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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F1 dazzles in the desert

After two easy victories, one for each of the Mercedes drivers, in the opening two races of the season many were writing off Formula 1. Quieter engines, fuel efficiency and the same big margins of victory; no battles at the front – F1 had lost the plot, right? Wrong. The Bahrain grand prix was full of thrills and spills and featured a titanic battle for victory between the Mercedes drivers – easily the best race in recent years; a real thriller that had you on the edge of your seat right until the chequered flag.

In the end, just like a week ago in Malaysia, it was Lewis Hamilton that came out on top in Bahrain, although his margin of victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg was dramatically reduced from 17.3 seconds last time out to a whisker over a single second this time. As reflected by the narrow margin of victory, we had a real fight between the Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, not only in the final grandstand finish over the last 10 laps, but also, crucially, in the run up to the first round of pit stops.

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the line and took the lead into turn 1

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the
line and took the lead into turn 1

Unlike in the last two races, in Bahrain Rosberg beat Hamilton in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season, with his team-mate qualifying second, giving the Silver Arrows their first front row lock-out of the season. Rosberg had clearly raised his game after being dominated by Hamilton at Sepang and looked to have the edge over the 2008 world drivers’ champion this time. The German, the race winner in Australia, might have been able to streak clear in the same way that Hamilton managed in Malaysia, but he was beaten off the line, and into turn one, by his team-mate.

Having gotten the drop on Rosberg, Hamilton couldn’t pull away, though. The gap hovered around a second to a second and a half in the opening stint of the race allowing our first round of fireworks to take place as we approached the first pit stops. Knowing that the driver who stopped first would enjoy the advantage of the undercut – the advantage of fresher tyres for a lap or so – Rosberg pushed hard to overtake Hamilton and closed to within DRS range of his team-mate.

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn't make the pass stick

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn’t make the pass stick

On lap 18 Rosberg made his move, diving down the inside of Hamilton at turn one before conceding the lead again as the Englishman fought back. On the next lap Rosberg tried again. This time it looked like he might have made the pass stick, but Hamilton wasn’t giving up and re-passed Rosberg into turn four. It was a truly brilliant counter-attack from Hamilton and it looked critical as at the end of the lap he made his pit stop. He had secured the advantage of the undercut.

Once both of the Mercedes drivers had stopped – Hamilton for another set of option tyres, while Rosberg had switched to primes – things seemed to settle down. The undercut had given Hamilton a six second advantage, which steadily increased eventually reaching 9.7 seconds on lap 40. While it was never quite a case of ‘race over’ given that Hamilton would use the slower prime tyre in the final stint while Rosberg would use the faster options, things did look reasonably comfortable up front.

Maldonado's Lotus flips Gutierrez’s Sauber into a dramatic somersault

Maldonado’s Lotus flips Gutierrez’s
Sauber into a dramatic somersault

But then along came Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus. On lap 41 the Venezuelan exited the pits and T-boned Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, launching the Mexican’s car into a somersault at turn one – an incident which resulted in Maldonado receiving a five place grid penalty after the race, plus three points on his super-licence. Unsurprisingly, out came the safety car and away went Hamilton’s lead.

With Hamilton now on the slower tyres and Rosberg on the faster options, it looked to be advantage Rosberg. Just before the safety car pulled in with 10 laps to go, though, both Mercedes drivers received identical radio messages from Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe “With 10 laps left to race, can we just make sure we bring both cars home.” Team orders, I thought. I was wrong! Rosberg attacked Hamilton immediately and while he couldn’t get the pass done he stayed close enough to Hamilton to receive the advantage of DRS when it became available two laps after the re-start.

Rosberg attacked again on laps 52 and 53, squeezing ahead of Hamilton only to be swiftly re-passed by his team-mate. It was thrilling stuff, but with better tyres and the edge in terms of outright speed I thought it was only a matter of time before Rosberg made the move stick. I was wrong again! Hamilton was told that he could use the overtake button on the exit of corners to aid in his defence and he was able to pull out a gap of around a second to Rosberg in the final couple of laps.

