By Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
Scuderia Ferrari had to wait long for it, but Fernando Alonso finally took the first victory of the season for the Maranello-based team during the British GP at Silverstone last weekend. And it was a convincing victory, as the Spaniard crossed the finish line 16 seconds ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who this time had to be satisfied with second place. His team colleague Mark Webber took third place after he had been told not to get into a fight for second place during the last laps of the race.
Sixty years ago, José Froilan Gonzalez took the first ever win for Ferrari at the same circuit, and last weekend Alonso scored Ferrari’s 216th victory since 1950. Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo was ecstatic, “At last! Hearing the Italian national anthem being played at Silverstone, the same venue at which we won our first ever Formula One race, was something I found particularly emotional. This is Ferrari, a team that never stops fighting, never throws in the towel, at the top level for sixty years.”
But victory didn’t come easy for Alonso, he was overtaken by Lewis Hamilton in Copse Corner on lap 15, a truly great and brave overtaking move of the Briton who had previously been criticized for his somewhat dubious overtaking maneuvers during the Monaco and Canadian Grands Prix. But Alonso never gave up, he later diced with Hamilton again for third position, and on lap 24 he finally got ahead of the McLaren.
But as the race had started on a wet track, and the complete field had opted to start on the intermediate tyres, Ferrari had now one big advantage: they didn’t have to use the much dreaded hard Pirelli tyre compound and could use the softs for the rest of the race, which suited the Ferrari 150° Italia much better when it comes to grip and working temperature.
I only realized I could win when I came back out on track after the final pit stop
Combined with the new aerodynamic package Ferrari had introduced at Silverstone, Alonso had a good race pace. On lap 27 both Alonso and Vettel pitted, there was a problem during Vettel’s stop, which cost him 11 seconds. Alonso took the lead from Vettel, and it was then that it dawned upon the Spaniard he might actually be able to win the race. “I only realized I could win when I came back out on track after the final pit stop,” Alonso said.
Hamilton had been right behind the Ferrari, but he could not catch the scarlet red car, and in fact, did Alonso a favor by keeping both Vettel and Webber behind him for many laps. By the time the Red Bulls found their way past Hamilton, it was already too late. Alonso, “Hamilton kept the two Red Bulls behind him, but I have to say that in the dry we were very strong.” But the double world champion knows there is still a lot of work ahead for Ferrari, “The Red Bull is still the strongest car, but the improvements we are introducing are working. When we were struggling at the start of the season, we did not get downhearted, but instead we reacted: now we have reaped the rewards.”
Although not as successful as his colleague, Felipe Massa also had a great race, and the Brazilian was constantly fighting for positions and much to the delight of Montezemolo, showed the same tenacity as Alonso. For the major part of the race he managed to hold on to sixth position, but towards the end of the race after his last stop he was really flying. When Webber finally overtook Hamilton, Massa got closer and closer to the Briton, and during the last laps fought a heroic battle for fourth place.
”In the end, I closed right up to Hamilton, as he was struggling, but when I was behind him, he fought and I only just missed out by a fraction on getting past him,” Massa said. He gave it one final try during the last lap, the pair collided just ahead of the last corner, Hamilton damaged his front wing but Massa had to admit defeat after he ran wide entering the pit lane straight with the finish line in sight.
This time he had no problem with Hamilton’s overtaking tactics, “I was close to Lewis going into the last corner. He went to the inside, I went outside, I went to brake after him and I was able to turn a little bit in front of him and he touched me a little bit, but I don't think it was anything really wrong, in my opinion.” And added, “ Then in the last corner I was completely running wide and I had to do an alteration and he was able to put the car inside. He had the better grip and he was able to finish, I don't know the difference, but only just in front.” Thus Massa finished in fifth position, and scored ten points by doing so.
