Hamilton charges while Rosberg cruises in Germany

Well, the German grand prix was certainly an exciting one, not that you would have noticed if you were Nico Rosberg. After suffering his first retirement of the season at Silverstone, the German bounced back at home to take what must rank as one of the most straightforward of his career.

Hamilton's qualifying crash meant that he started the race in 20th position

Hamilton’s qualifying crash meant that
he started the race in 20th position

Rosberg was aided by some misfortune for his Mercedes team-mate, Lewis Hamilton. This time trouble stuck for Hamilton during qualifying. His right front brake disk failed at 130 mph during Q1, pitching the Englishman’s Silver Arrow into a spin, and into the wall. Even though Hamilton’s time was good enough to get him through to the second part of qualifying, with his car in the wall and its driver out of the cockpit there was no opportunity for Hamilton to challenge for a higher grid slot.

It looked like a 15th place start for the 2008 world drivers’ champion, thanks to a three place penalty for Esteban Gutierrez, while Rosberg claimed pole position ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in the Williams cars. As it turned out, though, the damage sustained when Hamilton hit the wall meant that his Mercedes team were forced to change his gearbox. The resulting five place grid penalty meant that Hamilton started in 20th.

Rosberg started well, while Massa's Williams rolled after contact with Magnussen's McLaren

Rosberg started well, while Massa’s Williams rolled after contact with Magnussen’s McLaren

Going in to the race everything pointed to a Rosberg win, and so it turned out. Rosberg got away cleanly at the start and was well ahead of the carnage caused when Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren came together with Massa’s Williams at turn one, pitching the latter into a roll and out of the race. Out came the safety car, but that made no difference to Rosberg, who again streaked clear at the restart.

Although he’d made up places at the original start, Hamilton was still only 17th when the safety car came in, with lots of work ahead of him to claw his way up to the sharp end of the field. By lap 10 Hamilton was up into the points in 10th place, while his team-mate was leading comfortably at the front. Hamilton was slicing his way through the field and was even up to second at one point before making his first pit stop on lap 27, running longer than his competitors having started on the slower prime tyres.

 

Hamilton's coming together with Button didn't help his charge through the field

Hamilton’s coming together with Button
didn’t help his charge through the field

Hamilton fitted primes again at his pit stop and looked set to do a two stop race. As his team told him on the radio, Hamilton was looking good for a second place finish. That was until lap 30. Just a few laps after his pit-stop Hamilton came up behind Jenson Button’s McLaren. As Button went wide into the hairpin it looked for all the world that he had opened the door to let his former team-mate through. It certainly looked that way to Hamilton as he made his move down the inside of the McLaren, but Button cut back across Hamilton damaging the front wing of the Mercedes.

The damage had an impact on the handling of Hamilton’s car, increasing his tyre wear and forcing him to switch strategies to a three stop, running the options in the last two stints. Hamilton stopped for the second time on lap 44 meaning that Mercedes aimed to do two 13 lap stints on option tyres in the latter stages of the race. Amazingly, such was Hamilton’s speed, even with the damage to his front wing, that second place was still a very real possibility.

Then came another piece of bad luck for the Englishman. Sauber’s Adrian Sutil spun at the final corner and then stalled his car. The stricken Sauber was left in the middle of the track and it looked like the safety car would be deployed. That’s certainly what Mercedes thought as they pitted Hamilton the very next lap, even though it was five laps earlier than they had been aiming for. Had the safety car been deployed it would have been a potentially race winning strategy call. Hamilton emerged from the pits in fourth place and on fresh option tyres. With a bunched up field, with his competitors all on used tyres Hamilton would have been in a brilliant position to challenge his team-mate, who had led every lap of the race.

Bottas drove brilliantly to claim a second consecutive second place finish

Bottas drove brilliantly to claim a
second consecutive second place finish

Unfortunately for Hamilton, the safety car wasn’t deployed. Despite the dangerous position of Sutil’s Sauber race control decided that it was fine to allow marshals onto the track to push the stricken car out of the way. That meant that Hamilton had to run on his last set of tyres for far longer than expected. In the end it cost Hamilton at least second place. Although he was able to pass Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari very easily and close on Bottas rapidly, by the time that he caught the Williams his tyres were finished and he was unable to pass.