Perez celebrates his third place

Perez celebrates his third place

The second display of on-track fireworks between the Mercedes drivers was finally over as Hamilton took a brilliant victory, different in so many different ways to the win just a week earlier at Sepang. I haven’t even mentioned the other brilliant battles throughout the field during the race. Sergio Perez claimed third place to give Force India only their second ever podium finish and we saw on track fireworks from a whole host of other drivers. It was a tremendous race and a brilliant advert for the new era of Formula 1.

Not only did the battle between the Silver Arrows prove a thrilling spectacle, it also finally showed us the extent of the pace that the Brackley-based team have in their pocket. In just 10 laps they built up a 24 second advantage over Perez in third place; an advantage of some 2.4 seconds per lap. Something that will surely send shivers down the spines of the rest of the paddock.

Hamilton takes the checquered flag in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

Hamilton takes the checquered flag
in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

The championships look like Mercedes’s to lose, but we’re highly unlikely to get the sort of cakewalk that we’ve seen at times from Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in recent seasons. The Mercedes drivers seem pretty closely matched and the team seem determined to let them race. That’s great for the sport. While Hamilton has two victories to Rosberg’s one, it’s the German that so far holds the championship advantage thanks to Hamilton’s unfortunate retirement in Australia.

There were more fireworks after the race, this time in the night sky as the organisers brought the curtain down on the 900th grand prix and the 10th at the Sakhir circuit. The next race in China has a lot to live up to.

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.

The class of 2013

As always, now that the first winter test has been and gone we’re none the wiser about the respective pace of the 11 teams on the Formula 1 grid. However, now that 10 of those 11 teams have confirmed their driver line ups – the exception being Force India, who have yet to announce who will race for them alongside Paul di Resta – we can be much more certain about who will actually be on the grid come the opening race in Australia in about a month’s time. Unusually, of the 21 seats that have been filled, nearly a quarter are filled with rookies.

Indeed, once Force India confirm their driver line up, the number of rookies on the grid may well increase to six – more than a quarter of the field – if, as seems quite likely, Jules Bianchi gets the nod. For now, though, I’m going to ignore Bianchi and instead look at the five confirmed Formula 1 rookies for 2013. Let’s focus on these F1 novices and assess their chances.

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

I’ll start with Williams’ young Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas. Bottas is unique among this year’s crop of rookies as he has never competed in Formula 1 feeder series GP2. The Finn was, though, crowned GP3 champion in 2011 and makes up for his lack of racing in GP2 with three years spent with Williams as a test driver. This will mean that Bottas will have had some considerable input into the design and development of the Williams FW35 – the only 2013 car still to be unveiled – and will know exactly what to expect from a car that, because of his input into its design and development, is likely to suit him.

Despite his lack of recent racing experience, GP3 aside, let’s not forget that Bottas does have a fair amount of Formula 1 experience. The 23 year old took part in 15 Friday free practice sessions in 2012, on top of his other duties as a test driver, and was impressively faster than race driver Pastor Maldonado in six of these free practice appearances. The Finn is certainly rated very highly by Williams and it will be interesting to see how he fairs against former GP2 champion, and Formula 1 race winner, Maldonado. I expect that the two will be closely matched and that Bottas may even outpace his more experienced Venezuelan team mate. I would be far from surprised if Bottas ends the season as top rookie.

Esteban Gutierrez testing the Sauber C32 at JerezBy Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

Esteban Gutierrez testing the Sauber C32 at Jerez
By Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

I expect that the other contender for the top rookie crown come the end of the 2013 Formula 1 season will be Esteban Gutierrez. Sauber’s new race driver, like Bottas, has been with his current employers for quite some time. The 21 year old Mexican first tested for Sauber, in their former guise as BMW Sauber, in 2009 and, again like Bottas, has been with his team as a reserve and test driver for the last three seasons.

