Four-midable Vettel clinches the title in India

It’s a case of another race, another win, and in this case another world drivers’ championship for Sebastian Vettel.  Aside from the championship speculation the tyres had once again been a major talking point in India and there was some hope that the different strategies used would result in an exciting and unpredictable race.  Unfortunately, that never really developed.

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

With Vettel starting on pole on soft tyres that only lasted a handful of laps and his Red Bull Racing team-mate starting in fourth on the harder compound, sandwiching the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton – both of whom were, like Vettel, starting on soft tyres – there was a fair degree of uncertainty about which of the Red Bulls would come out on top.  In pure timing terms, Webber’s strategy was theoretically around two seconds faster over the course of the race.  Added to this, Vettel’s strategy meant that he would have to overtake lots of cars as he came back through the field after stopping early to switch to the harder tyre.  A great opportunity for Webber, it seemed.

What can you do? Webber walks back to the pits after retiring with an alternator failure

What can you do? Webber walks back to the
pits after retiring with an alternator failure

Although, as expected, Webber did lead in India – breaking Vettel’s 100% record of laps led at the Buddh International Circuit – such was Vettel’s speed in getting through slower traffic that Webber never really stood a chance.  Ultimately, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Webber had been Vettel’s equal in speed terms in India.  Another failure on his car, this time an alternator meant that he retired from the race 20 laps from the end on lap 40.

While Vettel and Red Bull Racing made their strategy work perfectly by gearing their car aggressively so that the 26-year-old German was able to pass cars with relative ease, Mercedes certainly didn’t.  In the end, though, it was a good day for the Silver Arrows; Rosberg’s second place and Hamilton’s sixth place finish enabled them to leapfrog Ferrari into second in the world constructors’ championship, which Red Bull also took in India.

The Mercedes team-mates pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes team-mates
pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes drivers would never have been able to compete with Vettel for victory in India, but it was very telling that both of their drivers struggled badly to overtake cars after pitting.  Vettel made it look easy, but Mercedes were just not fast enough down the straights.  This meant that, having been overtaken by the Ferrari of Felipe Massa on the first lap, both drivers were then stuck behind him for most of the race.  Rosberg made his way back ahead of the Brazilian using an undercut strategy at the second round of pit stops, but Hamilton, who stopped on the same lap as Massa, was unable to do likewise.

Despite outscoring both Ferrari and Lotus in India, Mercedes have to ask themselves some serious questions.  Having started both cars on the soft tyre, the team would have known that they would have needed to overtake slower cars that started on the harder compound.  Why they then decided to set their car up in a manner that did not facilitate overtaking is a mystery for me.  We saw Hamilton, for example, stuck behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas – which Vettel managed to breeze passed easily – for a number of laps at one stage of the race.

Ultimately, though, Mercedes did well to negotiate Rosberg ahead of Massa.  This, coupled with a disastrous race for Fernando Alonso, who finished down in 11th place, unable to add to his record 1571 world championship points, meant that the Brackley based team moved ahead of the Scuderia in the constructors championship.

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

Lotus also did well to recover from a disastrous qualifying for Romain Grosjean to outscore Ferrari in India, meaning that it remains very much a three-way fight for that coveted second position in the constructors’ championship.  Having badly misjudged things in qualifying meaning that Grosjean failed to make it out of Q1, starting down in 17th position, things looked bleak for Lotus at the start of the race.  The Frenchman drove brilliantly, though, to take a place on the podium with a third place finish.  Kimi Raikkonen’s seventh place finish certainly wasn’t quite as inspiring as he tried, and failed, to make a one stop strategy work.  He did, though, at least have the satisfaction of snatching the fastest lap of the race away from Vettel on fresh tyres at the end of the race.

The final word goes to Vettel, though.  A fourth consecutive Formula 1 world drivers’ championship at the age of 26 is certainly an amazing achievement.  It does, though, make things a little dull for those that are not Vettel supporters.  Vettel’s dominance, and the extreme role that tyre strategy is playing in modern Formula 1, is certainly dulling the spectacle.  Radio messages such as the one from McLaren to Sergio Perez telling him not to fight Vettel due to their different strategies seem incompatible with the concept of racing, especially in a championship that’s meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport.

