Nürburgring, Nordschleife, The Green Hell. Words and phrases that have provoked and inspired racing drivers for decades.
After the high speed dramas of Silverstone, round nine returns to Germany’s technically challenging Nurburgring circuit for the first time since 2011, alternating hosting the German GP with Hockenheim. Located within the Eifel mountain range the weather is always a factor because of the location. No rain this weekend, just sun, rising track temperatures and, dare I say, a nervousness about tyres.
The circuit is approx 600 metres above sea level so engine power is less due to lack of dense air and downforce is also reduced.
It's a track that requires multiple skills from the driver, a technical first sector, a flowing middle and a fast end to the lap. The opening sector has good traction. A strong front end is needed for some of the longer radius low speed turns. Then the medium speed downhill turns towards the hairpin, followed by the high speed kink, flat out in 7th gear at 280kph.
Next, the medium / high speed corners leading onto the long back straight, tricky chicane and final corner. Again a good front end is needed to counter the understeer inducing nature of the turn and its camber. Good mechanical grip is the key along with good traction out of the corners and a stable car under braking.
There was no doubt that following the tyre failures at Silverstone, tyres would be under heavy scrutiny. How can I not mention it!
The pre-race GPDA meeting resulted in deep concerns being expressed by the drivers. A statement was released warning if such events occur again the drivers would withdraw from the competition. In response Pirelli announced that Kevlar-belted tyres - as tested in Canada recently - would be used throughout the German Grand Prix. Given that the rear tyres are asymmetric as well, it was strictly forbidden to swap them round. The front tyres, by contrast, remained unaltered. A new range of tyres will be introduced from the next round in Hungary.
Pirelli provided a series of causes for the Silverstone incidents: teams mounting the asymmetric rear tyres the wrong way round; the use of lower than recommended tyre pressures; the use of extreme camber angles; and particularly aggressive kerbing on fast corners at Silverstone.
For this race Pirelli introduced limits on tyre pressure, limited negative camber and no inverting of tyres, all monitored by the FIA.
With the majority of teams qualifying on the faster softer tyre, (approx 1.5s per lap) Ferrari went for a bold strategy. In Q3 Massa and Alonso chose not to set a lap time, instead 'curing' a set of mediums on a slower lap. Ferrari were hoping to make them last a little longer on race day and therefore skip the traffic and early stops being made by the other teams.
Hamilton was sensational, putting his revised, slightly higher nosed Silver Arrow on pole ahead of both Vettel and Webber's Red Bull.
The start of the race was always going to be tricky. The steel belted rear tyres gave a bigger footprint. The contact area of the Kevlar tyres is smaller. As the car accelerates, putting load to the rear, then the footprint is increased due to the load placed on the tyre. Taking that into consideration the power delivery has to be slightly gentler initially to increase the footprint then more power can be applied. This certainly doesn't favour cars that struggle with the rear end, Ferrari and Mercedes being two of them!
Hamilton came a cropper. Jumped by both Red Bulls he dropped from pole to 3rd. Alonso had a poor start but Massa did well initially till his Prancing Horse stuck in 5th gear at turn 1 spinning him off the circuit during lap 4.
The Red Bulls made their usual lightning pit stops in and around 2.5s. But there were problems. Webber boxed, tyres changed and away. A fast stop would see him take the lead. Seeing a mechanic waving frantically as the car sped off isn't a good sign. Moments later his rear right wheel is detached from the car and unfortunately collided with a camera man Paul Allen. He suffered two broken ribs, broken collarbone, bruising and concussion and was flown to hospital after the incident but is thankfully expected to make a full recovery.
Alonso's strategy was expected to take him to lap 25, however it failed badly, disappointingly pitting at lap 13, later explained as due to the change of conditions. Hamilton struggled, shouting over the RT "These guys are on different tyres to me, man."
Then, more drama on lap 23. Bianchi's Marussia engine blows. Steam, flames, and smoke. No wonder Bianchi pulled up on the grass verge and was out of there! Driverless, and still smouldering, his car began to make its way backwards, crossing the grass verge, over the track and onto the opposite verge. Thankfully no one collided with it but the safety car was deployed.
The last part of the race was brilliant. Vettel leading and pushing with his engineer Rocky shouting over the RT several times "Come on!!"
Grosjean, Raikkonen and Alonso were all catching each other up towards the end. Of course the now allowed team orders soon saw Raikkonen in second place with 5 laps to go. Vettel hung on trying to keep the flying Finn out of his DRS’s 1 second gap. It was breathtaking.
Last lap. Last DRS zone and the Fin was 0.911 behind Vettel’s on the limit Red Bull. The Lotus DRS wing opened. For that moment I forgot to breath, my knuckles were white, willing the black and gold Lotus round the track for him but alas Vettel hung on and took the win. And deserved too.
It was Vettel's first home win; his RT at the end said it all... "That was a tough one, gave me a run for my money!"
Alonso did well to finish 4th. Post race he stated the strategy worked as it got him into the front leading pack. I would like to have seen him battle it out in qualifying and not to gamble on the unknown.
Pirelli are between a rock and a hard place. They are asked to provide challenges but were not allowed to test with a top running car that would provide maximum load. They had been praised for the uncertainty they have brought to F1 but when it goes wrong they go from Hero to PZero.
For me this was a great race. When I think of the Nurburgring I think of 1976 when Lauda crashed his Ferrari coming out of the left-hand kink before Bergwerk, or when Ralf Schumacher hit his brother in 1997 which may have cost Michael the championship. Yet this was a great race, fast, exciting, drama... And, have I mentioned it, no delaminations?
Click here for FIA lap chart.
Stefano Domenicali: “Given the current state of play, I think today’s result is the most we could have achieved and I don’t think the strategy had much of an influence on the outcome of the race. The variable temperatures we saw today produced different performance levels. This turnaround confirms yet again how difficult it is for everyone to interpret as well as possible the true competitiveness of the car-tyre package at every track”.
Fernando Alonso: “This was a difficult race, we weren’t very quick and at some moments we were not competitive enough. In the first stint, we paid the price for being on used tyres, because by lap twelve they were already finished, which cost us some of the advantage we hoped to gain from our strategic choice. Even if we were hoping to finish on the podium, finishing less than eight seconds off Vettel after starting eighth is an encouraging result.”
Felipe Massa: “I am very disappointed with what happened, especially after the rest of the weekend had gone well. At the start of lap four, when I was on the straight, at the moment when I braked, the rear wheels locked up and I couldn’t stop the car from spinning. When the car came to a stop, it was stuck in fifth gear and I couldn’t stop the engine from stalling”.