Written By: Lee Towers: On The Throttle Twitter @On_The_Throttle
What can one say about Fernando Alonso in 2012? After finding himself with a Ferrari around two seconds off the pace in testing at Jerez in February, he and Ferrari have staged a remarkable and classy comeback to lead the World Championship by 34 points at the half way stage after winning a German Grand Prix which promised more action than it delivered.
Earlier this season in a subdued Ferrari Alonso surprised just about the entire F1 paddock when he won in Malaysia, but this was just a stunning drive which flattered an average Ferrari aided by the playing field leveler which was the extreme Malaysia weather conditions wasn’t it? A ninth in China and seventh in Bahrain added credibility to this train of thought, but the upgrades Ferrari brought the Spanish Grand Prix in early May signaled a huge turning point.
The Scuderia’s F2012′s sported a revised rear wing and rear bodywork in Catalunya, as well as a new front wing and diffuser – the results of these upgrades were quickly evident. Alonso beat surprise packet Pastor Maldonado on the run to the first corner thanks to another stunning start, okay the Venezuelan re-passed Alonso in the pits and scored a paddock wide popular victory, but Ferrari were back on the pace. This strong run was followed up by a 3rd in the high speed traffic jam which was the Monaco Grand Prix from 5th on the grid, a 5th in Canada thanks to poor but understandable in the heat-of-battle strategy was disappointing but the pace was still there.
Ferrari and Alonso have only got stronger since then, a stunning win in Valencia from 11th on the grid one of the best drivers of recent times, followed up by a 2nd place behind Webber at Silverstone after starting from pole in a close race which could have gone either way, no doubt leaving Alonso and Ferrari confident heading to Germany.
A smart qualifying lap in drying conditions left Alonso on pole position with reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel alongside him, then another two Germans on the row behind in the shape of Michael Schumacher & Nico Hulkenberg. Pastor Maldonado’s Williams started 5th and Jenson Button’s McLaren 6th, making it 6 different cars in the top 6, all of them starting on soft tires.
The start of the race saw a textbook start from Alonso to lead into the Nordkurve from Vettel, who has a racy looking Michael Schumacher to deal with. The 7 time world champion launched a strong attack on the Red Bull driver into the hairpin, but the reigning world champion defended well to repel the Mercedes attack, although it let Alonso get a jump on the German pair on the run up to turn 7.
Slightly further back Maldonado set the tone for his afternoon by dropping behind Button, whilst Webber and Raikkonen took advantage of Hamilton’s slow start to pass the Briton. Maldonado settled in 8th, but ran over debris on the approach to the hairpin on lap 12, which presumably explains his fall down the other as the race wore, his pace on his second set of tires particularly disappointing and he ended the race pointless in 15th, a lap down.
The other action of note at the hairpin on the first lap was Romain Grosjean getting it all wrong and ending up in the tarmac run off, damaging the floor of his Lotus E20, the latest mishap in a weekend where the man who was impressed so much this year’s pace seem to disappear. Grosjean headed back to the pits for repairs at the end of lap 1 and was joined by Massa’s Ferrari, which was minus its front wing after contact at the first corner, and Bruno Senna’s Williams, which had a left front puncture thanks to contact of its own.
At the end of lap 1 the red Ferrari headed the train of cars which faced a track littered with pieces of carbon fiber on the approach to the Nordkurve. Alonso sped through the debris, collecting some for his troubles, but the Ferrari was unaffected, unlike Hamilton’s McLaren, which drifted wide onto the generous tarmac run-off having suffered a puncture.
The McLaren crawled desperately back to the pits, Hamilton proving no Gilles Villeneuve on 3 wheels, telling his team on the radio “that’s it, we should retire”. McLaren disagreed with their driver, sending Hamilton back out at the tail of the pack. This proved a smart move, McLaren could not have predicted it at the time, but this decision would ultimately play a crucial role in deciding the podium places come the end of the race.
As lap 4 came Vettel brought the gap down to Alonso to under one second, enabling him to activate his DRS on the way down to the hairpin, but the Red Bull could not get close enough to the Ferrari to take a serious look – indeed Alonso having his pursuer covered became a regular pattern of the race thereafter.
This point was illustrated on the timing sheets shortly after as Alonso set two fastest laps to eek out his advantage, whilst further back Sergio Perez was carving through the field after qualifying 12th but starting 17th after incurring a 5 place grid penalty for blocking. The Mexican passed Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso at the hairpin for 10th, but ran slightly wide enabling team-mate Kobayashi to pass the pair of them – the Japanese bucking the trend by starting on the harder tires. His teammate meanwhile was on the softer tire, common sense prevailing at Sauber as Kobayashi did not put up a fight when Perez breezed past him on the preferable tires shortly after their antics at the hairpin and set off after Paul Di Resta’s Force India and 9th place.
Jenson Button then began to make some headway, passing Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India at the hairpin on lap 8 and then setting fastest sector times as he chased down Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes. Perez added to the excitement by making a DRS-assisted pass on Di Resta at the hairpin – in truth the DRS passes were being made too easily at the hairpin, the hunter often past the hunted before the braking zone even.