There’s hope that with a big regulation change coming next year, we may well see things mixed up a little in 2014.  One thing’s for sure, though, if Red Bull Racing build another world-beating car, it’s all but certain to be world drivers’ championship number five for Vettel in 2014.  I don’t know about you, but I find that an incredible depressing thought…

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Safety concerns overshadow another Vettel victory in Korea

So, four wins in a row in 2013 and three wins in a row in Korea for Sebastian Vettel.  To be honest it never really looked in doubt after the German got away cleanly from pole position and pulled out an immediate gap to the cars behind him.  With Fernando Alonso only managing sixth place for Ferrari, Vettel now has a 77 point lead at the top of the world drivers’ championship.  A fifth straight win in Japan next weekend could see him wrap up a fourth straight championship, if Alonso fails to finish in eighth place or better.

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

You’ve got to congratulate Vettel on his win.  Since the summer break he has simply been untouchable and his rivals will be left scratching their heads to come up with an answer to his continued dominance of the sport.  As good as Vettel’s performances are, though, there will always be a question about how much of his speed is down to the German himself, and how much down to the Red Bull car, and its designer Adrian Newey.

Whatever the case, Vettel and his Red Bull seem to be in perfect harmony at the moment.  It doesn’t make for the most thrilling of race spectacles, but that’s not something that Vettel and his team will be too concerned about.  At least in Korea, the gap between the reigning world drivers’ champion and the rest was much closer than it had been two weeks ago in Singapore.  There was also more action further down the field and some standout performances from other drivers.

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside of his team-mate to take second position

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside
of his team-mate to take second position

Both Lotus drivers drove extremely well in Korea.  Romain Grosjean had been fast all weekend and followed up his third place starting position with third in the race.  He would have been slightly disappointed not to have taken second position, having done wonderfully at the start to pass Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the run down to turn three on the opening lap.  That disappointment will be magnified by the fact that it was his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, who beat him to second place.  The Finn took advantage of a small mistake by Grosjean after a safety car period, to dive ahead of the Frenchman into turn one.  A great drive from Raikkonen from a ninth place start, highlighting what a good acquisition he’ll be for Ferrari next year.

Ironically, perhaps, the other standout performance in Korea came from the man who Raikkonen pipped to the Ferrari seat.  Nico Hulkenberg scored points for the third race in a row for Sauber.  He followed up his excellent fifth place in Monza two races ago with a brilliant fourth place in Korea.  The German maximised the performance of his car to hold off Fernando Alonso at certain stages of the race while taking advantage of his car’s superior straightline speed as the race was restarted after a safety car period to pass Hamilton on lap 37 and, crucially, stay ahead of him over the remaining laps.  Hulkenberg is certainly doing all he can to secure the seat vacated by Raikkonen at Lotus for next season.

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after
failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

As good as the performances of the top four were in Korea, the race was somewhat overshadowed by three safety related incidents.  The first of these came on lap 28.  Nico Rosberg had been catching his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton hand over fist over the preceding laps as the Briton suffered with a badly degraded right front tyre.  While Mercedes inexplicably left Hamilton on track, Rosberg made his move in the DRS zone on the run down to turn three.  As the German pulled alongside his team-mate his front wing failed and sparks flew under the car as he made his way back to the pits.  Mercedes will certainly be concerned at the failure which, had the wing become completely detached, could have caused a serious incident for both of their cars.

Rosberg’s front wing failure was, perhaps, the least serious of the three safety incidents.  The next came on lap 31.  Sergio Perez, following a big lock up into turn one, was making his way down the straight on the approach to turn three when his right front tyre on his McLaren failed completely.  The tyre delaminated, causing a puncture for Mark Webber who ran over the debris and brought out the first of two safety cars.  While Pirelli will undoubtedly point to the age of the tyre – Perez had been on that set of tyres for over twenty laps – and the huge lock up as the cause of the delamination, we’re once again left with some question marks over the tyres currently used in Formula one.

In the run up to the race, Fernando Alonso had heavily criticised the Pirelli tyres, calling into question the quality of the product that Pirelli are producing.  The Spaniard is particularly worried about tyre durability, stating “We are getting used to these tyres that cannot last one lap”, going on to label the tyres as “not normal”, explaining that “If you push, you finish the tyres”.  The pre race response from Pirelli was robust, with their motorsport director Paul Hembery calling Alonso’s comments “disappointing and below the standards you would expect from such a champion”.

After yet another race where tyre degradation was once again the overriding factor in the race, you can’t help but think that Alonso has a point.  In Korea it was the right front tyre that was the limiting factor.  Aside from Perez’s total tyre failure, we heard Lewis Hamilton complaining bitterly about his tyres over team radio and numerous other team radio messages between other teams and drivers concerning right front tyre wear.

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race
in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Mark Webber added his criticism of the tyres to Alonso’s after the race in Korea, saying “Pirelli will put the puncture of Perez down to a lock-up but the reason the drivers are locking up is because there’s no tread left”.  He also highlighted the overriding role that tyre wear is having in modern Formula one results by saying that “The drivers aren’t super important”.  With Pirelli now confirmed as the Formula 1 tyre supplier for 2014, we’ll have to wait to see if they change their approach to tyre construction.  I personally hope that they do.

While, Perez’s tyre failure was concerning, though, the tyre situation has certainly improved from earlier in the season, with the low point being at the British grand prix where there were multiple failures.  Indeed, in Korea the tyres were not the biggest safety concern.  That came on lap 38.  Adrian Sutil spun and hit Mark Webber’s Red Bull at the hairpin, bursting an oil radiator on the Australian’s car.  This caused a fire, the second in two races on Webber’s car, and as the Red Bull was engulfed in flames a fire safety truck was released to deal with the inferno, but bizarrely BEFORE the deployment of the safety car.  As it turned out, the FIA had expected that the fire truck from turn three, where Webber’s car was ablaze, would be used, but instead the truck from turn one was called into action, which we saw making its way down the main straight with a train of F1 cars closing in.  The safety car was then deployed, but had the turn three truck been used, we might not even have needed the second safety car at all.

The situation was certainly a strange one, and one the Formula 1 one bosses will not be keen to see repeated.  I’m sure that procedures will be re-examined and tightened as a result, but that won’t be of too much concern to Sebastian Vettel.  The German is all but certain to take the world drivers’ championship yet again.

It’s Singa-bore as Seb wins again

The formula 1 circus returned from the summer break with an air of anticipation after Lewis Hamilton brilliantly won the Hungarian grand prix.  Hope abounded that Mercedes driver Hamilton, or even Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso or Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen could put in a run of results that would enable them to put up a fight for the 2013 world drivers’ championship.  Three races on, and three victories for Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, have pretty much ended the championship aspirations of the rest, though.

Rosberg managed to pass Vettel at the start, but couldn't make it stick

Rosberg managed to pass Vettel
at the start, but couldn’t make it stick

Victory in Singapore, by an astounding 32.6 seconds from Alonso’s Ferrari, looks to be the final nail in the coffin, and it was never in doubt from the point at which Nico Rosberg failed to make his first corner overtaking attempt stick.  As usual, Vettel seemingly effortlessly moved away from the rest, building a comfortable lead, which allowed him to control the race.

Daniel Ricciardo climbs out of his Toro Rosso after crashing out

Daniel Ricciardo climbs out of his
Toro Rosso after crashing out

Things might have changed when the safety car was deployed mid-race after Vettel’s future team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, crashed his Toro Rosso on lap 25.  The safety car was not well-timed for Vettel or indeed Rosberg, Mark Webber or Hamilton, all of whom didn’t stop while the rest of the field, including Alonso and Raikkonen pitted for fresh rubber.  You’d never have guessed it at the restart, though.

If Vettel’s gap building at the start of the race was impressive, his pace compared to the rest after the safety car came in to the pits at the end of lap 30 was nothing short of amazing.  The gap to Rosberg grew exponentially as the triple world drivers’ champion lapped around 2 seconds a lap faster than his rivals.  While Rosberg was at the front of a train of cars Vettel streaked into the distance.  Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton all stopped in quick succession on laps 40, 41 and 42, but Vettel stayed out until lap 45.

Where his team-mate and the two Mercedes cars had rejoined way down the field, temporarily out of points scoring positions, Vettel emerged from the pits still in the lead of the race, ahead of Alonso who made a two stop strategy work, where numerous others failed.  Vettel, though relentlessly built up a huge lead to finish well clear of the field in what must rank as one of his most comfortable victories.

