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Friday, 29 July 2011

Formula 1 - German Grand Prix 2011

This is what it's like to be at the back. Is it depressing? I don't know. I guess they're just happy to be in F1.
The Nürburgring needs no introduction*. Unless you've never heard of it before, in which case, what the hell have you been doing?! For those of you that haven't, I can tell you it's neither spelt nor pronounced "Nuremberg Ring", which some people get confused about because the town of Nuremberg is much better-known to non-car folk than the little village of Nürburg, which is nestled inside the fearsome Nordschleife (North Loop) that climbs, drops and winds round 12.95 miles of terror, graffiti, and barriers too close for comfort. Formula 1 used to race on it, and it took no shame in flexing its muscles on the likes of triple champion Niki Lauda, whose crash in 1976 left him with one heavily burned ear, damaged lungs and blood and permanent scarring after a fiery crash on lap 2 in which he inhaled toxic fumes. Jackie Stewart won there and dubbed it "The Green Hell", calling it the scariest track he'd ever raced on. Sadly, health and safety bods won't let F1 cars anywhere near this track now - not that the undersides would last more than 5 laps anyway - so what used to be called the Südschleife has now been made into a more suitable track for modern F1 cars. It still has undulations, dodgy cambers here and there and daunting fast bends, so it's a fitting addition to the 'Ring. The two routes are joined together for the 24-Hour race that takes place here at around the same time as Le Mans. *Skip down to here if you don't need the introduction

This is Vettel not winning. Treasure it.
It may not happen again.
It is also home to a quarter of the current F1 grid, including Michael Schumacher and championship leader Sebastian Vettel, who like Jenson Button, hasn't won his home GP yet. After being beaten by both Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, he probably wanted to show everyone he's not about to be kept off the top spot for good. It would seem that the nerves got to him here however, as team mate Mark Webber - who got his first win at this track in 2009 - beat him in Qualifying, as did Lewis Hamilton. Both these men said after qualifying that they drove out of their skin and couldn't get any more out of the car on that day. Lewis went as far as saying it was probably the best lap he'd done all year. Fernando Alonso continued his form of amazing consistency by qualifying 4th for the third time this season, after qualifying 5th for the first six races in a row. The top 4 on the grid were covered by just half a second, and with Nürburg's unpredictable weather that could bring sun, rain or even snow all in the same weekend (even at this time of year, somehow), it was in no way certain who would win the race on Sunday...

The start line has been moved this year, cutting the run down to the first corner in half. That still gave Lewis Hamilton enough road to pull ahead of Mark Webber before turn 1, as the Australian bogged down a little off the line, giving him a slower start. Going into the incredibly tight first corner, Alonso was able to squeeze down the inside of Vettel, who fought valiantly in the next couple of corners, but was forced to surrender 3rd place to the Spaniard. Further down, Nick Heidfeld tapped Paul Di Resta after turn 2, spinning him round and putting them both at the very back of the grid, continuing an unlucky streak for the Scot that started in Canada which he understandably describes as "a joke". A lap after Alonso passed Vettel, he ran wide out of turn 2 and Vettel seized the easy opportunity to reclaim 3rd, as Hamilton started pulling away from Webber. Because it rained before the race, while it was dry enough for slicks the fake grass on the outer kerbs were holding water, which caught out the best of them in a couple of corners, including Alonso here, who wobbled onto the large run-off area.

It took until lap 8 for Alonso to retake 3rd, by using a lot of his KERS energy down the pit straight (which is not where the DRS Zone is - that's heading towards the chicane near the end of the lap) and making a decisive move down the inside. That last sentence sounded like something out of a video game, didn't it? Anyway, he must've planned that move during the 5-lap chase, knowing that the available amount of KERS energy is reset when you cross the line, meaning he could keep his finger on the button all the way down the pit straight and pass Vettel in turn 1. Meanwhile, Webber was hanging on to Hamilton's tail, just 0.875s behind, and the other McLaren driver Jenson Button struggled to gain pace in the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, just as he hit his stride and started making up ground, he was forced to retire from 6th place on lap 36, due to hydraulics problems. Hydraulics control the pedals, gear changes, steering, all kinds of stuff, so when they fail the car becomes something of a safety hazard. It's his second retirement in a row due to vehicle technicalities out of his control...

This is Red Bull, not winning. Treasure it. It may not happen again.
His third place would be forever lost as a clearly pressured Vettel braked with two wheels on standing water (held in the aforementioned green fake grass) going into turn 10 and spun round into the run-off area, costing him 7 seconds and putting fellow countryman Nico Rosberg and Ferrari's No.2, Felipe Massa, right on the back of him. After this, he may have hoped for a Safety Car, as Nick Heidfeld collided with Sébastien Buemi's Toro Rosso, ripping the Lotus-Renault driver's front wing clean off and shooting him into the gravel at turn 12 where the DRS Zone ends. Luckily for us but unluckily for Vettel, Heidfeld was far enough off the track that a JCB with a crane could easily pick up and take his car away under yellow flags instead. To add insult to injury, Heidfeld was then given a Drive-Thru Penalty for hitting Di Resta on lap 1, which he subsequently didn't have to serve, seeing as there is no greater penalty than being taken out of the race completely. This left five of the six Germans in the race, with one of those five under serious pressure from Felipe Massa, who eventually overtook Nico Rosberg in a similar move to Alonso on Vettel, down in turn 1, on lap 12. He would go on to finish ahead of the Mercedes GP driver in 5th place. At the end of lap 12, Lewis Hamilton had a little scare, as he got it wrong through the turn 12 chicane and ran wide, allowing Webber through into the lead of the race, before getting in the Red Bull's slipstream and drag racing him into the first corner, squeezing past and retaking the lead for good. Alonso then put serious pressure on the Australian, as the top three drivers pulled far away from the rest of the grid. So we knew which three drivers would stand on the podium, but which way round would they be?

