Sunday, 24 July 2011

Unexpected End To The German Grand Prix

Free practice 3 saw McLaren catching back up with the leading teams. The english drivers ended up 5th and 6th at the end of the session. Definitely better than they looked on Friday but still not looking like they would be in a position to challenge Red Bull or Ferrari in the race.

Qualifying

Photo courtesy of Force India F1
It was again grey and overcast as the Nurburgring Q1 session started. Mark Webber was the first of the front runners to post a competitive time, but not for long as Lewis Hamilton put in a quick lap. Sebastien Vettel wasn't able to match the Englishman's time either but did beat his team mate. Halfway through the session Alonso eclipsed everyone else to go straight into provisional p1. By now only 0.3 seconds covered the top 5 which stood as Alonso, Hamilton, Webber, Vettel and Button.

The top teams, having set a decent time, sat out the rest of the session and let the bottom half of the grid sort themselves out. Except for Felipe Massa who, for no apparent reason, decided to use up a set of soft tyres at the end of the session despite being quite safe in his position. In the end it was Kobayashi who didn't make it into session 2, surprising everyone in the process.

Felipe Massa was first to leave the pits in Q2, continuing on the same soft tyres that he finished the last session on. Lewis Hamilton proved that his Q1 pace was not just a fluke by putting himself into first place again ahead of Alonso. Vettel was next to cross the line and he also failed to beat Lewis. By the halfway point of the session Hamilton was still in first, followed by Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Button, and Massa.

Paul di Resta put in a quick time to go 9th with around 90 seconds left on the clock. But now the competition was heating up quickly. Schumacher and Sutil both beat the English driver who finally ended up in 12th place. The biggest story of this session though was Lewis Hamilton hanging on to the top spot. His lap included a time through sector one that no-one else had been able to match.

Q3 was next up and again, Hamilton was one of the early pace setters. This time though Webber managed to find an huge extra chunk of time (0.47!) and get into first place. By the halfway point it was Webber, Hamilton, Alonso, Massa and finally Button making up the top 5. The second runs now began to finally decide pole position, despite some small improvements the majority did not change positions. Vettel did suddenly seem to be back in with a chance, but in the end his time was only good enough for third. Hamilton ended up only 0.05 seconds behind Webber in one of the closest qualifying sessions all year.

The final grid stood with Webber on pole followed by Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Massa, Rosberg and Button only able to get himself up to seventh. Its hard to see what lead to Lewis Hamilton's enormous improvement in pace. In practice they looked like they were being happily beaten by Mercedes. Martin Whitmarsh claimed that confidence in the car while using the blown diffuser could be part of it, but that doesn't seem likely to me. These are drivers who are used to pushing the limits of a brand new car with new parts every time they sit down to drive. Button is just not 1 second a lap slower than Hamilton so there must be some bigger difference. What it is and whether it will last to the end of the race would not be revealed until Sunday.

Race

Photo courtesy of Team Lotus
There was light rain as the mechanics cleared the grid for the race. Not enough to really wet the track but definitely enough to cause some nervous looks at the sky. As the parade lap set off though it was clearly drying up again.

Hamilton got a great start from pole position and took the lead into the first corner. Alonso also got a flyer and was challenging Webber all the way through lap 1. Vettel lost out and found himself in 4th with Rosberg behind him. On lap 2 Alonso ran a bit wide in turn 2 and lost the rear which put him wide and he rejoined in 4th. Button had a poor start and lost 3 places.

Lewis was making a gap by lap 2 and Alonso had recovered from his off and was right behind Vettel. Lap 4 and he was trying the same trick of running wide. Massa was being told by his engineer to get past Rosberg but seemed unable to make any impression. He caught up fast in the DRS zone but Nico went defensive early and Massa was forced to the outside and had to back out on the way into the chicane.

Webber seemed to be finding his rhythm and started to close in on Hamilton. By lap 7 only 3.6 seconds covered the top 4 drivers. Alonso was right behind Vettel and on Lap 8 he got a run out of the final turn and took the German into turn 1. Vettel started trying to keep with Fernando but on lap 10 he put a wheel onto the grass under braking for turn 10 and slid sideways into the run-off. He didn't lose any places but now Rosberg and Massa were right behind him.

Nick Heidfeld was trying to overtake Buemi on lap 11 and went to the outside but Buemi didn't see him, moved across the track and the two collided. Heidfeld's car jumped over Buemi's rear wheel and into retirement. Buemi managed to continue but only after his punctured tyre had been replaced.

Webber had caught up to 0.5 seconds behind Hamilton by lap 12 and was well into the DRS zone. Hamilton made a slow exit from the chicane and Webber was alongside as they passed the pit entrance. Lewis slowed to get a better run off the final turn and used the slipstream to retake Webber into turn 1. This battle allowed Alonso to get even closer and he joined in the battle on lap 14, and his attack on Webber allowed Hamilton a little breathing space. Especially as he drove into the pit the following lap.

