Taking Rosberg’s easy win out of the picture, the German GP was truly spectacular, full of wheel-to-wheel racing, some of the overtakes backfiring against the initiator. Lewis Hamilton made an excellent recovery from 20th on the grid to the rostrum, but his performance should be seen in the relative context of the Mercedes superiority. As many hailed Senna’s race at Suzuka in 1988, when the MP4/4 Mclaren had at least 2 seconds per lap advantage over the field, why shouldn’t we place Lewis in the same league?
On Saturday morning, Hamilton replaced the Carbon Ind. brake discs with Brembo ones, in an attempt to counter Rosberg’s superiority at the breaking point before turn 2. The Briton now had Brembo on both axles, whilst Nico kept the Carbon Ind. on the front wheels. The Italian discs give a better feeling when pushing the pedal, as the calipers bite harder into them, but their wear rate is higher, fading in the race. Of course, we’re talking about minimal differences. Still, it was game over for the Briton when a disc broke into 3 parts – stated as a manufacturing fault – taking his German team mate out of sight on home soil. At the end of the session, all the Brembo brake discs were changed back to Carbon Ind. on both Mercs, as a caution measure. Nico Rosberg had his usual measured approach in Q3, setting his best time at the first attempt, that he could not better with his second run. Bottas was just two tenths behind, as Nico had pressed the DRS activation knob a bit too early, thus losing two tenths on the middle sector. The German didn’t push and had more in his sleeve, as we saw the next day. There was no need for frenziness from Senna or Rosemeyer’s books.
Except the predictable pole signed by Rosberg, there were notable displays by the Williams pair (2nd and 3rd) and especially Kevin Magnussen, spotted with the new rear wing and a better usage of super-soft rubber. Button couldn’t get anywhere close to his team mate, stopping the clock around three tenths down, thus being out of Q3.
Red Bull chose an under-steering setup in order to protect the rears against the unusually high track temperatures. That benefitted Ricciardo, as the Aussie’s final run was sublime, just like Prost used to drive. Vettel had constantly better times, and the balance would shift on Sunday.
“The most important lesson in motorsport is to extract just a fraction more out of the car in order to win” had confessed Alain Prost some two decades ago, in talks with Christopher Hilton. In Germany, Nico Rosberg put that line into practice, as the game was over when the number 6 Mercedes stayed in front of the two Williams cars after the getaway. Only some serious technical issue or a calamity could stay between Keke’s cerebral son and his seventh F1 win.
On Friday, Rob Smedley was concerned by Magnussen’s outings. He was right, even though the Dane was just an innocent victim in the incident at turn 1. Bottas had a slower getaway than Massa, the Brazilian having to lift in order to avoid hitting his team mate. His eyes fully on Bottas, Felipe did not see Kevin who did the lunge on the inside. The inevitable crash occurred, ruining both their races and partially compromising Ricciardo’s afternoon as well.
Things were calmed down by introducing the Safety Car, then Rosberg sprinted ahead of the pack. At first, he had 9 tenths over Bottas at the end of lap 3, constantly lapping about 5-6 tenths faster than the Finn afterwards. Nico didn’t put a single wheel wrong for the easiest win of his career, his conservative approach making him choose the two-stop strategy. A gap of 14 points protects him after the German GP, in front of Hamilton’s assault.
Hamilton’s imperfect recovery race
As opposed to the majority of the field, Lewis chose to start on the soft rubber, that theoretically enabled him to run more than 20 laps in the stint. A full tank and the removal of FRIC caused higher wear, so he could only get involved in race duels at the beginning of the stint, otherwise he would have compromised the strategy. The accident in turn one had a positive effect, by taking out two rivals that are hard to overtake (Massa and Magnussen) and a negative one, as he couldn’t make up positions fast enough, following a slow getaway. Two laps behind the Safety Car meant 9km less for his final aim: the podium. After the restart, he made short work of Bianchi, Maldonado, Grosjean and Gutierrez, climbing to 13th at the end of lap 5, right behind the first serious rival: Ricciardo. His rhythm was good, yet still he was losing about a second per lap to the race leader. The same applied to the Red Bull Aussie, that quickly dispatched Sutil. Hamilton was next in line and made a slight contact with the Sauber in an optimistic move. The Toro Rosso pair was their next target, but Kvyat took himself out of contention after a risky move on Perez, and Vergne was out of his comfort zone all weekend. As such, Lewis got in the points.
A three-way dice had Raikkonen as prey. Ricciardo made a great move on the Ferrari, whilst Hamilton needed another three laps to do the same. In the overtaking move, Raikkonen lost some of his front wing and the Mercedes remained unscathed. The alternative strategy starts to pay dividends, as Alonso pits on lap 12, followed by Button, Vettel and Hulkenberg. Bottas comes in on lap 15 and so does the leader. Hamilton is too far behind to take the lead, as Rosberg rejoins some seven seconds ahead. Bottas quickly comes behind Lewis on fresh rubber, as the engineers convince the Briton to concede the position, in order to stick to the strategy, as the tires were getting critical. Hamilton makes his first stop at the end of lap 26, rejoining in 8th, behind Ricciardo. Three laps later, he dispatches the Australian after a nice fight. Button was next in line, way slower in terms of pace. As Lewis caught his ex-team mate, an incident occurred, decisive for his attempt to come second. On the DRS zone, the Mercedes was fast approaching and made the lunge on the inside of the corner, thinking that Button chose a wide line as an invitation. When Jenson turned in, Lewis had nowhere to tighten up his line, and the contact was inevitable. A part of the Mercedes’ front wing drops, impacting his future performance. Calculations estimated a loss of about 3 tenths per lap, as tire wear was increased. This was the most important moment of the race, both for Hamilton and Bottas. In the end, you can’t always be lucky, as it had turned out well with Sutil and Kimi, but the optimism in estimating the gaps got a big knock in the Button incident. One lap later, Lewis made a clean pass on Jenson, and started chasing down the slow Force India of Hulkenberg, with Alonso, Vettel and Bottas as future targets. They all made their scheduled stops, thus promoting Lewis up into second place on lap 41. His damaged front wing and lower temperatures added extra stress on the front tires, as the over steering setup had been chosen to preserve the rears, badly worn on Saturday, when the asphalt was as hot as 58C. So, having shot tires after just 16 laps, Mercedes played it safe and changed the strategy, bringing Lewis in on lap 42. He rejoined in fifth, that quickly became fourth when Vettel made his final stop on lap 45. Alonso was next in sight, having quite a low top speed on the DRS zone (327km/h, compared to 345,2km/h for Hamilton, a new record on the new Hockenheim layout). Easy prey, as the Spaniard was forced to concede on lap 49.
The final key moment occurred the next time around, as Sutil spun exiting the last corner, his engine stopping in the process. The car remained stranded in the middle of the track, and a caution period seemed inevitable. Mercedes quickly chose to pit Lewis, as the race kept going, much to everyone’s surprise. The stricken Sauber was wheeled back by the marshals and the Safety Car was not called into action. Back in fourth, with 17 laps remaining, the Briton had to be more cautious with his tires, moving ahead of Alonso on lap 55. There was still the Williams car driven by the sensational Finn, some 16 seconds ahead, on older tires. Hamilton cut the gap at a rate of more than 2 seconds per lap, as Bottas saw him in the mirrors on lap 60. The Williams pit gave him the right to use full hybrid power, as the low drag setup made him the only one capable to fight the Mercedes on the straights. Lewis got very close on several occasions, but the key for a certain overtake was stated by Rob Smedley: a solid front axle, that gives you confidence on the braking zones and on corner entry. It’s a nightmare without it. Adding the immaculate driving shown by young Valtteri, you will have a complete overview of the true situation.