Third was the best that Hamilton could manage in the end, while Rosberg, barely featuring on the TV coverage, cruised to victory some 20 seconds clear. Hamilton looked downcast after the race, despite his stunning drive from 20th to a podium. Luck certainly wasn’t on his side in Germany, but he should console himself with the thought that going in to Silverstone the points gap to his team-mate was some 29 points. It’s now just 14. Had Hamilton won in both Silverstone and Germany, with Rosberg second, the gap would have been 15 points.

The championship is far from over and if Hamilton can win in a week’s time in Hungary – as he did last year – things will be nicely set up going in to the mid-season break.

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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.

Red Bull push the limits as Alonso takes control

We’re now at the halfway point of the 2012 Formula 1 season after the completion of round 10, the German grand prix at Hockenheim.  We saw our fair share of controversy, both before and during the grand prix, a weekend to forget for Lewis Hamilton at his 100th Formula 1 race and a return to form for his team-mate, Jenson Button.  We also saw Fernando Alonso take his third win of the season, becoming the first driver this season to win more than twice.  So, where to start?

Let’s begin with Red Bull.  On Sunday morning we had the news break that the Red Bull may have been using illegal engine maps.  These maps were said to provide the Milton Keynes based team with both an element of off throttle exhaust blowing and a form of traction control.  In the view of FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer this engine map was illegal and he passed the matter to the stewards to adjudicate on.  A penalty seemed virtually a formality, especially given the wording of the statement from Bauer, which I’ll repeat here, in full.  The statement read:

“Having examined the engine base torque map of car numbers 01 and 02 it became apparent that the maximum torque output of both engines is significantly less in the mid rpm range than previously seen at other events.  In my opinion this is therefore in breach of article 5.5.3 of the 2012 Formula 1 technical regulations as the engines are able to deliver more torque at a given engine speed in the mid rpm range.  Furthermore this new torque map will artificially alter the aerodynamic characteristics of both cars which is also in contravention of TD 036-11.  I am referring this matter to the stewards.”

So, a fairly absolute view from the FIA’s own technical delegate.  The only question mark seemed to be over what penalty Red Bull would receive.  A pit lane start was mooted, or perhaps the Red Bull cars would appeal any penalty and start in their original grid slots, gearbox penalty for Webber notwithstanding.  In the end all the speculation proved to be academic, Red Bull received no penalty whatsoever from the stewards, much to the amazement of the other teams, the media and the fans.  The stewards, Derek Warwick, Tim Mayer and Paul Gutjahr, said in their statement that:

“While the stewards do not accept all the arguments of the team [Red Bull Racing], they however conclude that as the regulation is written, the map presented does not breach the text of Art 5.5.3 of the Formula 1 Technical Regulations and therefore decided to take no action.”

What the stewards were basically saying here is that the Red Bull engine mapping solution is against the spirit and the intention of the regulations, but that the way that the rules are written mean that the particular map used by Red Bull does not breach the letter of the law.  Both one of the stewards, Derek Warwick and Mercedes team principle Ross Brawn said that they do not expect that this will be the end of the matter, with a discussion at the next technical working group a foregone conclusion.

By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that Red Bull, and their chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, are pushing the very limits of what is allowable under the regulations.  This isn’t the first time that Red Bull have been in this position this season, either.  We all remember the controversy in Monaco over the floor design used by Red Bull Racing.  It seemed certain that Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes, the teams most displeased with the design, would protest the result.  Under apparent pressure from the FIA, though, there was no such protest, with the FIA ruling, after the Monaco result had been finalised, that the design used in Bahrain, Spain and Monaco – with fully enclosed holes in the floor – was in fact illegal.  There was no penalty for Red Bull in that case, with the results of all three races remaining unchanged.  Parallels can certainly be drawn with the situation in Hockenheim, where Red Bull again seemed to have pushed the limits but have gotten away without a penalty.  As with their floor, we can be fairly certain that the engine maps that were the subject of this latest controversy will be changed for the next race in Hungary.

We all know, of course, that the teams all try to push the rules to their limits, stretching and perhaps bending the regulations to produce the fastest possible cars.  This is what Formula 1 is all about; innovation in the pursuit of speed, but it seems that Red Bull are pushing this principle to the very limit.  Innovation is one thing – and we’ve seen our fair share of it this season with the Mercedes double DRS, and the new Lotus F-Duct DRS – but using solutions that are clearly beyond the spirit and the intention of the regulations is perhaps stretching things a little far.  Red Bull would, I’m sure, argue that the exhaust solutions used by all of the teams this season – where gasses are being channelled to the diffuser to increase rear downforce – are also against the spirit and the intention of the rules, and they may well be right.  It’s certainly a fine line between clever innovation and interpretation of the rules and outright illegality.

Not only did Red Bull push the limits in Germany, but so did their reigning world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel.  Vettel, having been leapfrogged by McLaren’s Jenson Button in the last round of pit stops, was running third in the closing stages of the race, catching Button, who was falling away from race leader Fernando Alonso.  Two laps from the end Vettel made his move, attempting to pass the McLaren around the outside of the hairpin.  As you might expect with a move like this, the Englishman squeezed the Red Bull driver to the edge of the track making it seemingly impossible for the German to complete the overtaking manoeuvre.  Vettel, though, left the track and used the run off area to complete the pass, rejoining the track ahead of the McLaren and ultimately crossing the line in second position.  Even before the race was finished it was announced that the incident would be looked at by the stewards at the end of the race.

Unsurprisingly, Vettel was indeed penalised for the pass, receiving a 20 second post-race penalty from the stewards, which dropped him from second place to fifth, costing him a potentially vital eight world championship points.  While the penalty was perhaps a little harsh – a five second penalty would, for example, have meant that Vettel finished third, behind Button – it’s very difficult to argue that the stewards made the wrong decision in this particular case.  It seems that while the German’s team have thus far gotten away with pushing the limits, their double world championship winning driver has not been quite so lucky.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s move on now from the various Red Bull related controversies to Fernando Alonso, who once again had an outstanding weekend and took both pole position and a very well deserved third win of the season.  After winning, and consistently scoring points, in what appeared to be an uncompetitive Ferrari at the start of the 2012 season, Alonso has now taken a strangle hold on the world drivers’ championship as the Italian team have resolved their early season performance issues and provided their drivers with a truly competitive car.  While it’s true that Ferrari is still not the quickest car in the field, Alonso certainly gets the most out of it.

Alonso now leads the championship by a full 34 world championship points from second placed Mark Webber, who finished where he started in Hockenheim – eighth position.  While finishing where he started was certainly a disappointment for Webber, the same could definitely not be said for Alonso, who also finished where he started – first.  Alonso proved himself to be a master of all conditions, taking a brilliant pole position on Saturday in wet conditions for the second consecutive race, and driving a perfectly controlled race in the dry on Sunday to take a lights to flag victory.  At the mid-way point of the season it would be tough to argue that Alonso has not been the class of the field.  The Spaniard has scored points at every single race of the season so far, with only two single figure points hauls – in China and Bahrain, rounds three and four.

With such a big lead in the championship, Alonso is now guaranteed to go into the mid-season break after next weekend’s Hungarian grand prix in the lead of the world drivers’ championship.  However, while Alonso is in a seemingly dominant position in the championship, he will be all too aware that things can easily change in the second half of the season.  While we can perhaps expect to see Red Bull lose some performance if they are forced to change their engine maps, both drivers remain a big threat for the drivers’ championship – the Milton Keynes based squad do, after all, still have a big world constructors championship lead.

Alonso will also have to contend with McLaren, who bolted on a big upgrade package in Germany which delivered much improved pace, at least in the dry, for the Woking based team.  He’ll also have to watch out for Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen, in particular.  Despite having failed to win, the Finn has now crept in to fourth place in the world drivers’ championship, ahead of Lewis Hamilton after the latter’s struggles in Germany.

While Alonso is in a great position, he’s a very long way from home and dry in the championship race.  There may still be plenty of twists and turns left as we head into the second half of the 2012 Formula 1 season…