to have solved its race pace problems.  They’ve now moved into second place in the world constructors’ championship and will be looking forward to challenging for more victories, starting at the Nurburgring on Sunday.