The old mighty 7km-long Hockenheimring was built in 1932, and it was true madness, as close as you can get to AVUS. When Jim Clark died here, on the 7th of April 1968, the two never ending straights were interrupted by chicanes , yet the “high speed-low drag” nature of the track remained unchanged.
Here, Jochen Rindt made the big step towards the posthumous crown in 1970, at the first F1 race hosted by the track. In 1982, Ferrari’s title hopes vanished as Pironi hit Prost from behind, under heavy rain. The current layout was born in 2002, a pale shadow of the old fearsome track. Alternating as German GP host with the Nurburgring (another glum charade, compared to the most complex track in history, sitting right next to it), we can’t really remember any memorable race staged here, even though some sections of the old Hockenheim were preserved.
The demands of the track
By keeping the whole twisty stadium section, that was a real challenge back in the day due to the low-downforce setup, the new layout covers 4574 m and it has some attraction points. There are two turns of more than 120 degrees, driven flat out, a few slow corners where traction will be crucial, and two DRS zones where the cars are expected to reach over 320km/h. The most interesting points are the Nord-Kurve, right after the starting line, and the Mobil 1 Kurve, before the stadium section. Both are tackled at more than 210 km/h, and the lateral forces that stress the right-front tire will be considerable. There will be 67 laps to cover, for a total of 306,458 km. The simulator estimates an average speed of about 206km/h.
The characteristics of the track require a medium-to-high downforce setup. Williams already has a low-drag car, so it will go for a more liberal setup at the rear. At the other end of the spectrum, there is Red Bull. 65% of the lap is spent at full throttle, thus fuel consumption will be a bit above average. The brakes will be severely tested once again, as 15% of the time will be spent with the foot on the brake pedal. There are seven braking zones, with three of them classified as “heavy”. Subsequently, juggling with brake balance will be once again key for success.
The short pit lane remained unchanged since the era of Schumacher and Hakkinen, averaging 16,5-17 seconds for a pit stop. Pirelli brings the softest two compounds: soft and super soft, as the German track is less abrasive.
“This year, the German Grand Prix is held at Hockenheim, which combines some fast straights with a slower and more technical stadium section that forms a significant part of the lap. To provide maximum performance, the soft and super soft compounds will be in action once more, on a track that has generally low energy demands on the tire” explains Paul Hembery.
This brings us to the FRIC suspension system. As the regulations state that only an unanimous decision can trigger the cancelling of a FIA decision, this system, that has been since 2009 on the Renault, will be certainly banned. Thus, the engineers have to do their calculations based only on Friday running, as tire wear without FRIC might be uneven or higher than expected. We cannot rule out three-stop strategies. The lateral load on the tires will be an obvious issue, hindering the teams that have drawn their cars around the FRIC device. That brings us to the conclusion that Red Bull has an advantage, as their suspension design (since 2009) only stipulates an auxiliary role for FRIC, not as central as it is for Mercedes or McLaren. Having an exclusive partnership with a company that studies the structural rigidity of carbon-fiber parts, Newey and his team have built a flexing frontal area, containing the suspension, the nose and the wing, that still complies with all the FIA rigidity tests. Practically, as the car is lowered by downforce, the nose raises, thus allowing a lower ride height on the front axle, even without FRIC suspension. “Once you get rid of FRIC, the advantage of a flexible nose will grow considerably” states Mark Hughes in Motorsport Magazine.
Pirelli estimates an eight-tenths difference between the two compounds. As the weather report estimates high temperatures for the weekend, we may see a sudden drop of tire performance, once 70% of the profile is worn. Considering the demise of FRIC as well, there is a need to cover a big mileage during free practice on Friday.
On top of the thermal degradation that will affect the front tires more, due to the slow corners that require optimal traction, small slides when accelerating out of those areas will just stress out the rear tires a bit more.
The classical two-stop strategy states a first tire change around laps 17-19 and a second one by the 40th-41st lap.
