Rencken: Wrap from the 'Ring
THE FAMOUS FINGER: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel scored the first win at a German GP by a German driver in half a century. Image: AFP
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
Paddock talk during the weekend’s 2013 German Formula 1 GP at the Nurburgring, as at almost every one so far in 2013 was about tyres – this time, though, for all the right reasons. Pirelli had brought a hybrid tyre to the classic venue in the country’s Eifel mountains.
The specification substituted steel belts with Kevlar (composite) equivalents – as per 2012 construction – but retained the overall shape and compounds of the current range. The result? Not one tyre failure all weekend, only a (unconfirmed) puncture on Charles Pic’s Caterham blotted a clean sheet.
Following a GP Drivers’ Association meeting on Thursday its membership (19 of the current 22) threatened to withdraw should a single tyre delaminate or rupture but it all came to nought. In any event, it is doubtful whether they would have carried out the threat had push mutated to shove - what with contractual obligations and points/bonuses on offer – but the mere fact they took this unprecedented step spoke volumes.
THE TWO SURPRISES
With the competitive order expected to be disrupted by changes to tyre specs, qualifying was keenly awaited – with Lewis Hamilton taking pole for Mercedes as in England a week earlier – though this time at his team’s home track to which scores of Stuttgart executives made the two-hour pilgrimage north.
The Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were next up, in that order.
Then came a surprise. Two, in fact. (1) The Lotuses of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean were fourth/fifth respectively despite team boss Eric Boullier having vehemently voted against tyre changes lest his cars, which are ultra-gentle on tyres, be hardest hit. (2) Silverstone winner Nico Rosberg failed to make final qualifying after Mercedes underestimated track evolution during Q2…
Ferrari’s twins, who came in behind the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo in sixth, were the first qualifiers on Mediums – all ahead ran the (used) Soft alternative – in a strategic attempt to overcome the F138’s shortcomings. However, Felipe Massa ended seventh ahead of team mate Fernando Alonso with Jenson Button (McLaren) and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg completing the top 10, though without setting times to provide a choice of compounds. Both settled for Mediums.
Thus a subtle shift in the established order; of greater concern at Mercedes was projected tyre degradation giving Hamilton, who broke off with his girl band singer girlfriend earlier in the week, double cause for the moping he does so well.
At the start he tried to squeeze the challenging Vettel to the right; the German resisted robustly. In the process Hamilton left open a barn door to his left, through which Webber opportunistically snuck. As Hamilton’s Silver Arrow chewed its rear rubber he gradually dropped back into the clutches of the black/gold cars. The two blue Red Bulls sped into the distance and the 60-lap race seemed over bar the formalities.
Then came the first of two incidents that shaped the race. On Lap 8 Webber, having outlasted Hamilton and Vettel by a lap and two respectively, pitted for his switch from Softs to Mediums. His right rear failed to tighten and as the Australian headed down the pits lane it parted company with the car, scattering mechanics before striking a TV cameraman square in the back.
Coming just a month after a marshal was killed in Canada, the sport feared for the worst. Although the Briton was treated in nearby Koblenz Hospital for various injuries his condition is reportedly “not serious”. F1 will, however, need to take another sharp look at its pits safety.
Although Webber’s crew hauled him back and fitted another wheel, the incident cost the team a R400 000 fine and dropped him to the back, from where he recovered courtesy of a pace car sessions that started on Lap 27 to permit salvage of Jules Bianchi’s stricken Marussia which rolled back across the track after the Frenchman hurriedly exited his burning car.
UP VETTEL'S CHUFF
Coming slap in the middle of the race – and arguably lasting at least two laps longer than anticipated - the six-lap pace-car phase threw strategies out of kilter, causing those planning to stop three times to reconsider and those on two-stoppers to pit early, with most Medium starters at this point taking on another set, meaning they would still need to stop for compulsory Softs before the end.
Once the silver Mercedes peeled in and the reshuffles played out it was Vettel from Grosjean, with Kimi up the chuff of his team mate, who was ordered to make way, but suggested afterwards his radio was playing up.
Of course it was...
The Finn’s radio was, though, inaudible, and this likely caused him to lose victory, for when the team asked him, with 20 laps to go, whether his tyres could last the distance his response was incoherent.
Thus Lotus played it safe and called him in while leading comfortably over Vettel and Grosjean, both of whom made third stops, with Alonso, on his second set of Mediums fourth, but with a stop for Softs looming. Post-race it transpired Kimi’s stop had, indeed been unnecessary, particularly as Vettel was hampered by kers failure.
Thus the German sped to his 30th career victory and, remarkably, first on home soil, followed a second later by Räikkönen, with Grosjean a further five seconds back. The dogged Alonso placed fourth from Hamilton – who yo-yoed up and down the order between his three stops – with Button, the first of the two-stoppers, narrowly shading the recovered Webber.
TO EARLY TO SPECULATE
Sergio Perez emulated team mate Button by two-stopping, with Rosberg and Hulkenberg, on three stops each, completing the top 10. Massa was the only high profile non-finisher, the Brazilian spinning himself out of contention on Lap 4.
Thus, heading to the halfway mark of the 19-round championship at end-July in Hungary, Vettel (157) comfortably leads Alonso (123) in the Drivers’ championship, with Raikkonen third on 116. Red Bull (250 points) enjoys a 70-point cushion over Mercedes (183) and Ferrari (180).
But, with 10 rounds to go, it’s too early to speculate on titles even if the reigning (triple) champions are on course to make it four on the trot. At the moment tyres remain a hot topic, particularly as Pirelli plans to provide a further hybrid specification – 2012 casings and dimensions capped with 2013 compounds – in Budapest. At least, though, the Italians passed the German test with flying colours, as winner Vettel said post-race:
“We had a little bit of a cushion but Lotus was incredibly quick today and gave us a big run for our money. I’m just very happy that it worked out.
“Last but not least our compliments to Pirelli. A very, very good job within a couple of days, to react and bring a different rear tyre to this event. There was a lot of [criticism] after the previous race but it looked like it was made up for in this race. I hope we continue to have racing like that for the next races.”