Unlike Bottas, though, Gutierrez has not had much Formula 1 free practice experience, appearing only once in FP1 in 2012, deputising for his unwell compatriot, Sergio Perez, in India. Gutierrez does, though, have the edge on Bottas in terms of recent race experience, having come home third in last season’s GP2 championship, ahead of his team-mate James Calado, the same team-mate that Bottas beat to the GP3 championship a year earlier. Gutierrez has big shoes to fill at Sauber, though. His fellow Mexican Perez was outstanding in 2012 and was rewarded with a move to McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton. It remains to be seen whether Gutierrez can rise to the challenge. He was inconsistent in GP2, and I expect that 2013 may well be a tough year for him, especially alongside Nico Hulkenberg – a former GP2 champion and a Formula 1 pole sitter.

luiz-razia.n

Luiz Razia at Moscow City Racing 2011
By RusRayden, via Wikimedia Commons

The remaining three 2013 rookies fill three of the four seats at the two remaining ‘new’ Formula 1 teams – Caterham and Marussia. The first of these is Luiz Razia, who was only confirmed as the second Marussia race driver last week. Like Gutierrez, Razia competed in GP2 last season, finishing runner up in the championship with four race victories. The Brazilian also has some Formula 1 experience as a test driver, first with his current team in their former guise of Virgin racing and, more recently, with Team Lotus, which has now become Caterham. Like Gutierrez, his only experience of Formula 1, other than a young driver test, was a single free practice outing. For Razia, this came at the 2011 Chinese grand prix.

Max Chilton

Max Chilton testing the Marussia MR02 at Jerez
By Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

Going head to head with Razia at Marussia is another rookie, Englishman Max Chilton. Chilton, at 21 years of age, is a couple of years younger than his Brazilian team-mate, who he competed alongside in last year’s GP2 series finishing the championship in fourth place at the end of the season. Chilton has been with Marussia as their test and reserve driver since last year’s Japanese GP and, like both Gutierrez and Razia, he took part in a single Friday free practice session – for Chilton, this came at the Abu Dhabi GP. It should be an interesting battle between the two rookies at Marussia and it’s pretty tough to predict who will come out on top. It may well be the case that the one who loses out may also lose out on an F1 drive in 2014. One thing’s for sure, though, we’re highly unlikely to see either Razia or Chilton, battling with Bottas and Gutierrez to be the top rookie.

Guido van der Garde driving for Caterham in FP1 at the 2012 Japanese GPBy Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Guido van der Garde driving for Caterham in FP1 at the 2012 Japanese GP
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

That leaves us with one more F1 novice to assess; Caterham new boy Guido van der Garde. Van der Garde is the fourth of our five rookies to have graduated from GP2 and, at 27 years of age, the Dutchman is the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, with Formula 1 experience as a test and reserve driver as long ago as 2007, with Spyker (now known as Force India). It is perhaps telling that van der Garde has not made his Formula 1 breakthrough before now. Despite his experience as Caterham’s test and reserve driver last season, the Dutchman did not take part in any Friday free practice sessions, which places him at a slight disadvantage in comparison to his peers. I doubt that this will prove crucial though, and it will be interesting to see how well van der Garde does in comparison to 2012 F1 rookie Charles Pic.

Of the five rookies, I feel that van der Garde is the one that’s most likely to struggle. Much will depend, of course, on how competitive his Caterham CT03 is in comparison to its rivals. Despite now entering their fourth year in the sport Caterham, and the other remaining new team Marussia, have failed to break through to challenge the more established teams. This places their drivers, and especially the rookies, at a distinct disadvantage. Unless one of these teams has made huge strides forward, I imagine that we’ll see van der Garde, Chilton and Razia competing for the wooden spoon at the end of the season.

As I’ve indicated, though, I expect more from the two rookies driving for more established teams. On ultimate pace I think that Bottas has the edge over Gutierrez, but it’s very tough to tell. We have to go back to 2009 to see when these two last went head-to-head for a full season and it was Bottas that came out on top in the Formula Three Euroseries. Whether it’s Bottas or Gutierrez that takes the rookie crown will depend largely on how good their cars are. The Sauber C32 certainly looks to be the most innovative of this year’s crop of F1 cars, but Williams have yet to show their hand. As always, though, nothing is certain in the unpredictable world of F1.