Red Bull happy with Silverstone result
The much debated off-throttle diffuser ban apparently didn’t hurt Red Bull too much, although in rainy conditions, the Red Bulls were again in command of qualifying, Webber took pole, and Vettel was second. During the first part of the race it seemed Vettel would once more add a victory to his already impressive CV. One lap after the start the 23-year old 2010 champion had already pulled away some three seconds, and a few laps later it was already six seconds.
Vettel could even make his first stop without losing the lead, but lost the lead to Alonso on lap 27 after a very long pit stop, and rejoined the race in third position. He then got stuck behind Hamilton, Vettel tried to get within that famous one second behind the McLaren to be able to deploy his DRS wing, but even that wasn’t enough to get past Hamilton. By that time the pair were already more than seven seconds behind leader Alonso, but Hamilton defended his position vigorously.
Vettel was looking left and right, tried everything in the book before he finally had enough of it and pushed the Briton hard in an almost Formula Ford-like style and took him by surprise when both entered Copse Corner. But his problems still weren’t over, both still had to make one final stop, and McLaren was looking to overtake the Red Bull in the pit lane. But this time there were no mistakes by the Red Bull pit crew and Vettel stayed ahead of Hamilton.
Ferrari was very quick all weekend and they deserved the victory today
By that time Alonso was already too far ahead and Vettel, although he was attacked by his team colleague Webber, went home with the second place trophy. Vettel about his race, “It was a good result for us, but we had some problems and, if you’re not at your optimum, then there’s always someone there to beat you. Ferrari was very quick all weekend and they deserved the victory today.”
Certainly not happy was Webber, who was pushed back in his role as second driver, as he was not allowed to overtake Vettel.
Webber not happy with team order
Webber’s Red Bull Racing team told him to ‘maintain the gap’ during the closing stages of the race to ensure Vettel could score three points extra to safeguard his 2011 championship ambitions. Only three points are apparently enough to swing around team owner Dieter Mateschitz’ opinion, as he in the past has always maintained his team would never issue team orders.
Asked about the change of opinion by BBC TV, a visibly embarrassed team principal Christian Horner reluctantly answered: “Mr Mateschitz would not thank us for having both cars in the fence in the last lap, with so many points having got ourselves into a very good position.” Does this mean both drivers are no longer allowed to race each other? “If you look we also gave Mark an undercut at the first two stops. We did not stop them racing each other at the start. But there comes a point in a race, with two or three laps to go, when you have a lot of points, and both cars on the podium, that it would be absolute stupidity to allow them to keep fighting,” he explained. And added, "We saw it get very, very close between the two of them. And we would have looked pretty stupid if they had both ended up in the fence.”
Of course Webber had a quite different opinion, and admitted his team had asked him several times not to attack Vettel, “The team radioed me about four times, asking that I maintain the gap to Seb,” the Australian said. “But I wasn’t happy with that because you should never give up in Formula One, so I continued to push. If Fernando had retired on the last lap, we would have been battling for the lead.”
He confirmed he understood the team’s worries, but also remarked he is still in the race for the championship himself, “The team was worried about Seb and me crashing because it wanted the points for the Constructors’ Championship. I understand that, but I wanted points for the championship too and we proved that we can race without making contact.”
Red Bull’s worries were based on the incident during last year’s Turkish Grand Prix where the pair famously tangled and Vettel crashed out of the race. Oddly enough, Vettel was allowed to race Webber for position in Turkey, and it was expected of Webber he would just let the German past, which he didn’t. The fact remains Webber was a full second per lap faster during those last laps, on lap 48 Webber recorded a time of 1m35.665s, while Vettel recorded a time of 1m36.738s.
The FIA has recently lifted the ban on team orders, so strictly speaking Red Bull did not do anything wrong by ‘asking’ Webber not to overtake Vettel. This team order must have been very demoralizing for Webber, he was clearly faster than Vettel, and it was totally unnecessary, as Vettel was 77 points behind Vettel in the championship. But, if it is of any comfort, it at least wasn’t the kind of team order Ferrari issued during the 2010 German Grand Prix, when Massa was instructed to let Alonso pass him to take the victory, which was in fact the reason the FIA overhauled the ban on team orders to begin with.