Mark Webber was the first to pit, ending up behind team mate Vettel and Felipe Massa, who had started a duel with each other that would last all race long. Massa passed Vettel at turn 12, who was then passed by Webber before diving into the pits. That lap, both Hamilton and Alonso pitted, exiting very close together in the same order they entered and exiting just ahead of Mark Webber and Felipe Massa, but because they were already on the track they were of course going much faster, so all all four of them piled into the first corner together, Massa came out in the lead (but "out of position", as he hadn't yet pitted), with Webber leading Hamilton and Alonso. Massa pitted that lap to give Webber the lead back, exiting just ahead of Vettel. Meanwhile, further back, Michael Schumacher made the same error at turn 10 as Vettel, getting on the standing water under braking and sliding off the track, except he was actually able to hold the slide for most of the corner, albeit already on the run-off area, not ending up back-to-front until he was parallel with the exit. He quickly righted himself with a little half-donut and carried on, perhaps briefly with a face as red as his helmet as he made an elementary mistake in front of his home fans. As lap 30 became lap 31, we entered the second half of the 2011 Formula 1 season. All of us. Yes, even YOU are in the second half of the season now. Welcome. Each of the three top drivers were looking to start their second half off in a high, and sure enough it was still closely fought at the front between Hamilton, Alonso and Webber.

This is a Red Bull, not- oh you get the idea...
After another round of pitstops had begun, Hamilton exited the pit lane just ahead of Webber, who tried a daring move down the inside of turn 2, only to be shrugged off by Hamilton on the exit, who was determined to stay ahead of the Red Bull driver in his quest for victory. Alonso pitted the following lap (because of the fast-degrading Pirelli tyres, pit strategies often become reactive to other drivers around you, so this kind of thing happens often now), and he exited the pits - have you guessed it yet? - just ahead of Hamilton and Webber. The two following men had an extra lap over Alonso tyre-wise and caught up the gap very quickly in the braking zone for turn 1. Hamilton, perhaps still full of adrenaline after fending off Webber, started getting ideas and put a move around the outside of Alonso into turn 2. Unlike Webber, he was actually able to pull it off and take the lead of the race fair and square once again. Did Alonso even think that someone could successfully go the long way round in that corner? He certainly knows now, as of lap 33 out of 60. The top three were still covered by only 1.5 seconds or so at this point, and the each podium position was still up for grabs.

With 8 laps to go, Hamilton finally put on the mandatory second dry rubber compound, but Alonso and Webber tried to maximise their 'Option' tyre's extra grip for as long as possible to try and undercut Hamilton in the pits and exit on front of him. For a moment it seemed like Alonso could still steal a late victory in the closing stages, but what could've been a cunning plan backfired on Alonso, who exited the pits on lap 54 just behind Lewis Hamilton, with Webber yet to come in and out in front, but he would prove to stay out for too long, as it was now better to be on fresher 'Prime' tyres than worn 'Options' in terms of grip and subsequently lap times. It was now clear that Webber would finish 3rd after all this, but who would win? The answer is Lewis Hamilton, who pulled off some daring moves and stayed determined throughout 60 gruelling laps of the Nürburgring F1 circuit to take his second win of the season 3.9 seconds ahead of Alonso and 9.7 seconds ahead of Mark Webber.

Red Bull, not winning, etc.
This meant of course that for the first time this season, Sebastian Vettel hasn't finished on the podium, ending a 9-race streak of finishing in the top 2. But he was still locked in a battle with Felipe Massa that had raged for 3/4 of the race, and both drivers still needed to change to the harder tyre in keeping with the race rules. On lap 58 of 60, he was told by his race engineer "Do the opposite of Massa. If he comes in, stay out, if he stays out, you come in". Massa stayed out and, surprisingly, so did Vettel, who clearly chose to ignore the instruction. They both started lap 59 with a pit stop still to do and no more than 0.2 seconds between them. This was now a race between the Red Bull and Ferrari pit crews as they went in together at the last possible opportunity, at the end of the penultimate lap of the race. Both teams have been religiously practising their pit stops, but it was Red Bull that won over Ferrari as Vettel sailed calmly past Massa to exit the pit lane with a backmarker in between them, effectively preventing any last lap scrap and sorting out the top 5 finishers.

The question remains though, why couldn't Vettel have got past Massa at any other point in their ~45-lap battle? Is it because, as I suspect, he's not good at spotting an overtaking opportunity and prefers winning from the front? Webber was prepared to put the same car round the outside of Hamilton in turn 2 (a risky move considering the target driver), but Vettel always seemed to look for the easy option when he was on-screen. This is something he really needs to sort out if he plans on winning any more races this year, as Red Bull clearly don't have it easy anymore...

Alonso ran out of fuel 2/3 of the way round the track after the chequered flag dropped, so he had to hitch a ride with Webber to get back to the pits! Reminiscent of Senna hitching a ride with Mansell at Silverstone in 1987.
So there we have it. Lewis Hamilton conquers the Nürburgring this year. Next year will see Hockenheim host the German GP, as the two tracks alternate each year. Already, as you read this, Friday Practice will probably be taking place for the next race - er, sorry about that, I've been a little busy - but I shall endeavour to post a review of the upcoming race on Sunday night, because I'm going on holiday next week.

With 10 finishes in the top 4 so far, will Webber enter the next race Hungary for victory? Can I come up with a better pun than that? Find out on Monday morning!

Results & Points (Click To Enlarge)
Race pics from F1Fanatic.com

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