Contenders and outsiders
As always, we will start with Mercedes, that has a major cushion on the rest of the field, unseen since McLaren’s 1988 campaign. Eliminating FRIC (at the Silverstone test, the mechanics worked almost 5 hours on Hamilton’s car for a FRIC-less setup) will affect the German team more than the others, but not as hard as some would hope. Merc’s advantage is not due to a certain system, a whole set of factors contributing to the dominance of the W05 on any type of track and weather condition. Lewis Hamilton had a great win here in 2008 and, in terms of raw speed, he has a slight advantage over his teammate, in ideal conditions. In front of your home fans, it is normal to retaliate after the technical glitch in UK, and Rosberg, with his analytic style far closer to Schumacher than to his dad Keke, has another ace up his sleeve now. Working with his engineers, he decrypted the secret of Lewis’ lower fuel consumption, due to the Brit’s driving style and ability to cope with a less stable rear end on corner entry. There is still to be seen if Nico can copy his teammate’s tricks, as the German’s adaptability is still doubted. Coming back to the hot topic of brakes, Rosberg usually goes for a frontwards balance, compared to Hamilton, thus protecting the rear discs, while also losing some energy from the MGU-K that never fully recharges. There is a very thin line in brake balance, as seen in Canada and Austria.
Red Bull is probably the second force in the championship. As we have previously explained the advantages of the RB10 once FRIC is gone, these are considerable on such a short lap (76-77 seconds in race pace), compensating the flaws of the Renault power unit. Christian Horner has already announced that his team will run without FRIC this weekend. The downforce advantage of Newey’s brainchild should be obvious in the stadium section, as the French engines will be punished when exiting the tight corners and on the straights. Vettel plays on home soil, on a track where he never won before, coming after his darkest half of season, having had multiple mechanical DNF’s. Just as Raikkonen or Button, his range is restricted due to driving style, but he is more adaptable, progressing in terms of harnessing the hybrid race car during the last couple of races. On the other hand, Ricciardo is so gentle with the equipment, fluid in choosing his lines, having the advantage of never driving the blown-diffuser Red Bulls that had such a huge downforce level. He is the true revelation, not just for this year, but for the last couple of seasons. The intra-team battle will be tight, Seb having just one minor plus (excluding the audience) when it comes to changing direction in medium and slow corners. The reigning champions still suffer in terms of downshifting and optimal usage of the brake-by-wire system.
Williams comes after three rewarding races, benefitting from their smart choices in terms of gear ratios, thus compensating the lack of downforce. FW36 is the most gentle car on its tires, low drag contributing also to a low fuel consumption. Expect Bottas and Massa to mix into the fight for podium places, and to set the highest top speed ever seen on the new Hockenheim layout.
Coming to Ferrari, where Alonso has three wins under his belt in Hockenheim (2005, 2010, 2012), including the infamous “Felipe is faster than you” episode. He now needs a huge chunk of luck to repeat such feats. The Spaniard is the most complete driving package from the field, even though he is not the fastest on a single lap. His major advantage over Kimi is due to his adaptability, his strange driving style that features an efficient false understeer and a remarkable consistency in delivering results. On top of that, the car is tailored to his liking, as the Finn encounters issues with brutal power delivery and rear-end instability. As gentle as he is, he can’t generate the heat into the front tires fast enough, rarely finding a setup that suits him. Don’t expect miracles from him, or from the F14T. Still, it is safe to assume that both will end up in the points scoring positions.
Other teams that will hope for points are McLaren, Force India and maybe Toro Rosso. The Woking team, still lacking a lot of downforce, will be favored by the second sector of the track, and Button is a safe bet most of the times. Force India, a regular customer of extreme strategies, can bet on something radical here also, especially with Perez. Nico Hulkenberg drives in front of his home fans, and his aggressive driving style won’t hurt the tires that bad, as the track surface is not very abrasive and FRIC was only incipient on the Indian car. STR is limited by the engine, but the drivers are better than one might think. Vergne is improvising like Keke Rosberg, but lacks some consistency, whilst Kvyat was in the spotlight with sublime actuations, showing the same low points as his teammate.
In conclusion, even though banning FRIC has reduced the distance between Mercedes and Red Bull (maybe Ferrari too, as insiders state), we will probably have again two separate races: one for the win, contested by Hamilton and Rosberg, and one for the last step of the podium, with half a dozen top drivers fighting hard.
The weather report indicates a sunny time, with more than 25 degrees Celsius, and a 30% chance of rain. There goes one chance for the field behind Mercedes, that can still hope for some reliability issues on the W05 or a hotter wheel-to-wheel dispute between the tri-star drivers.