German GP - Sunday - Race Report
Fighting win for Hamilton and McLaren at Nurburgring
BY TONY DODGINS
If you listened to the doom peddlars post-Silverstone, it was as if McLaren was a team in terminal decline and might as well stay at home. They were in disarray, they were making mistakes, there was disharmony, the relationship with Lewis Hamilton was fractured beyond repair, and on and on. And then they go out and win the German Grand Prix fair and square. It was the best response possible.
Whereas Hamilton had been all the Ds -- disillusioned and disinterested -- after his home grand prix, at Nurburgring he was a different man. On Saturday after a mesmeric couple of qualifying laps that put him within six hundredths of Mark Webber's Red Bull pole, the bubbling enthusiasm was back. This time he was all the Es - energized and euphoric.
Yes, full off-throttle exhaust blowing was back, but there was more to it than that. The man in the cockpit was playing a big part in the performance equation, as evidenced by the fact that team mate Jenson Button qualified over a second slower.
In modern day F1 that's an eternity and there had to be some fundamentals behind it. While Lewis looked forward to taking the fight to Red Bull in the race, Jenson contemplated Sunday from seventh on the grid. "It wasn't a balance problem, just no grip," he shrugged.
The weather at Nurburgring was cold and the track surface is smooth, meaning that tyre warm-up was an issue. Turns 1 and 13 in particular require fairly hefty braking and then some aggressive hustling of the car through tight sections. If you can't get the heat into the tyres, the car doesn't respond and you lose a chunk of time, which is the best explanation of the problems faced by the ultra-neat Button.
The tyre situation, as always this season, was interesting. Given the low temperatures - ambient 14C, track temperature 18C come race time - and a wide performance gap between the option and prime Pirellis, it was widely reckoned that everyone would limit prime running to an absolute minimum. There were predictions of a mad last-lap scramble into the pits to do one lap on the primes at the end, of the type that we saw from Massa and Vettel.
In fact, the teams were hoping that they weren't going to have to make the timing call at all. Rain is never far away in the Eifel mountains and the thinking was that intermediate rubber would be needed at some stage, cancelling the need to run the prime.
But that's not what happened. Instead, we had an absorbing race in which tyre strategy was key. Mark Webber's race pace on Friday was extremely strong but the seeds of an entertaining battle were sewn when he failed to convert his pole position.
The Red Bull appeared to bog down momentarily off the line and Hamilton was inside in a flash. Webber did well to then chop right in time to thwart Vettel, who suddenly found himself in a Ferrari sandwich, Alonso diving down his inside into T1 with Massa on his outside. Vettel was hard up against Webber's gearbox as they accelerated out and lost out to Alonso, while Massa had to give best to Rosberg after being edged wide.
Alonso ran wide on the second lap and let the world champion through into third but, today, in front of his home fans, Vettel just didn't have the pace.
"I didn't feel good all weekend," he admitted. "I didn't manage to get the pace out of the car that Mark did. It wasn't very satisfying but today other people were quicker than us. Then I made a mistake in Turn 10, lost the rear, spun and then struggled to pass Felipe."
At the front it was stalemate between Hamilton, Webber and Alonso until Lewis made a mistake at the chicane that allowed Webber to lead across the finish line for the 12th time. Mark had gone into the final corner on the inside line though, and Hamilton got the better exit, diving back ahead into T1. With the first round of stops approaching, the leading trio was still covered by less than a second.
Webber pitted first, after 14 laps, while Hamilton and Alonso came two laps later. Webber needed to get by Sutil's Force India on his out lap if the undercut was to work and it did - just - as the trio headed into a busy Turn 1.
With his nose in front, could the pole man drive away? No. In the second stint Webber could never put more than 1.4s between himself and the McLaren, with Alonso keeping pace with Hamilton.
On lap 30, the half distance lap, Webber was once again first of the leading trio to pit for his third and final set of used option Pirellis.
"We thought the undercut would be more powerful," Christian Horner admitted. "It worked at the first stop and got Mark into the lead and so we were first to pit at the second stop as well, but we struggled to generate tyre temperature, especially versus Lewis."