Another driver making progress was Nico Rosberg, who started 21st thanks to a poor qualifying and a 5 place grid penalty – the Chinese Grand Prix winner finding himself 12th on lap 10. The action at the front turned into a stalemate with the gap between the top two remaining constant, while Button took chunks out of Schumacher before passing him predictably at this hairpin, on lap 11.
Drivers began to make planned pit stops at this point, Di Resta first in at the end of lap 11 switching to a set of medium compound tires, whilst Kimi Raikkonen went against the predicted grain by swapping the soft tires he started on for another set of soft’s, a move he hoped would unlock the pace of the Lotus-Renault. The front three stayed out the longest, Alonso setting fastest laps on the twelfth and thirteenth tours indicating there was nothing wrong with his Pirelli’s, before Raikkonen took this particular mantle as he made use of his new soft rubber.
The lower reaches of the top ten stopping for medium tires brought about some close quarters action, Maldonado leaving the pits in the midst of a one sides fight between Petrov and Webber, the former having not stopped yet. The Venezuelan came out in the middle as Webber ran wide at the Nordkurve, before closing back in again in time for the hairpin, at which Maldonado made a tidy pass on Petrov, but surprisingly Webber could not follow him through, the Australian looking less than confident on the brakes.
Michael Schumacher brought his Mercedes in for some new tires at the end of lap 14 for the first of three stops and a set of soft tires. The Silver car did not re-join fast enough to stay ahead of countryman and fellow former Wili Weber client Hulkenberg, who squeezed by as Schumacher left pit lane, Raikkonen keeping a close watching brief. The threesome got close at the hairpin, before Schumacher re-kindled some old magic with a beautiful move on Hulkenberg at the Mercedes corner, squeezing down the inside and moving the Force India off line, enabling Raikkonen to get around the outside and make a pass into turn 9.
Up ahead of this battle on the road were the yet to stop Sauber pair, Perez ahead in 4th, who were both keeping up an impressive pace comparable to the leaders. The only other runner to not stop at this point was Ricciardo, who sat 6th. Perez gave up on his soft tires after 17 laps and switches then for a set of mediums, coming out ahead of Webber. The Mexican’s stop came a lap before the first of the front three showed their hand, Alonso stopping at the end of lap 18 and switching to a set of medium compound tires. Two laps later Vettel and Button made the same tire switch, the German coming out still ahead of the Briton but right behind Kobayashi, who still hadn’t stopped, before quickly despatching the Japanese. Behind, Raikkonen passed Michael Schumacher for 5th with a sweet cut back at the hairpin, the Renault’s soft tires working better than the Mercedes. This gave the Finn clear air for the first time, would we now see his true pace? The 5th place Raikkonen had just taken soon became 4th as Kobayashi pitted for the first time, shuffling out in 11th behind Maldonado, before quickly passing the Spanish GP winner.
After 24 laps the gap covering the top 3 was 5.6 seconds, the gap diminishing at this point, with Raikkonen not making any progress towards him, despite his pit crew advising him he was the quickest man on track. The gap between the front two was soon down to 1.8 seconds, Vettel looking threatening in his strongest German GP showing of his short career. Kobayashi meanwhile was keeping interest up, having two bites at the cherry trying to pass Di Resta, getting the job done at the second time of asking at the hairpin on lap 25.
For the first time since the very early laps Alonso and Ferrari fans had cause for concern, by lap 26 the gap to Vettel down to 1.6 and Button setting fastest lap with a 1:20.727 on lap 27, the pace proving too hot for Raikkonen’s Lotus. Vettel breached the magical 1 second barrier at the start of lap 29, catching up to the Ferrari’s gearbox through the Parabolica and sitting right on it come the end of the lap. The Spaniard had some rest bite as the leading pair came up to lap Charles Pic however, catching the Marussia at the perfect time to grab a handful of DRS for himself and eek out a few precious car lengths.
Slightly further back the Force India’s were in trouble, Rosberg passing Di Resta and both Webber and Perez passing Hulkenberg, who then stopped on lap 31 for a set of soft tires, as the Silverstone based team’s cars began to fall back. Back at the front despite his DRS favour from Pic Alonso still had Vettel chasing him, the Red Bull setting fastest lap on the 32nd tour, before Button followed it up with a fastest lap of his own.
The race then took a twist when Hamilton resumed after his final planned pit stop in the midst of the lead battle, behind Alonso and Vettel but in front of team-mate Button. With nothing to lose and fresh tires we had the unusual situation of the lapped car being faster than the cars ahead of it. The inevitable happened as Hamilton passed Vettel at the hairpin, the German expressing his consternation at these turn events with some hand signal which seemed to read “what’s going on!”. Hamilton was quite within his right to un-lap his McLaren of course, although Vettel’s frustration was understandable, especially after he had got so close previously only to suffer at the hands of Pic’s Marussia.
These antics from Hamilton would leave his tires unable to last until the end of the race as McLaren originally planned, but this was a merely collateral damage as far as the team were concerned, Hamilton had done a stellar job for the team in interfering with Vettel, leaving the gap between the German and Button at 1.5 seconds, the smallest it had been all afternoon. Vettel’s troubles were compounded when he was advised over the radio he could not use “high energy KERS”, which seemed to indicate he still have KERS, but would not get the full affect when he hit the button.