All predictions Red Bull would suffer the most from the ban on the off-throttle blown diffuser proved to be wrong, it turned out McLaren was affected the most. During qualifying Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were 1.5 and 2 seconds slower respectively than pole sitter Webber, and although they were faster during the race, they were clearly not able to fight for the win.
“We have had lots of twists and turns and changes [in the regulations], and the fact is that during the course of this weekend there have been some changes and we did not put on a competitive showing in qualifying and we know that,” team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. “I think it is reasonable to assume that in all those changes, we haven't been able to respond to them or the impact on us was greater,” he admitted on Saturday. But McLaren was still optimistic, as they expected their race pace would be a lot better, but it wasn’t to be and it became a disappointing home race for the all-British team.
“Our race pace was good today -- but, even so, it was a difficult afternoon for us and ultimately therefore a disappointing result for the team and for all British race fans,” Whitmarsh said after the race on Sunday. And indeed, difficult it was, Hamilton was told to save fuel during the final laps of the race, and had problems keeping a charging Massa at bay, locked up his front wheels several times, but he in the end succeeded in keeping the Brazilian behind him.
“Before the end, I had to start saving fuel: you have to lift and coast, which means the brake temperatures drop. So I had no brakes, and that’s why I kept locking up. That allowed Mark [Webber] to slip ahead of me and meant I was defending from Felipe [Massa] in the closing laps,” Hamilton said after the race. “On the final lap, the team gave me the order to push as hard as I could, but Felipe had already closed the gap by that point, so it was difficult to defend. That last lap was as close as it’s ever going to get! In the final corner I stayed on the inside and braked as hard as I could. Fortunately, we both got around the corner in one piece and I just pipped him at the finish.”
It was a frustrating afternoon for Button as well, although he overtook Massa at the start, Hamilton passed him just one lap later. When he turned into the pit lane for his first stop, the Briton was in sixth position and rejoined the race in eighth position. He then pulled off a brilliant overtaking move on Massa and grabbed fifth place, and by the time he made his second stop he was in fourth place.
I turned out of the pit lane, my right-front wheel came off and I was forced to stop
But everything went wrong during his third and final pit stop. “I turned out of the pit lane, my right-front wheel came off and I was forced to stop immediately,” Button said. “The guy on the front-right lost the wheelnut and turned to take another; as he turned, I think his hand moved and the guy on the front jack felt that that was the trigger to lower the car. Then the lollipop lifted,” he explained.
”So much could have happened in my race today. Before my final stop I’d had great pace, and I’d caught Lewis, Sebastian and Mark,” a disappointed Button reported. “I’d had good pace all afternoon and really enjoyed a couple of good battles – particularly passing Felipe on the inside into Vale. Anyone who had pace at the end of the race had a good chance, and I think there was definitely a podium to be had here today.”
The twists and turns of the FIA
Some remarkable decisions were made by the FIA at Silverstone, after their firm stance off-throttle blowing of the diffuser was no longer allowed, they backtracked on their decision and made several concessions after a number of emergency meetings with the teams. The problems started on Friday. Originally the FIA had decided to completely ban the off-throttle blowing of the diffuser, which was already a controversial decision, as changing the regulations halfway the season is by many not perceived as good sporting practice.
The row continued after McLaren found out the ban wasn’t the same for all teams. Whitmarsh was absolutely livid after he had found out teams propelled by the Renault engine, were given certain privileges by the FIA regarding to the amount of throttle they were still allowed to use under braking. They were allowed to use 50 per cent of the throttle, while other engines like the Mercedes and Ferrari engines were only allowed to run 10 per cent of the throttle under braking.
”When the goalposts are moving partway through a practice session, then I think it makes it quite difficult,” a disgruntled Whitmarsh said. “I think that with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better to make changes at year end.” He also argued the fans would be confused and might even think the FIA was protecting the Renault teams, “It's messy and I think the intention people believed was that we were going to stop exhaust blowing when the driver didn't have his foot on the throttle. I think that was the simple concept but that concept has been deflected and therefore it hasn't been clear.”
After this public row, the FIA decided to backtrack on their previous decision, and announced after a meeting on Friday night the Renault teams would lose their privileges again, and as it is hard to please everyone, on Saturday morning both Horner and designer Adrian Newey were seen storming into the FIA mobile headquarters at Silverstone. When they left again they refused to give any comment, and both gentlemen were literally fuming as the FIA had decided they would not change their mind again.
Meanwhile, the media had picked up the story and it made the headlines big time. Many feel changing the rules during the season isn’t fair, let alone change the rules during a race weekend. Many pointed the finger at the FIA, and technical delegate and race director Charlie Whiting decided to organize another urgent meeting with senior representatives of all teams.
After this meeting, much to everyone’s surprise, the FIA announced that the clampdown would be withdrawn from the German Grand Prix onwards and the regulations for the rest of the season would be same as during the European Grand Prix, which means teams are not allowed to change engine mappings between qualifying and the race, off-throttle blowing of the diffuser would be allowed again, but again not all teams agreed, Ferrari and Sauber opposed the proposal.
Once again there was a meeting on Sunday morning, in which the FIA and the teams finally reached an agreement, the ban is now banned. FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone also played a role in reaching a decision that would be acceptable for all. “I think that this thing was not really good for everyone. We need to draw a line and now look ahead, because otherwise where we are going? Even if I think I don't agree with the process, for the benefit of the sport we should have action,” Ecclestone said.
Crashes, pit lane troubles and fines
The FIA fined McLaren 5,000 Euro for the unsafe release of Button, but McLaren wasn’t the only team with pit lane troubles, Sauber was fined 20,000 Euro for the same offence. But compared to McLaren, Sauber really made a mess of Kamui Kobayashi’s pit stop. The Japanese driver was sent out by his team right into the path of the Williams of Pastor Maldonado, Kobayashi had to take avoiding action, swerved to the right and subsequently took one of the air hoses of the Force India team with him. He was given a 10 second stop-and-go penalty and lost many places.
He had to give up his race after his team told him to stop and shut down the engine due to an oil leak. It wasn’t Kobayashi’s lucky day, and it wasn’t Michael Schumacher’s lucky day either, as the pair met during the early stages of the race. Schumacher again made a silly mistake, he braked too late and hit the back of the Sauber hard, he destroyed his front wing and the German had to limp back to the pits to replace it.
Kobayashi about the incident, “I think there is not a lot for me to say about the accident with Michael. We were not side by side, and he obviously hit the rear of my car. From then on I had to drive with a damaged car.” Schumacher found the prefect excuse for his mistake, “Having used DRS for the first time in the race, I was arriving at the corner with over-run. Underestimating the effect, my braking was not good and this is how the collision happened.”
Schumacher also incurred a 10 second stop-and-go penalty, but despite his 15 or so years of experience and a total of seven world titles, there was one thing the German did not understand. “It was right to get a penalty but why it had to be a stop-go, and not a drive-through penalty, I would like to understand better as I felt it was too hard,” he complained. Well, that’s easy to explain, the new pit lane at Silverstone also has a new route to the pits, one that is actually shorter than the part of the circuit that leads to the point where the pit lane exit is, and the FIA was afraid a driver wouldn’t even lose time by just driving through the pit lane with 100km/h, hence the decision was made a driver also had to stop 10 seconds.
Also pit lane troubles for the Force India team. When Paul di Resta came in for new tyres, his team had the tyres for Adrian Sutil ready, and had the Scot had wait long before his pit crew finally found the right tyres on which he could resume his race. Again, no lucky day for the Resta either and to add to his problems, he later hit the back of the Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi and destroyed his front wing. He had to pit to have his wing replaced, and after that his race was effectively over, and the Scot finished on a very disappointing 15th place.
