RENCKEN: Who can catch Alonso?
HOCKENHEIM, Germany - The German Grand Prix is likely to be cited as the turning point of one the tightest season's yet in Formula 1.
Fernando Alonso held a slim 13 point margin over Mark Webber and following his win in Germany, the Ferrari driver’s cushion over the Red Bull ace is now 34 points.
It is easy to forget that during pre-season testing Alonso was over two seconds off the pace, and his Q2 deficit during qualifying for the opening round in Melbourne was 1.6 seconds.
'A BIT OF LUCK'
It was not for lack of trying, either as Alonso's team mate Felipe Massa was a further second adrift.
Yet, the last five rounds have seen Alonso finish on Webber’s tail in Monaco, lead Montreal until his Pirellis cried "degraded", snatch a win in Valencia, place second (to Webber) from pole in Silverstone and dominate in Germany (again from pole).
Tellingly the weather emulated Silverstone’s by being wet on the first two days and bone dry during the race. Alonso earned pole position as in Britain.
He credited a "bit of luck", which caused doubters to shake their heads as he earned two consecutive poles in similar rain-soacked conditions.
Alonso said: “Those type of conditions are a little bit of a survival moment, that you need to finish the qualifying and see afterwards what position you get.
“You try to complete the lap, to avoid any problem, and then whatever the position is, you are happy, because you know you were at the maximum, or you felt that you were at the maximum,” he said.
When Webber’s gearbox needed a change (incurring a five grid-slot penalty) and the suspicion spotlight shone on Red Bull’s engine mapping two hours before the start, the stewards took no further action despite recording that they did "not fully accept the arguments presented by the team."
The scene was set for Alonso's third victory of 2012, the first driver to do so this season, with Webber next on two and no less than five drivers on a single win.
A sprint to Turn 1 when the lights extinguished, a bit of jostling behind him as positions two–five scrapped it out on the first lap and Alonso raced to victory... well almost.
BEATING THE ODDS
He needed to control the gap, first to Vettel and later to a rejuvenated Jenson Button. Mid-way into the race the result never seemed in doubt unless fate intervened.
Alonso is a master at beating the odds.
Debris from the opening lap carnage between backmarkers damaged Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, forcing him to pit for replacement tyres. Lapped, the 2008 champion re-joined behind Vettel in second before inserting himself between the two leaders.
This had a knock-on effect as it gave Alonso a vital cushion at a crucial point in the race, forced Vettel to run in "dirty’ air" theryby degrading his tyres and enabling Hamilton’s team mate Button to close on Vettel.
All three factors would prove decisive in the outcome of the race, though the move severely rattled Vettel, which, when you’re hunting down Alonso, is an emotion best controlled.
Alonso explained: “For me, it was a good position to have Hamilton between me and Sebastian because we were approaching pit stop time, and having Hamilton there meant that Hamilton was around a second behind you, and Sebastian was another second or 1.5s behind Lewis.
“So this 2.5s to Sebastian was very good, approaching the pit stop time so I tried to keep Lewis behind.”
Alonso emerged from the second round of stops ahead of Button but Vettel’s woes meant he slotted in behind the 2009 champion with 26 laps to go. All three had chosen to run Soft/Medium/Medium strategies so gaps between them "yo-yoed" throughout. Kimi Räikkönen’s Lotus fought its way up from tenth at the start, 18 seconds back in fourth.
Alonso recalled: “The [strategy] predictions, more or less, were right; we were thinking to do two stops and at the end it was two stops. The lap, I think, it very flexible. It depends on when the others stop, especially if you are in the lead, because you just need to cover them. Yeah, it was not big surprises, degradation was quite low, as suspected and it was fine.”
Heading for the hairpin on the penultimate lap, Vettel was utterly determined to salvage second before his adoring home crowd and desperately pounced on Button. The McLaren ran unusually wide and Vettel was forced to complete the move off the track – an offence the stewards post-race judged worthy of a 20-second penalty, which dropped him to fifth behind Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber.
HEADED FOR HUNGARY
Sauber's Sergio Perez (S/M/M) was sixth, with Michael Schumacher (S/S/M), whose Mercedes once again squandered its (inherited) third spot on the grid, ahead of Webber (S/M/M), who travelled incognito all afternoon.
The final top finishers went to Force India's Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes Nico Rosberg to make it four (out of five) German locals in the top ten.
Tellingly the first four on the road all have world titles (a total of six) to their names, proving that regardless of the much-criticised tyre situation, cream always rises.
Alonso took 21 points off closest rival Webber, 15 off Vettel and 25 off Hamilton, who eventually retired with rear suspension damaged by the puncture. Regardless of the outcome of next week’s Hungarian round, Alonso heads for F1’s subsequent four-week summer break with an unassailable lead in the title hunt.
Who would have thought that in Jerez in February?
Results from the German Grand Prix: