The Formula One season is just past the half way mark and the next round coming up is the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. With the absence of Hockenheim this year the Ring is Germany's only race and for the home fans there's also the...
The Formula One season is just past the half way mark and the next round coming up is the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. With the absence of Hockenheim this year the Ring is Germany's only race and for the home fans there's also the absence of Michael Schumacher. Still, there are one or two other German drivers out there and also more than one team that can claim Europe as a home race.
The 5.1 km Nurburgring will always be overshadowed by the legendary Nordschleife and has often been described as 'average' in most respects, but that doesn't make it less challenging. It requires medium to high downforce and can be prone to understeer in the long corners. The first sector needs good mechanical grip so a compromise has to be reached with aerodynamic efficiency.
"The salient features of the Ring include sweeping turns that require medium speeds, leading to the understeer that is so typical of the Nurburgring," said BMW Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "The key question is: how do you set the car up to stop it pushing over the front wheels too much? That can be resolved by an optimal aero balance combined with the corresponding mechanical set up."
The higher than average altitude of the location -- approximately 500m above sea level -- means a loss of engine power by about five percent and overall it's not a tough track on engines. Just over half the lap distance is spent at full throttle and the longest period at such is only about 10 seconds. As for tyres, the race running a little later in the year than usual means the compound choice could be a bit tricky.
"The biggest challenge is our decision to bring the soft compound Bridgestone Potenza, as all our experience is based on this circuit in the spring," said Bridgestone's Kees van de Grint. "We will have to see if our predictions are correct. The Eifel region can produce unpredictable weather, so it's a little bit of an unknown for us. I believe we've made the right choice, but you never know with the Nurburgring!"
With eight races to go there's still everything to play for at the top of the championship standings. Fernando Alonso is whittling away at McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton's lead and in turn Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen is closing in on the reigning champion. With Felipe Massa only one point behind the Finn the title could go to any one of them; really the BMW Sauber duo of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica are too far behind.
Raikkonen doesn't have the best of records at the Nurburgring, something he's hoping to change this weekend. "I have never had a perfect race there with my former team," he said. "It's time to succeed. The second part of the championship has begun and you can see how the performance pendulum is easily swinging from one side to the other. Obviously I want it to stay on our side and that I continue to win: and at the end of the season we'll do the calculations."
Mercedes has a long relationship with the Ring and Alonso is as determined as Raikkonen to get a good result. "This season is very competitive and we all have to push hard to find more performance from every part of the car, particularly for the Nurburgring," he commented. "I am really looking forward to it and hope we can give them a good race. I've had a positive couple of races here over the past two years and I hope to continue that into the race next weekend."
Like Mercedes, BMW has long been linked with this circuit and for Heidfeld in particular it's a track to enjoy. The German was a regular visitor as a child and drove his first kart there, then went on to notch up wins in lower formulae such as Formula Ford and Formula 3000. He also took his maiden F1 pole position at the Ring with Williams in 2005 and this year drove the BMW round the Nordschleife.
"I think we're pretty well prepared for the Ring," Heidfeld said. "Our performance potential is a great motivator. Naturally it's a lot more fun when you know you're essentially in contention for points and good placings. If qualifying turns out better for me than at the last race in Silverstone, I should also be back in the running for the race."
Renault is closing on BMW a little with its improvement since the beginning of the season, although there's still some way to go if the French squad is to overtake its rival. Likewise Heikki Kovalainen, who really struggled at the start of the season, is now more or less on teammate Giancarlo Fisichella's pace. It will be Kovalainen's first race at the Nurburgring in an F1 car.
"I think you need a stable balance in the high-speed corners," he said in regard to setting up the car. "On the way back up the hill from the hairpin, there are two high speed right-left sections, and a good balance is important if you want to gain time. The other crucial factor will be to have good braking stability, to ensure we can attack the braking zones and corners with confidence."
The circuit is only about an hour away from Toyota's base in Cologne so, naturally, the team claims it as a home race. Like Heidfeld, Ralf Schumacher grew up nearby and won his first junior race at the track and also took victory there in 2003 with Williams. After a good qualifying at Silverstone Schumacher was disappointed to retire from the race with a wheel issue, but is still feeling confident.
"On the positive side, you could see from my sixth place in qualifying and my lap times during the race that our car has improved and we are able to compete higher up the grid," he said in regard to the last event. "The team is pushing hard to continue this improvement and it would be great to see the results of that work with a points finish at one of our home tracks this weekend."
Spyker has confirmed that Markus Winkelhock will make his debut alongside Adrian Sutil this weekend. It could be the German test driver's only event, though, as Spyker considers other possibilities for the rest of the season. Honda tester Christian Klien and Williams counterpart Narain Karthikeyan are both thought to be in the frame and another Spyker tester, Adrian Valles, is hoping for a chance.
For Winkelhock, son of late F1 racer Manfred, this weekend will be extra special. "Making my race debut at this track in particular though will be very important personally for myself and my family," he explained. "This was the last track my father raced a Formula One car on before he died; now I can make my Formula One debut on the last track he ever raced on in F1."
Cheering the local heroes aside, the fans' focus is most likely to be on the battle at the front. Hamilton still looks strong but he's far from unassailable -- his unbroken string of podium finishes have been amazing but his main rivals are closing in slowly but surely. Whatever happens at the Nurburgring Hamilton will still be the championship leader afterwards but the question is, by how much?