Meanwhile, Buemi’s left rear tyre had been shredded after the contact with di Resta, and although he tried to get back to the pit lane, he had to stop as the shredded tyre had further damaged his rear suspension and pieces of his car started to fall off. A was a wise decision to stop, as many drivers in the same circumstances have been penalized by the stewards in the past for dangerous driving.
For Team Lotus the day ended premature, both Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli had to abandon the race with technical problems. Kovalainen’s race was probably his shortest of the year, he came in after just two laps and parked his Lotus in the garage with a gearbox problem. “The conditions out there were exactly what they should be for real drivers - a mix of two types of circuit, one wet, one dry, exactly what I love racing in and the type of race we could have taken advantage of,” the Fin reported after the race. Trulli’s race didn’t last very long either, and the Italian had to park his car with an oil leak after ten laps.
The ‘best of the rest’
The best of the rest of those who did make it to the finish line, was without a doubt Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, who drove an anonymous but trouble-free race. The German initially lost three places during the start, but did not give up and gradually carved his way through the field, with a sixth place as reward. Rosberg ran a two-stop strategy, changed tyres on lap 12 and 30, and drove 22 laps on his second set of soft tyres. “My start was not good, so being able to eventually finish in sixth place is a nice result for us,” he said. He was already looking forward to his home Grand Prix, ”Hopefully it's the start of an upward trend, before our next home race in Germany, so I'm looking forward to confirming our performance at the Nürburgring.”
Second best of the rest was Mexican rookie Sergio Perez, who also had a trouble-free race, after the race had started that is. When Perez was on his so-called reconnaissance lap on his way to the start grid, he lost control of his Sauber because he was on slicks on a still very wet track. He demolished a few Styrofoam trackside advertising billboards and was lucky he could keep his car going. He had to go back to the pit for a new front wing before he finally arrived at the start grid safe and sound.
But once the race started, Perez showed his fighting spirit and worked his way up to finally finish in seventh place right behind Rosberg. There are still persistent rumors Perez might join Ferrari next year, but for now Perez was happy with the seventh place his scored for Sauber. “In the beginning the conditions were quite difficult, but we managed to stay out of trouble. The strategy was good and my pit stops were perfect. Unfortunately I couldn’t overtake Nico, I was very close but he was too fast on the straights,” Perez said.
Lotus Renault also seemed to be affected by the off-throttle ban, but nevertheless Nick Heidfeld had a great race, and finished eighth after he had started from 16th position, also thanks to an excellent race strategy. “The big question for the race was when to change from the intermediates to the slicks and we were one of the first to do this. It was a good call,” the German said. He had to battle with Schumacher and Sutil, and was afraid he would damage his tyres too much, “Finding the balance between attacking, fighting and not killing the tyres was not only very satisfying, but it also worked out well for us with four valuable points,” he commented with a smile.
Contrary to his team colleague, Jaime Alguersuari brought his Toro Rosso to the finish line in tenth place, and scored his third successive point-finish. He had a few good fights with Schumacher and Heidfeld, but his car lacked straight line speed, and both Germans were able to pass him on Hangar straight.
Sutil took 11th place, and was followed by Vitaly Petrov, Rubens Barrichello, Maldonado, di Resta, Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrosio, and as usual HRT took the last two positions, Vitantonio Liuzzi was 18th and rising star Daniel Ricciardo finished his first Grand Prix in 19th place.
All in all Silverstone provided a race that was partly run on intermediates in the wet, a race with plenty of action, and after a turbulent weekend, it now seems the problems with the off-throttle diffuser have been solved. Teams have reached, and signed, an agreement the device is allowed until the end of the season, and without a doubt teams will try to perfect the technique of the off-throttle blown diffuser, as the official name is, but at least the controversy will not overshadow the rest of the season, which is good for teams and spectators.
Next stop is the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, this time hopefully without team orders, not from Ferrari, or any other team.