In the end, Hamilton had to watch his team mate’s triumph from the third step of the podium. His recovery race was very good, yet still not perfect. There were key moments for him on laps 31 and 50, plus the Brembo aspect that weighed in massively.
Bottas and the alternative strategy
Helped by Pat Symonds and Rob Smedley, Williams turned their weaknesses (mainly related to down force) into advantages, whenever track layout allows it. Low drag means lower tire wear and reduced control. Adding an aggressive gearbox mapping, they come up with great traction out of slow corners and a DRS top speed only equaled by Mercedes. Valtteri’s excellent driving, reminiscent of Mika Hakkinen, is only the cherry on top, the detail that catches the eye. You can’t really accuse him of anything this time around, as he only hesitated at the start. Realizing that he can’t match Rosberg, he chose to run conservatively, yet still fast enough to stay clear of troubles from behind. He pitted on laps 15 and 40, always lapping metronomically. His last laps revealed his great race craft and an unusual ability to floor the throttle before anyone else in the crucial 2 and 3turns, before the second DRS zone. Braking as late as Keke or Mika, he is one of the few drivers that draw a V not an U when going through slow corners. He was unflustered by Lewis, as second place was the best possible result for any driver on the grid that wasn’t in a W05. Forget about Kimi, the leading Finn is now driving for Sir Frank.
Alonso versus Red Bull
Brutal power delivery, poor top speed and average aerodynamics – that’s the description of the Ferrari F14T. Yet still, Alonso is able to drive around these issues almost every time, bringing home the results way above the car’s quality. This time, it was a fifth, gained after some classical battles against the Red Bull RB10, slightly rejuvenated after FRIC removal.
There were 2 factors that enabled such results. On Friday and Saturday, the high temperatures forced the engineers to go for an under steering setup in order to protect the rears when exiting slow corners. As Fernando usually prefers such setups, it fit like a glove. Secondly, lower temperatures on Sunday were hiding the true pace of the Ferrari, as the Spaniard was able to cope with the extra stress on the front axle, better than anyone else. Adding his pure racing skills to the mix, you’ll see the magnitude of his achievement. Alonso may not be an attacker like Mansell, but his defensive craft makes the car wider and wider, just as Senna or Schumacher did before. Ferrari called him too early for his first stop, leaving the Spaniard to handle a longer stint in the end. He surprised everyone with an advantage in the stadium section and had superior power delivery in lower gears. Thus, he was able to battle with Vettel on track, losing out on the strategy game that RBR executed better. He was once again in the wars, delivering the most exciting duel of the race with Ricciardo. In the end, Alonso stated that the German GP was his best outing of the year.
Vettel won the internal RBR battle, but only due to Massa. As mentioned above, the under steering setup helped Ricciardo, calmer and less dramatic on turn-in, smoother when braking. If it wasn’t for the need to take evasive action in turn 1, the Australian would have had the pace to be ahead of his illustrious team mate. Seb got the best possible result, given the setup that was not fit to his aggressive turn-in, cancelling his superiority in terms of fast changes of direction. Red Bull’s main issue is the Renault power unit, way above the others in terms of pure power, having low torque at low revs and a bigger turbo lag.
What about Kimi? He had a far better outing than one might see. Just as Vettel, he was hindered by the under steering setup, the brutal engine only making things worse. Still, he was on terms with Ricciardo, about a second per lap slower than Rosberg, until being hit by Hamilton. His front wing was further damaged in the Alonso-Red Bull battle, losing accuracy on turn-in and braking. Having such a dog of a car, it’s a major issue for a driver that can’t just handle all breeds, just as it happened with Button and Vettel.
In the end, we had a spectacular race, even though the winner was decided on Saturday. We now have a new Finn in the dynasty that Keke Rosberg started. The Hungaroring comes next, a familiar playground for Hamilton. It’s just that the Briton never had such a calm and collected team mate before.