F1 German GP: Seeing Red

The McLarens showed up this weekend with some new updates which had them fastest in Friday’s opening practice. The Red Bulls had been showing strong pace and Fernando Alonso said that the RB8 was the fastest car since the Bahrain Grand Prix. However, a fast car can only get you so far. Sometimes, having the fastest driver is all you need. After disappointment in the final stretch of the British Grand Prix, Alonso fought off the pressure to pick up his third win of the season.

If you were just to read the lap chart, it wouldn’t seem like an exciting race. Alonso led all but a couple of laps of the race and that was during the exchange of pit stops. However, he was always one small slip away from losing the lead. He led away from the lights and built up a lead of about two seconds by his first stop. For most of the second stint, he had Vettel on his tail with Jenson Button closing in on the pair.

The final stint was far less exciting for Alonso as he was able to build up a lead of nearly four seconds by the time he took the chequered flag. The battle for second was far more exciting. Button was able to get by Vettel on the final round of pit stops thanks to a stop that left him stationary for a reported 2.4 seconds. However, the Red Bull driver was able to get by on the penultimate lap with a power move around the outside at the Turn 6 hairpin for second place. There was a point of contention on Button’s part that Vettel passed him off-track using the outside run-off area where Jenson forced him. Stewards later decided to issue a 20-second time penalty to Vettel which dropped him from his 2nd place finish to 5th.

Penalizing Vettel is likely to make it open season on dangerous blocks of drivers off the track to prevent overtaking moves. Drivers who don’t want to be passed will throw a hip-check into other cars so they have to go off-road which means their pass will result in a penalty. It’s a bad call based on bad rules written by people who likely were/are bad drivers. This can only end with wrecked race cars as the driver being passed has no responsibility to make a reasonable defence of his position. If you want to counter-argue that Seb would be out if there was Armco there instead of run-off, he’d have taken Jenson with him and Jenson wouldn’t risk that. The rule and run-off allowed Button to make what would have been a dangerous move if they did this in Monaco.

So the final running order sees Alonso winning with Button being awarded second and Vettel classified in 5th. Kimi Raikkonen finished third after starting 10th and gaining a spot due to Vettel’s penalty. Kamui Kobayashi put on a clinic in his Sauber to finish 4th, up 8 spots from the start. He also gained a spot from Vettel’s penalty. Kobayashi’s teammate’s performance might have been even better as Perez moved up 11 spots on the day from a 17th place start to finish in 6th. For the second straight race, Old Seven-Time Michael Schumacher started third but couldn’t cash in during the race and finished in 7th. Rounding out the top ten were Mark Webber, Nico Hulkenberg and Nico Rosberg which meant that all four German drivers in the race finished in the points.

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It’s not a Grand Prix weekend if there isn’t a bit of controversy. This weekend’s big issue has the potential to be massive if the FIA or one of the teams decides to take it further. After qualifying, FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer found that the Red Bull engine torque maps had changed from what he typically saw in other events. Specifically, Bauer stated that “the maximum torque output of both engines is significantly less in the mid rpm range than previously seen at other events.”

Taken at face value, it doesn’t seem to be the cause of much concern. If you’re running less torque that you can, it would probably just mean you don’t get as much drive off some corners as you would with maximum torque. However, Article 5.5.3 of the F1 Technical Regulations states that “The maximum accelerator pedal travel position must correspond to an engine torque demand equal to or greater than the maximum engine torque at the measured engine speed. The minimum accelerator pedal travel position must correspond to an engine torque demand equal to or lower than 0Nm.” Basically, there should be a linear correlation between the maximum torque available and how much throttle you’re giving the car. Bauer also believed that there was an aerodynamic effect to this torque map in terms of the exhaust blowing the diffuser.

The matter was referred to the race steward who determined that no further action should be taken. The stewards ruled that Red Bull’s torque mapping weren’t a violation of Technical Reg 5.5.3. They said that they didn’t accept all of Red Bull’s arguments about the legality of the mapping which implies that Red Bull might technically be legal but not necessarily within the spirit of the rule. I’m guessing that the ruling is a result of mid-RPM torque being greater than low-RPM torque and less than high-RPM torque but not as high as it could be. That would be within the letter of the regulations. I doubt this story is over yet.

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While it was a big weekend for the Hockenheimring, this week was the exact opposite for the Nurburgring. The legendary German track announced this week that it filed for bankruptcy. This was essentially a move to allow operations to continue while the European Union considers giving a financial aid package to the circuit. The track is some €350 million in debt right now. While the Nordschleife is profitable, it isn’t enough to cover the interest payments on the circuit’s debt which was taken out to pay for the construction of new facilities at the track.

On the positive side, Bernie Ecclestone has reportedly already renegotiated his contract with the Nurburgring to ensure that the German Grand Prix will return to the track in 2013. Reports say that the Formula One Group would essentially take over as the race promoter and assume all costs to put on the race. FOG would also keep all the revenues from the race which would explain why Bernie would be willing to pay for this race. However, in the unlikely event the Nurburgring was to close as a result of bankruptcy proceedings, Hockenheimring boss Georg Seiler said he would consider hosting the German Grand Prix every year if the financial circumstances made sense.

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It wasn’t all good news for Bernie this weekend. German newspapers are reporting that Munich prosecutors are going to launch a formal investigation into Ecclestone’s involvement into the Gerhard Gribowsky case. Gribowsky was convicted of taking a $44 million bribe from the F1 supremo in order to allow the sale of Formula One Management to CVC Capital Partners per the terms set out by Ecclestone.

The Gribowsky conviction makes the investigation against Ecclestone for paying the bribe a necessity. Bernie’s story seems to have changed a few times. In one instance, Ecclestone claimed that the supposed bribe was really a 5% sales commission paid to BayernLB who Gribowsky worked for. Another time, Bernard said that he was being blackmailed by Gribowsky and the payment wasn’t a bribe but an extortion payment.

The biggest problem with any criminal proceedings against Ecclestone would be the implications for Formula One. As the head of the commercial rights holder, he has his hands in all of the sports major deals. If he’s tied up in court, it would shine a bad light on the sport if he continued work. The problem is that FOG doesn’t have a defined succession plan for who would replace Bernie when he dies (he is 81, after all) or is convicted of bribing Gribowsky. Given the problems the FIA is having with the promoters of the WRC, GT1 World Championship and GT3 European Championship, the last thing they need is for their biggest sporting championship to fall into disarray because of illegal activities of its boss.

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The next round of the 2012 Formula One World Championship is next Sunday when the Hungaroring plays host to the Hungarian Grand Prix. This race usually contends with the European Grand Prix at Valencia for the worst race of the season. However, Valencia turned out to be a pretty good race thanks to DRS and Pirelli tyres. That means that there still might be hope for Hungary.

Ferrari and Red Bull are clearly at the front of the field right now. The next three teams, Lotus, McLaren and Mercedes, are fast enough to have moments when they can challenge the front duo of teams but they aren’t consistently fast enough to stay up front. If there is a team who can challenge Red Bull and Ferrari in Hungary, it is likely going to be McLaren. The team is the best on the Hungaroring at the moment. They’ve won five of the last seven races on the track. If you include Button’s 2006 win for Honda, six of the last seven wins in Hungary belong to McLaren.

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