European GP - Saturday - Qualifying Session Report
Kimi stars as Lewis shunts
The heavy accident that befell Lewis Hamilton with five minutes to go in qualifying for the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring probably skewed the results of qualifying for the race. It certainly did not help Hamilton but then again one should count oneself lucky if one hits a wall, virtually head-on, at 60mph and escapes with no injury. The man who gained the advantage on this occasion was Kimi Raikkonen, who was able to scramble to pole position in the final five minutes when the session restarted just over half an hour after the crash, by which time Hamilton was in the Medical Centre being checked over by the doctors.
Hamilton had been on the pace from the start of the weekend, McLaren having apparently made some progress since Silverstone. He had gone into the pits to get his final set of new tyres and then completed a warming up lap. The track was clear and he was on it. In the first sector he was fastest. He came around the hairpin at the bottom end of the track and accelerated up the hill, getting up to just over 140mph when his right front tyre suddenly - and rapidly - deflated. From then on Hamilton was a passenger. And it was not a long trip. The car went straight on as the track turned and his trajectory took him straight into the tyre barriers. These are the worst kinds of Formula 1 accident because there is nothing a driver can do. He must rely on the safety that is built into the car and designed into the circuits. At that point on the circuit there is a wide gravel trap and although the front of the McLaren was in the air over some of this, the rear end bounced two or three times before the car hit the tyre barriers. These too are carefully designed to absorbed as much energy as possible. Years of tests have shown that stacks of tyres bound together by a protective conveyor belt are much more effective than simple tyre stacks and Hamilton hit one of these. There was no deflection at all, no dramatic rebound. No dissipation of dangerous energy. The impact was such that the rear of the car lifted off the ground and then landed in the same place. The shock was such that the radio broke and so the team had a disturbing few minutes when it was not clear what was happening. Hamilton moved his legs in the cockpit but it was hard to tell if this was from frustration or pain. It sent a message that he was fundamentally OK, but that was all. He then pulled himself slowly from the car as medical crews began to arrive. He seemed sluggish, perhaps winded by the force of the impact. And then he lay down beside the car. The TV cameras zoomed out as they always do nowadays which meant it was hard to assess the extent of the problem. This is done for good reason but can sometimes add to the unsettling period that exists before it is known how things are. When he was stretchered to the ambulance, with a neck brace in place, Lewis waved and then showed a thumbs-up sign.
The team already knew that the likely cause of the problem was the pneumatic air-gun because Fernando Alonso had come in with a loose wheel-nut. In Hamilton's case the nut worked itself loose and then jammed itself against the retaining pin. The wheel thus had a certain amount of space to vibrate what happened after that is difficult to know. The wheelnut may have scythed its way through the wheel rim, cause the tyres to deflate instantly. The vibration may have caused the wheel to hit the brake ducting and slash open the rubber. It would take a fair amount of forensic work to figure all that out.
When the session was restarted. There was no time for the top nine to do much other than scramble as best they could for a time.
Felipe Massa set the mark but Raikkonen then took three-tenths off that. Alonso was the last to run and he seemed to be in command until Turn 5 where he made a mess of things.
"I lost rhythm with a little bit of oversteer," he explained. "The car was not in my control and I was lucky to put it back on the asphalt. It felt like I had lost two seconds and I would have been happy with anything so when I crossed the line and found I was second I was very pleased. I did not expect that."
Ferrari celebrated but it was not really clear who had the advantage. Perhaps the red cars had big fuel loads. Perhaps not.
Raikkonen reckoned that he had done a decent job.
"You need to be patient and do the best," he said. "My lap was good, easily good for pole and the car has been pretty good all weekend. It was difficult to find grip but that came back when we had fuel in the car," he said. "I'm pretty happy."
Massa was third.
"The break becasue of Hamilton's accident certainly did not help matters and maybe I lost a bit of the right feeling," he said. "On my final lap I was slower in the first and third sectors, just by a few hundredths but it was enough to make the difference. However I know I have a very good car in race trim."
Nick Heidfeld, was fourth for BMW Sauber with team-mate Robert Kubica on the third row in fifth.
Mark Webber gave Red Bull Racing sixth on the grid with Heikko Kovalainen giving Renault a decent result in seventh, after what seemed to be a weekend of struggle for the team.
The Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher were the others to get through to the Top 10 run-off but they were not in contention and presumably will race heavy.
Hamilton will start 10th if all goes to plan. As long as he keeps the same engine the team can change the rest of the car. The World Championship leader knows that he must get as many points as possible on Sunday - even if he is not able to keep up his run of podiums.
There was big disappointment for Williams after Q2 with Nico Rosberg and Alex Wurz 11th and 12th. Behind them came an unhappy Giancarlo Fisichella, struggling with his Renault, Rubens Barrichello's Honda and the Super Aguris of Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato.
Q1 took out the two Toro Rossos and the two Spykers, but also Jenson Button and David Coulthard. Button only narrowly missed the cut but DC was well off the necessary pace when he was held up by his own team-mate.
"I got the chequered flag just as I came round the last corner to begin my final lap," he said.