Vettel was next into the pit on lap 17 and Hamilton and Alonso the very next lap. Webber was looking for a way past Massa down the pit straight as Hamilton and Alonso emerged from the pit nose to tail. Massa tried to take an inside line but was forced wider by the cars in the pit exit. Webber went even wider and used his speed to keep his place. Massa pitted at the end of the next lap giving the lead back to Webber with Hamilton second and Alonso third. Massa came out of the pit in front of Vettel. It was becoming clear that this would not be a dominant performance from the German driver.

On lap 24 Schumacher put a wheel off the track in the same place as Vettel and span in almost exactly the same way. Button headed into the pits for the first time a lap later, the English driver was clearly trying a different strategy to everyone else. Lap 26 and the top three were still only covered by 2.8 seconds. Sebastien Vettel's bad day continued, he was now 28 seconds behind first place and still losing time. A radio message gave a clue though, he was asked to move his brake balance forward to protect the rear brakes.

Alonso also got a radio message, "we think Webber is starting to have problems with his tyres, you can start to catch him now." He promptly responded by setting fastest lap of the race. Button was catching up with Adrian Sutil for 7th place as Webber pitted again for new soft tyres. Hamilton also went into the pits at the end of lap 31. Webber had to negotiate some traffic during his out lap and was slightly behind Hamilton as they went into turn 1. The Australian tried to switch back and was on the outside of Lewis as they went into turn 2. Hamilton ran Webber nice and wide and he backed out to remain on the track.

Next lap round saw Alonso going into the pit for his new soft tyres. In an almost exact replay of a lap earlier he exited the pit and got into turn 1 just in front of Hamilton. Lewis switched back, just as Webber had, but kept his foot in a bit harder and drove around the Spaniard, leading the trio into turn 3 on lap 33.

Photo courtesy of Force India F1
By lap 35 Button had taken Rosberg and was starting after Massa and Vettel. Hamilton was now enjoying his race and set a fastest lap. Jenson's race was over a lap later though as he had to pull into the pit with hydraulic problems and retire. Lewis however kept on going faster and by lap 37 had a 2.6 second lead and another fastest lap.

Vettel stopped for more tyres on lap 41 and Massa a lap later, emerging in front of the German. Hamilton continued to extend his lead and was now almost 9 seconds ahead of Webber who was also falling back from Alonso. Vettel was still chasing Massa and trying hard to overtake. He missed the chicane on lap 44 and had to rebuild a new attack. He  got a new fastest lap while catching back up and Massa was warned he was coming. By Lap 49 he was right behind him and continued to try and find a way past for the next few laps.

Hamilton made his last pit stop, moving on to hard tyres, on lap 51 but was it too soon? Ferrari bought fresh tyres out into the pits but Alonso continued past and they went back in. Hamilton showed that it was the right choice by setting a 1st sector time that no-one else could match. Alonso went for his hard tyres on lap 53 while Webber stayed out. Hamilton had done enough though and was in front of Alonso into turn 1.

Webber was clearly not going as fast as Hamilton and Alonso after their stops and finally went for his hard tyres on lap 57. That put Lewis back on the lead and on the next lap his engineer came on the radio, telling him, "You are P1, 3 seconds ahead of Alonso. You are the fastest car on the track." That has got to be a good thing to hear.

Vettel was still behind Massa and the race was quickly getting to the end. They would both have to stop soon for hard tyres but neither wanted to be the first to go. Two laps remaining and Vettel was told to do the opposite of Massa on the next trip past the pit entrance. Massa did not go in, and neither did Vettel. It would now be down to straight pit stop race on the penultimate lap. They both dived in, Vettel leaving it late to brake for the speed limit line and almost hitting the rear of the Ferrari. The Red Bull team got the better of their Italian counterparts and it was Vettel who made it out first.

The race finished with Lewis Hamilton taking first place followed by Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. Vettel came home 4th ahead of Mass and Adrien Sutil claimed 6th place.

It was no surprise to see Ferrari matching and even beating the Red Bull cars for pace, but it was a surprise to see McLaren at the front. Even stranger was the fact that Button still seemed to be showing the same lack of speed that the British team had showed on Friday. Whatever the reason its good to see a race where there were three people in with a chance of winning right up until the end. And it was another (pleasant?) surprise to see that none of them were Sebastien Vettel. This performance will only lend weight to the theory that Vettel can only lead from the front and you have to wonder if he will ever be able to disprove it.

A fantastic win by Hamilton, against the odds. Hopefully this could be the template for the next few races. It would be great to think that we won't know who is going to win until the last lap for the rest of the season. It might also be a bit too much to ask. But for now I'm hanging on to my optimistic view. Bring on the second half of the championship!

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