Vettel fans will obviously be delighted with the German’s form after the summer break, and indeed with the manner of his victory in Singapore.  For the rest of the world’s formula 1 fans it might be getting a bit boring.  Certainly, the race in Singapore was pretty dull.  Had it not been for some frantic action in the last 15 laps or so of the race as Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton made their way through the field, passing cars that were two stopping with tyres that were ‘falling off the cliff’, the race would have been virtually absent of action. .

It would be unfair, though, to leave it at that, without mentioning the performances of Raikkonen and Alonso in more detail.  As I’ve already mentioned, Alonso managed to make a two stop strategy work for him where many of the cars and drivers that tried the same tactic failed, including the McLaren’s of Jenson Button – tantalisingly in a podium position in the closing stages of the race – and Sergio Perez.  Raikkonen also made a two stop strategy work, and as a result Alonso and Raikkonen finished second and third respectively, doing as much as they could to hang on to the coattails of Vettel in the championship.

Alonso, picyure early in the race, after making another brilliant start

Alonso, pictured early in the race,
after making another brilliant start

The two stop strategies of Alonso and Raikkonen were impressive in themselves, but considering that both drivers had poor grid positions their performances were impressive in themselves.  Raikkonen overcame the discomfort of a bad back to move steadily through the field from his 13th place starting position.  Where Raikkonen was steady, Alonso was anything but, putting himself in contention with another stunning start, moving himself up from seventh on the grid to third place by turn two.  In contrast, his Brazilian team-mate, Felipe Massa, could only finish where he started in sixth place.

Another man who could only finish where he started was Hamilton, who followed home his team-mate, Rosberg, in fifth place.  That fifth place finish was enough for him to maintain third place in the standings, albeit now just two points ahead of Raikkonen.  Alonso has certainly strengthened his grip on second place in the standings, with a 36 point lead of Hamilton, but it seems that he’s destined to lose out on yet another championship.  Vettel now stands 60 points clear at the head of the championship; more than two race wins worth of points in the lead.

Vettel celebrates as he crosses the line to win in Singapore

Vettel celebrates as he crosses the line to win in Singapore

Vettel’s performance in Singapore was incredibly impressive, matching his lead in the championship.  Not only has the German got the best car on the grid, but he’s also got lady luck on his side.  There was no greater illustration of that as the 26 year-old crossed the line to take victory, seconds after his team-mate, Mark Webber, retired; his car bursting into flames after a water pressure issue.

We move on next to Korea, in two weeks time.  At this stage, though, there’s nothing to suggest that the result will be any different.  Vettel may well take a fourth straight win next time out, perhaps also signally a fourth straight world drivers’ championship for the German.

Frustration at Ferrari

After losing out on the world drivers’ and constructors championships to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing in 2012, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari made a strong start to 2013, winning two of the opening five rounds of the season. However, more recently things have been going less well for the Scuderia. The first race after the summer break – at Spa at the end of this month – may well determine how quickly Ferrari shift their resources to their 2014 car.

So, what has gone wrong at Ferrari? I think that there are a number of issues, the biggest of which is that the team seem unable to develop the F138 to keep pace with their rivals. This is not a new problem for Ferrari – we saw the same problems with the development of last year’s car – but it is one that they seem no closer to solving.

Lewis Hamilton at the Singapore Gp in 2009; one of two races he won that year for McLaren

Lewis Hamilton at the Singapore GP in 2009;
one of two races he won that year for McLaren

As teams, drivers, media and fans know, development is vital in F1. Starting the season with an uncompetitive car isn’t the end of the world if you can improve it more rapidly than your competitors. An excellent example of that is McLaren’s 2009 season, during which Lewis Hamilton won two races, despite neither car finishing higher than fourth in the first nine races of the 17 race season. Knowing the importance of development is not the same as being able to develop the car, however.

Alonso revealed at the last race in Hungary that the F138 is currently in the same specification that Alonso drove to victory in Spain, some five races earlier. This isn’t because Ferrari, have been lazy, of course. The team has been bringing new parts to races – like the new diffuser that they brought to the Hungaroring – fitting them to the car, only to find that they fail to bring the expected improvements to performance. Wind tunnel and simulation data are failing to accurately predict real world performance – a massive issue.