Hamilton stopped a lap later and emerged just in front and did a sterling job to hold off Webber while his tyres came up to temperature. Alonso then pitted one lap after that and emerged in front. The Ferrari though, does not switch its tyres on as quickly as the McLaren and Hamilton was able to drive straight around the outside of the Ferrari in Turn 2. Lewis had done unto Fernando what Mark had been unable to do unto him.
"Hamilton was quicker and so well done to him and his team," Alonso conceded afterwards. "Even though I came out ahead of him at the second stop, I had absolutely no grip and he managed to pass me immediately and then build up a lead. I was pushing as hard as I could but I could not get very close."
This was where it got tricky. With the performance of the prime tyre something of an unknown, Hamilton was faced with trying to open up a safe enough margin for the final stop while not wearing the tyres too much and necessitating an early move onto the primes. Not easy against a Ferrari that was lighter on its rubber.
Hamilton responded to the task with his head, changing his line into the apex of Turn 3, where he'd been sliding, in order to conserve the tyres. Alonso stayed close enough to be a threat but Webber was dropping away, 8s in arrears with 10 laps to go.
"It doesn't need Einstein to see that relative to the competition today, we've got some work to do," he grimaced.
It was now all about timing the final change onto the primes. Hamilton had been lapping consistently in the low 1:35s but on laps 49 and 50 he dropped to 1:35.5s while Alonso, lapping in 1:35.1s, had the Ferrari back to within 2s. McLaren called Lewis in next time around, on lap 51, with nine to go.
"It was a critical call and I think we got it about right," said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh. "We were watching Petrov's times (the Russian had changed to primes four laps earlier) and he was quickly setting greens (personal best sectors) on it."
That was a surprise to some, especially with such cold track temperatures but, Whitmarsh elaborated, "We'd slowed down by around 1.8s through degradation and expected the prime to be about 1.5s slower, so we thought it was time."
At Ferrari the situation was slightly different, as Stefano Domenicali explained: "One of the problems we've had this season is tyre warm-up and we wanted to use the soft tyres for longer."
Ferrari thought that running longer was a strategy worth trying because the undercut tactic was not as effective in Germany, with the reduced degradation, low track temperatures and the prime to come. Ultimately it didn't work because Hamilton was able to switch the prime on very quickly and its performance was better than expected.
It was a fine win for McLaren after Hamilton had been brilliant all weekend. Button could also have netted a decent haul of points given that Jenson was on a two-stop strategy and conserving his rubber well before he was halted after 35 laps by a hydraulic leak. "He would have been up there with Massa and Vettel," Whitmarsh said.
Webber was not within striking distance at the final stops and so Red Bull kept him out longer. He was going to finish third anyway and it was worth doing something different while the team assessed the McLaren/Ferrari pace on the prime.
Vettel and Massa had a spirited tussle for fourth, albeit half a minute back down the road. Vettel was a tad quicker but needed a clear lap given that he could not get past the Ferrari on the track. Red Bull told him to do the opposite of Massa: if Felipe pits, stay out. But Massa stayed out until the final lap, when they came in together.
Vettel's stop was perfect, Massa's was not. Ferrari, having had previous issues with cross-threaded wheelnuts, have gone for a shorter thread, which aids one problem but makes it more difficult for the gun man to handle. The left front was dropped and fourth place was Vettel's.
Adrian Sutil was an excellent sixth, Force India's best result of the season, after a strong weekend which saw him get to the line the final unlapped runner and clear of the Rosberg/Schumacher Mercedes twins. Kamui Kobayashi was ninth for Sauber and Vitaly Petrov completed the point scorers.
"One of the best races I think I've ever done!" Hamilton enthused, and nobody was arguing. "We need to improve on heavier fuel at the start of the race a bit but this was a great step and I hope we can keep the momentum going."
Whitmarsh, who took an unreasonable amount of flak post-Silverstone, resisted the temptation to rub anyone's nose in it, but looked like he'd enjoyed his afternoon somewhat more.
"We're a resilient race team," he said. "We'd like to win in a week's time at Hungaroring as well, so we'll enjoy this for a few hours and then get on with trying."
This one had been subtly different but absorbing from beginning to end. Another great advertisement for 2011-spec Formula 1.