F1 German GP: Home Is Where the Heart Is

Sebastian Vettel came into yesterday’s German Grand Prix having won 29 races in 109 starts. He hadn’t won in only three countries on the calendar: Hungary, America and his homeland of Germany. Until yesterday, that is.

Vettel flew by Lewis Hamilton off the start like he was standing still and held off sustained pressure from the Lotus drivers to pick up his first Grand Prix victory in Germany.

As expected, the Mercedes cars were fast in qualifying. While Hamilton scored the pole, the big surprise was Nico Rosberg who missed out on Q3 and had to start from 11th. Mercedes waited too long to get Rosberg out for a qualifying lap and he couldn’t cash in on his one opportunity. He was never a factor and finished in 9th.

With Hamilton up front, Mercedes still had a bullet in the chamber but it’s not that easy to topple the might of Red Bull. When the lights went out, Hamilton was immediately swarmed and passed by the two RBR cars. Vettel took the lead and Mark Webber jumped into 2nd. He got some advice before the start about what to do if he runs into issues. The advice was to mat the throttle. It worked.

f1-2013-germany-webber-pitstopThe race was definitely not without incident. On Lap 4, Felipe Massa spun all by himself heading into Turn 1 and retired when his car stalled. A few laps later, Red Bull had a problem with Mark Webber’s pit stop which meant he was released with a loose left-rear tyre. The tyre came off in the pitlane and hit an FOM camera man who suffered a few broken bones (shoulder and ribs according to some reports). Webber was retrieved and got a left-rear tyre but he was a lap down.

Pitstops jumbled up the field as some teams were on a three-stop strategy and others were on two stops. That got further mixed with the safety car on Lap 25. Jules Bianchi’s car suffered an engine failure and he pulled off the track. Whether he put it in neutral or the hydraulics failed after the engine failure which meant the gearbox couldn’t stay in gear, the car rolled back across the track as Vettel approached. They had to send out the safety car to slow everyone down though the car was on-track for only a few moments before rolling to a marshal post on its own.

The third round of pitstops saw Raikkonen try an alternate strategy. While everyone else was on the medium tyres, Raikkonen went on the soft tyres for a ten lap stint. As a result, he was able to get by teammate Grosjean for second and close to within a second of Vettel but couldn’t quite catch him.

Vettel’s win was his fourth of the season and 30th of his career. He also has a 34-point lead in the World Drivers’ Championship before we’ve even reached the halfway mark of the season. Raikkonen’s second-place finish was his fourth 2nd of the season. Grosjean rounded out the podium for his first points since Bahrain. Coincidentally, in Bahrain, the finishing order was Vettel, Raikkonen and Grosjean as well.

Fernando Alonso climbed from 8th on the grid to 4th at the finish. Lewis Hamilton didn’t have the race pace for the first time since the tyre test and could only manage a 5th. Jenson Button had a great run by McLaren standards as he quietly made his way to 6th. Mark Webber’s pit stop problem didn’t keep him from the points as he climbed his way back from a lap down to 7th. Sergio Perez made it two McLarens in the points for only the third time this season with an 8th. As mentioned earlier, Rosberg finished 9th. Nico Hulkenberg, who is the focus of some interesting developments at Sauber and in the driver market that I’ll get to in a minute, rounded out the top ten.

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Not really to anyone’s surprise, Pirelli’s investigation into the tyre failures at the British Grand Prix didn’t find fault in the tyres themselves. Instead, they found that a combination of four factors caused the issues that certain teams had with the tyres.

Two issues were under-inflation of tyres and the use of extreme camber angles which are both issues of such concern to NASCAR that they have these regulated. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison but I find it odd that NASCAR would have rules for tyre safety and not F1. Pirelli also laid blame on the high kerbs at Silverstone but I’m not buying it because no other series had these issues.

The final reason Pirelli gave for the tyre failures was that teams were swapping the sides the rear tyres were on. In other words, teams were running the right-rear tyre on the left-rear of the car. While I’m sure it’s not a perfect driving simulator, my time with the Gran Turismo 6 demo (impressions post coming soon) showed that the left-rear was the one bearing the brunt of the abuse.

So that tyre swapping would be a legitimate reason as to why there were so many tyre troubles at Silverstone. Hypothetically, the left-rear tyre would have been designed to put up with more abuse than the right-rear tyre. While the difference in how hard they are wasn’t likely to be a lot, it certainly was noticeable when four cars lost tyres in spectacular fashion last Sunday.

Pirelli says that it was their prerogative to outlaw the swapping of tyre sides but chose not to ahead of this season. Pirelli Motorsport boss Paul Hembery said that this year’s cars are two to three seconds faster than they were expecting specifically at Silverstone. As such, they underestimated the impact on the tyres. If there was going to be an impact regardless, why didn’t Pirelli get proactive about this and just ban tyre swapping altogether?

However, starting this weekend, the teams are working under a new set of tyre regulations. These includes minimum tyre pressures, a maximum camber angle and a ban on running tyres on the wrong side of the car. I’d say that’s a good start. Pirelli are changing the construction of tyres to make them safer starting with the Hungarian Grand Prix. Hopefully this makes everyone feel safer when on track.

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Over the past few days, the phrase “financial issues” has been coming up a long when you say “Sauber.” After a pretty good 2012, you wouldn’t think that they would have any money problems but their performance this season would indicate it.

Now, German motorsport website Motorsport Total is reporting that Nico Hulkenberg has terminated his contract with Sauber because he hasn’t been paid for a while. They note that neither Sauber or Hulkenberg has confirmed this news.

GP Spanien 2013Currently, the plan is for Hulkenberg to continue driving for Sauber without a contract. It’s beneficial to both parties. Hulkenberg can audition for a ride for 2014 with both Ferrari and Lotus interested in his services to replace Massa and Raikkonen. Sauber’s alternative would likely be test driver Robin Frijns who is the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 champion. He’s got some skill but the promotion from FR3.5 hasn’t worked out as an immediate pay-off strategy for Toro Rosso.

While I predicted that Hulkenberg would jump to Ferrari for 2014, not being under contract now opens up a bit more intrigue in the driver market. If Ferrari or Lotus get unhappy enough with Massa or Grosjean, they would drop Hulkenberg into the seat without an argument from Sauber. I doubt we’ll see a mid-season driver swap but when was the last time an active F1 driver was available to swap seats mid-season?

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f1-2012-hungary-track-mapThe next round of the 2013 Formula One World Championship is in three weeks’ time. It’s a return to the Hungarian national parade route known as the Hungaroring. I don’t know if you can tell but I quite dislike that track. The only way you can pass there is if someone makes a mistake. It’s entirely possible in the middle part of the lap because the circuit gets a bit herky-jerky as opposed to establishing a flowing rhythm section.

Since passing is nearly impossible, it should be Mercedes’ to lose. Unless the change in tyre construction renders all their tyre test data useless, they should still be the fastest car over a single lap. From there, they have to be able to take care of their tyres well enough that Red Bull can’t use pit strategy to get by them.

Between now and then, there’s the Young Drivers Test. It’s not just a test for young drivers this year. The FIA is allowing teams to use their Grand Prix drivers for the purposes of tyre development and evaluation. No specifics have been set out about the use of race drivers but I’d have to assume that they aren’t allowed to run their top guys for all three days of the test. We only have to wait two weeks to see how this plays out. It should be interesting.

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