Vergne's tyre exploding at the British GP

Vergne’s tyre exploding at the British GP

If their development problems weren’t bad enough, Ferrari seemed to have been affected badly by the change in Pirelli’s tyre construction. Following a number of unsightly and dangerous tyre delaminations earlier in the season, the Italian tyre manufacturer was criticised by a number of teams, but Ferrari were not among them. Despite calls to change the tyre construction, the teams couldn’t agree to the switch. This all changed after the British grand prix, though. The multiple tyre failures that we saw in that race forced an immediate reaction and just a couple of rounds later – at the last race in Budapest – we saw the 2013 tyre compounds paired with the 2012 tyre construction to address the problems. Essentially, this meant a switch from steel belted tyres to tyres with Kevlar belts.

The change in tyre construction means that heat is better dissipated by the tyre, rather than retained in the steel belt. This, of course, will benefit teams that suffer from high thermal degradation of their tyres, most notably Mercedes who won the race through Lewis Hamilton in Hungary. Teams that haven’t struggled to the same extent with tyre degradation issues are likely to be disadvantaged, though. We saw Force India struggle at the Hungaroring, with Ferrari also suffering.

Alonso qualified sixth in Canada, but raced strongly, finishing second

Alonso qualified sixth in Canada,
but raced strongly, finishing second

Ferrari have had issues in qualifying this season and have only had a single front row start in 2013; for Felipe Massa in round two in Malaysia. Conversely, though, their race pace has been extremely strong, with Alonso, in particular, able to move forward rapidly on Sundays. This is likely down to car characteristics, with the F138 struggling to heat its tyres and bring them into ‘the window’ of operating efficiency for a single qualifying lap, but looking after the same tyres well on race day. The change in the construction of the tyres means, though, that the help in heating the rubber that Ferrari would have received from the steel banded tyres has disappeared. As we saw at the Hungaroring, Ferrari’s race pace was disappointing, with Alonso finishing where he started in fifth place – aided by the difficulties suffered by Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean – while Massa dropped one place from his starting position to finish eighth in the race.

As we saw from Lotus’s performance in Hungary, though, it is certainly possible for a team that enjoyed the steel belted tyres to perform equally strongly with the Kevlar belted construction. Lotus is a team that have been extremely good on tyre wear, and might have expected to struggle with a tyre that dissipates heat more rapidly. This wasn’t the case in Hungary, though, with Raikkonen benefitting from a two stop strategy to finish second, while Grosjean can count himself unlucky to have finished sixth, after receiving two penalties from the stewards. Some of Lotus’s strong performance on the Kevlar tyres might be attributable to the high heat at the Hungaroring, but Force India and Ferrari suffered in the same conditions, so there’s almost certainly something that these two teams can learn from Lotus.

The second of two almost identical crashes for Massa in Monaco

The second of two almost identical
crashes for Massa in Monaco

The final issue for Ferrari is their drivers. After a strong start to the season Massa is now starting to struggle quite badly. A poor start to 2012 saw heavy speculation that the Brazilian would be replaced at Ferrari for 2013, but a strong end to the season saw him retain his seat and an even stronger start to 2013 seemed to have dispelled any doubts about Massa at Ferrari. A run of five crashes over the course of four grands prix weekends – Monaco (twice), Canada, Britain and Germany, where he spun out on lap four – has reignited the speculation over the 32 year old’s future at Ferrari, though.

Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo has gone from being supportive of Massa, saying last month that “Felipe is fully aware he can count on our total confidence in him” to saying more recently “in the past days, we were very clear with him: both he and us need results and points. Then, at some point, we will look one another in the eye and decide what to do”. Fernando Alonso has not been immune from criticism, either. Recent speculation has linked the Spaniard to Mark Webber’s seat at Red Bull Racing, with the reaction from Ferrari being whispers about Alonso failing to get the best out of the car in qualifying and Di Montezemolo publicly rebuking the double world driver’s champion.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, Ferrari’s form at the Belgian grand prix at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps may well prove crucial to determining where the team focuses its resources; the F138 or the 2014 challenger. I expect that a lack of improvements will see 2013 being sacrificed in favour of next year’s car. With James Allison joining Ferrari as technical director next month, this may well be the plan at Maranello in any case.

It is crucial that, whatever they decide to do, the team pulls together and avoids a sustained period of destructive speculation surrounding their drivers. With silly season just getting started that might be easier said than done, however. It looks like it could be a challenging second half of the season for Ferrari.

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.