Audi's Mattias EkstrÃ¶m snatched the victory from Mercedes rival Gary Paffet at the NÃ¼rburgring and regained the lead of the championship standings by one single point. Paffett led most of the race until receiving a drive-through penalty that ...
Audi's Mattias Ekstr?m snatched the victory from Mercedes rival Gary Paffet at the N?rburgring and regained the lead of the championship standings by one single point. Paffett led most of the race until receiving a drive-through penalty that dropped him to fourth. Tom Kristensen strengthened Audi's position with second and Paffett came home third after teammate Mika H?kkinen ceded the place to him on the last lap.
It began to rain just before the start and the formation lap took place behind the safety car. It was anticipated that in the wet conditions the first corner could be the scene of a bit of a pile up, so the race stewards decided on a rolling start, which appeared to take a few drivers by surprise, as well as just about everyone else.
Pole-sitter Paffett got away well, with H?kkinen, Ekstr?m, the Mercedes of Bernd Schneider and Opel's Laurent Aiello holding station behind him. Kristensen and the Audi of Martin Tomczyk swapped places, Tomczyk moving up to sixth, Allan McNish's Audi stayed eighth, while Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Opel moved up one to ninth. Completing the top ten was the Mercedes of Jamie Green.
Schneider was all over the back of Ekstr?m and Manuel Reuter was the first to come to grief. His Opel went off into the gravel after slight contact with the year-old Mercedes of Stefan M?cke at the first corner. The car was retrieved by the marshals and Reuter managed to rejoin, although a couple of laps down.
The rain eased after a few laps and a dry line started to appear. Schneider was sticking to Ekstr?m like glue; he harassed him down the pit straight but went too wide at the first corner and had to drop back. While they were squabbling, Aiello was closing on Schneider to make it a three way battle.
Aiello's Opel teammate Marcel F?ssler, who was back in the midfield, wasn't helped by a drive-through penalty for overtaking under yellow flags. M?cke also got a drive-through, his for overtaking behind the safety car, which was a bit harsh as nobody actually seemed to know what was going on at the start when the safety car was out anyway.
Jean Alesi had got his Mercedes up to ninth and near the front Ekstr?m, Schneider and Aiello were still relentlessly stuck together. Ekstr?m made a slight mistake and Schneider and Aiello swarmed all over him, you couldn't have got a cigarette paper between them. However, with the improving track conditions the wet tyres were a hindrance, so Ekstr?m and Schneider dived into the pits for their first stop.
A quick change to slicks and Schneider sneaked out ahead of the Audi. It didn't last long as Ekstr?m immediately went on the attack and got back ahead of the Mercedes within a lap. The rest of the field came rolling in for their first stops, a very long one for the year-old Audi of Christian Abt, and after the shakeout it was Paffett back in the lead.
H?kkinen and Ekstr?m held station in second and third, then came Schneider, Kristensen up to fifth, McNish sixth, Aiello seventh and Tomczyk eighth. Alesi and Frentzen completed the top ten. Frentzen and Audi's Frank Stippler both got a black and white warning flag, Frentzen for skipping the chicane but it wasn't clear what Stippler did.
F?ssler was harassing Stippler's year-old Audi, his Opel obviously much faster, and eventually nailed him down the pit straight and dispatched him at the first corner. Aiello was on McNish's rear wing, with Tomczyk watching behind, but then McNish got a move on and scooted up to close on Kristensen. Somewhere unseen Tomczyk got past Aiello, who appeared to be struggling suddenly.
In the second round of stops Ekstr?m whipped down the straight as H?kkinen exited the pits and just slithered ahead of the Mercedes. H?kkinen tailgated the Audi round the track then had a mad banzai charge at the first corner, which resulted in a big lock up and he promptly spun off. Not quite the result Mika was hoping for but he's certainly lost none of his fighting spirit.
He managed to wrestle the Mercedes back on track but had dropped to fourth, while Ekstr?m was off in pursuit of Paffett. One could almost say Mercedes gifted the win to Ekstr?m because after H?kkinen's random act of madness, Paffett crossed the white line on the exit of his second pit stop and got a drive-through penalty for his efforts, which demoted him to fourth and gave Ekstr?m the lead.
The top three order was then Ekstr?m leading Kristensen, with H?kkinen third. Tomczyk was running sixth but also got a penalty for the same thing as Paffett, which dropped him outside the top ten. Stippler, the year-old Mercedes of Bruno Spengler and Reuter were nose to tail in the midfield and scrapping like mad. Reuter got ahead of Spengler but it was a bit pointless as he was two laps down anyway.
With six laps to go the rain started again on some parts of the circuit. It was light initially but got steadily heavier, but the end of the race was coming quicker than the rain. On the final lap H?kkinen ceded third place to Paffett to assist his teammate's title aspirations -- with four races left, Paffett is the only Mercedes driver with a realistic chance of winning the title.
Ekstr?m, understandably, was very pleased to win a race that he probably hadn't expected to. He drove well, didn't make any mistakes and took advantage when his rivals did. It certainly keeps the championship exciting, with just a point between him and Paffett and four races to go.
"That was a tough race," said Ekstr?m "The biggest pressure I was under was at the beginning, in the rain, against Bernd Schneider. At that time, he was a bit quicker than I was. But then I managed to overtake him on slicks. Later, my tyres began degrading, and that was the reason for the duel with Mika H?kkinen. He then made a braking mistake and spun. That was good for me. I'm happy that we've clinched a double victory for Audi."
Kristensen also drove a strong race for second and overall Audi has to be very satisfied with the way things worked out. Abt was the best year-old car in 10th, and while Audi may have wished to have more cars in the points, it wasn't a bad result after the disappointing qualifying.
"I needed this result. It's nice to be on the podium again for a change after two pole positions in the past two races," Kristensen commented. "We changed to slicks at the right time and this enabled me join the front runners. The second stop helped me to move further to the front of the field as well. We were quick and had the right strategy -- I hope that's a good omen for the remainder of the season."
Paffett looked extremely peeved on the podium but he's got no-one but himself to blame. Drivers do make mistakes and he's just got to live with that and move on to the next race. It's not a total disaster for him as at least he got points, but it's not made his task any easier.
"It could have been a perfect result, because we have been fastest both in wet and dry conditions," said the apologetic Paffett. "For me and our team the third place is disappointing. Crossing the white line was my mistake and I apologize to everybody who worked hard for a better outcome."
While Mercedes may be kicking itself -- or perhaps Paffett and H?kkinen -- for losing out on a one-two finish, the manufacturer still got five cars in the points, the others being Schneider fifth, Alesi seventh and Green eighth. Schneider saw a bit of action but Alesi and Green weren't particularly noticeable.
It was another very disappointing weekend for Opel, with no points to show for it's efforts. After the pace shown by F?ssler in the practice sessions and Aiello and Frentzen qualifying in the top ten, Opel had obviously expected at least some reward but it just didn't happen. Aiello was the best finisher in ninth.
The battle between Ekstr?m and Paffett keeps swinging back and forth, with first one getting the advantage and then the other. Their talents are well matched, as are their cars, and they look set to fight just as closely right to the bitter end. Kristensen is still in there but he's probably a little too far adrift to be a real contender. Three weeks from now, at Zandvoort on August 28th, we'll see how the title pendulum swings again.