Issue 24: German Grand Prix Review

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22 July 2014

Race Summary: Nico Rosberg won a straightforward victory at the Hockenheimring. Valtteri Bottas finished a superb second hotly pursued by Lewis Hamilton. Sebastian Vettel claimed fourth ahead of Fernando Alonso who beat Daniel Riccardo by no less than a tenth of  a second. Felipe Massa crashed heavily in a first corner racing incident with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen.

Blockbuster in Baden-Württemberg

Fast cars starting out of position makes for one hell of a Grand Prix! Hamilton’s charge through the field lit up the race. The Briton, after starting in 20th place due to a brake failure preventing him from taking part in Qualifying 2 and a subsequent gearbox change, cut through the backmarkers leaving many of them for dead. After that, the overtaking action hit another gear when Hamilton first met meaningful resistance in the form of a recovering Daniel Ricciardo. They dueled initially for 12th place, but in their battle they encountered a struggling Kimi Raikkonen and simultaneously passed the Finn in spectacular fashion, Hamilton on the inside and Ricciardo on the outside at the Hairpin. Hamilton locked up his tyres and clipped Raikkonen. Yet he somehow managed to avoid serious damage and succeeded in clearing the tenacious Ricciardo too.

This was edge-of-the-seat stuff.

In his pursuit of the podium, Hamilton then challenged Jenson Button on Lap 30. Button left a yawning gap on the inside line at the Hairpin and Hamilton dived down the inside. They made contact. Hamilton came away with front wing damage. Button complained about the incident and about Hamilton’s driving post-race, highlighting the fact that this was not the only contact the 2008 World Champion had made in the race (Button later stated that he ‘overreacted’ after reviewing footage of the incident). That Hamilton took risks with his car throughout the race is clear. However, they were calculated risks that for the most part needed to be taken in order to minimise his championship points deficit to Rosberg. In passing Button, Hamilton did what any racing driver should do when they spot a gap – go for it. Indeed, it was Ayrton Senna who said that when a racing driver sees a gap and doesn’t go for it, he’s no longer a racing driver. In Hamilton’s case, there was overtaking to be done – and quickly. It was somewhat surprising that Button, for all his tactical astuteness and experience, seemed to want to fight Hamilton for his place. No racing driver likes being overtaken, but when the pursuer is driving a car that’s almost 1.5 seconds a lap quicker, why fight the inevitable? Surely it’s better to keep tyres intact in order to fight those cars can be realistically challenged.

Adrian Sutil’s spin on Lap 50 gave Mercedes – and Lewis Hamilton – a tactical dilemma. Hamilton had made hay from Lap 43 on a new set of supersoft tyres, but he needed to pit again around Lap 55 for a new set of supersofts. Sutil’s car was jammed on the start/finish straight, albeit off the racing line. Nevertheless, it could easily have forced a safety car period and at that moment in the race, it was a big gamble to make that there would be no safety car. Had the safety car been deployed and Mercedes had not pit Hamilton that would have left the Briton stranded in a closely bunched pack of cars on tyres with little life left in them. He would have lost countless places when Mercedes eventually pitted him and almost certainly a shot at the podium. Mercedes’ best option was the one they took: pit Hamilton slightly early than planned for new supersofts in the anticipation of a safety car and gamble that the tyres would hold together for 16 laps instead of 13 laps. In the event, there was no safety car period, but by pitting their driver early and lengthening the final tyre stint, Mercedes ensured Hamilton finished on the podium.

Aside from Hamilton’s charge, it was Alonso’s battle with the two Red Bulls that made for thrilling viewing. It was a fantastic result for the Spaniard to split the Red Bull drivers at the chequered flag given the technical shortcomings of the Ferrari F14-T compared to the Red Bull RB10. A great start by Alonso (from 7th) meant he held fourth place in the early running, harrying Vettel. Then, towards the end of the race he defended stoutly from Ricciardo to hold fifth place. A comparison of Alonso’s laptimes with those of the Red Bulls reveals that he was more or less able to match Vettel and Ricciardo for pace throughout most of the race, indicating that Ferrari’s deficit to Red Bull was not as great round the Hockenheimring. Take nothing away from Alonso, though. His was a feisty drive.

Williams moving on up

Williams continues to rise like the proverbial phoenix in 2014. It’s been a pleasure to watch their resurgence after a run of poor seasons. The team from Grove are still far short of their most recent peak in the early to mid-1990s when they dominated the field Mercedes-style, challenged only by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. It’s not just that the FW36 is packing a Mercedes powerplant. Williams have obviously designed a neat car that’s quick in a straight-line (Bottas was third quickest through the speed trap and set the highest maximum speed over the finish line) with good high- and low-speed aerodynamic grip and balance. Bottas set quicker laptimes than Ricciardo for most of the Grand Prix, except in the laps immediately following the Australian’s tyre stops. On high- and medium-speed tracks they now lead the chasing pack, not Red Bull. However, Red Bull is still likely to achieve parity or better Williams at tight and twisty circuits given that both Red Bull drivers were much quicker through the Stadium complex than Bottas during the race.

What the FRIC?

After all the fuss about the ban on FRIC (front and rear interconnected suspension), its effects on the competitive order were barely noticeable at the Hockenheimring. Bottas finished 20 seconds behind a cruising Mercedes while Red Bull and Alonso reached the flag over 40 seconds after Rosberg won. Lotus looked to be the main loser as a result of the ban on FRIC given that the E22 was more of a handful in the corners. In spite of that, Grosjean still managed to get near the top 10 by around Lap 20 after falling back to 16th in the early laps.

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