Hamilton then totally un-lapped himself by passing Alonso on lap 39, as drivers began to come in for their second stops. These were headed by Schumacher who swapped to mediums, Raikkonen who stopped for the same compound on lap 38 and then Maldonado & Ricciardo. McLaren saw there chance to pass Vettel and brought Button in with 26 laps to run, releasing him in fairly clear air but fairly close to Grosjean, but Button soon leapfrogged the Frenchman and made hay whilst the sun shone with a clear road ahead of him.
Fourth-placed Raikkonen then set fastest lap on his new medium tires. Ferrari and Red Bull reacted quickly to McLaren and brought Alonso and Vettel in respectively at the end of lap 41, Alonso having no trouble hanging onto his lead, but Button just got out ahead of Vettel – some sterling work from a team and driver who have had their fair share of criticism in 2012. Vettel was right on Button and had a DRS assisted run at him down to the hairpin, but Button resisted well to hang on to 2nd place. Vettel then ran wide at the Nordkurve, less spectacularly then Jean-Eric Vergne managed earlier in the race but still managing to lose enough time to lose the DRS opportunity.
Button looked quicker than Alonso at the point, by lap 45 he had bridged the gap to under a second, for a shot at a move with some DRS assistance. Further back Kobayashi was up to his old tricks again, passing Hulkenberg for 6th on a set of soft tires, setting fastest lap on lap 45 for good measure. Button remained looking threatening in behind Alonso, communication between Alonso and his team now coming in Italian, an indicator that Ferrari were getting concerned perhaps?
Michael Schumacher still sat 5th at this point, but was being caught by the exciting Sauber pair, whilst his team mate Rosberg stopped from 8th to put on some soft tires, dropping him behind Webber and both Force India’s but still in with a shot of some points if he could use his new rubber to make some time up. Mercedes then called Schumacher in for a set of soft tires himself, dropping him behind the Sauber pair but potentially still with enough laps to make the ground back up if he could roll back the years and put some pulsating laps in.
With the battle at the front petering out as it had at the end of the first two stints, Alonso seemed to have Button covered, lap 54 came around and the gap remained constant. Michael Schumacher used his new tires to good effect, setting a string of fastest laps, but the gap to the Sauber’s looked too large to bridge, the Swiss cars had performed impressively on both tire compounds all afternoon and were kind to them as well.
Hamilton’s miserable afternoon came to an end at this point, the 2008 World Champion bringing his MP4-27 into the garage, the only retirement of the entire race. The other McLaren then began to lose ground on the Ferrari ahead of it, on lap 58 Alonso managed a personal best lap, whilst Vettel closed in. Six laps later Vettel is only 0.8 behind Button and by the end of the next lap the German is right on Button’s gearbox, giving him a run at him on the way down to the hairpin on lap 66. The double world champion places his car on the outside of Button, and drives around the outside after braking later. The Red Bull and McLaren come close to touching on the corner exit, Vettel moving out past the kerb and across the Santander banner on the tarmac on the outside of the racetrack.
After this move Button was immediately on the radio claiming Vettel had passed him off the racetrack. Vettel held his 2nd position behind Alonso to the finish ahead of Button, Raikkonen, Kobayashi, Perez, Schumacher, Webber, Hulkenberg and Rosberg, who salvaged a point from 10th after starting 21st. After the podium celebrations it was announced Vettel would inherit a 20 second penalty for passing Button off track limits, a penalty Christian Horner labelled as “harsh”. This moved the German back to 5th, behind Button, Raikkonen and Kobayashi – giving the Japanese his best ever Formula 1 finish.
In all, the 2012 German Grand Prix proved an entertaining affair despite promising more action than it actually produced. Alonso was aided when lapping Pic’s Marussia and Hamilton un-lapping himself when under perhaps his most severe pressure from Vettel, whilst Button seemed to lose the edge he had on pace he had over the Spaniard shortly before the end of the race.
Looking at the bigger picture, judging by Button’s pace McLaren’s new for Hockenheim updates have provided the desired performance boost, if qualifying is dry in Budapest Button and Hamilton should be able to get much nearer the sharp end on Saturday and be better equipped to challenge for a race win on the Sunday. Is it too late to salvage a championship bid for Hamilton though? In light of Vettel’s pass and subsequent penalty, the question around tarmac run offs and what constitutes track limits will be given plenty of air this coming week.
More and more modern tracks have these tarmac run offs now, the renovated Paul Ricard circuit a prime example. Whilst these run offs have been introduced for safety reasons, enabling drivers to brake after running off track rather than skating across grass or a gravel trap, they do leave themselves open for the type of passing move and subsequent controversy Vettel has experienced.
It looks like we are stuck with these types of track and run off areas now, if the FIA can set a line in the sand from this episode and establish some consistent rules regarding off track excursions and apply them fairly in future, the problem may be able to be limited. With every incident of an off track excursion bound to vary however, this will prove difficult, the FIA definitely have their hands full with this one – but it is a problem they have brought about themselves.