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F1: Vettel's masterful drive makes gains in the rain

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Who'd have thunk it? When Hamilton, suffering from a cold so severe he questioned if he would be able to drive, stuck his car on pole yesterday, and Ferrari missed Q3 with one car and missed qualifying altogether with the other, surely it was all over. Then when the rain came down, the cooler air favoured the Mercedes which had been struggling to match the pace of the Ferraris all weekend. Red Bull's Verstappen picked up P2 and Bottas in P3 and it looked as if the race had been decided. How wrong could we be: the race was "decided" over and over again as the Hockenheim track said "if this is my swansong, it's going to be a good one."

Where to start? If we start at the start, it was the story of both Red Bulls sitting, wheels spinning, on the start line while those around them got away. Raikkonen shot from fifth to .. well, it's not quite certain where because by the time the cars reached the first corner, the two Red Bulls were back in the mix, Sainz was somewhere near the track, Hamilton and Bottas were ahead and clear but.. it was just a flash of colours, speed and changes of direction. Maybe a frame-by-frame look at that corner would say what was going on.

The cars were not taken by surprise by the conditions - at least not then. The safety car had led them round on three formation laps, partly to clear off water and partly so the drivers could learn where the danger areas were. Then they formed a grid and the lights went out instantly all five were lit. The man with the green flag at the back of the grid hadn't even walked the whole way across the track when 20 machines snarled (well, with the current engines peeped) into life.

It turned out that there were two principle danger spots which changed, repeatedly, as the race wore on. The first was the Nordcurve, more prosaically known as Turn One. As the race wore on, that corner became treacherous when drivers over-estimated the grip. The second was a corner without a name (hint - track owners, as the old Clarke Curve and Senna Chicane were abolished in the recent redesign, why not use one of those names here). which runs more or less parallel with the pit lane entry (of which more later). That corner is slightly unweighted and the cars, turning in fast, were twitchy on the back end. A small slide pushed them over the kerb and onto the start of the drag strip where a small amount of rain turns the surface into what Martin Brundle called "a skating rink." Car after car came to grief there as very small errors produced very serious consequences.

It really would be impossible, without sitting in front of a TV screen and typing up a running commentary to describe how much was going on. No, scratch that: even if I did that, I'd only be able to report what was on the screen. Given that only 20 cars start a Grand Prix these days, one would think that there wouldn't be much action. But no, there were incidents all around the track, all the time, most of them single car incidents. And then there was the actual racing. There was surprisingly little contact (although the two HAAS cars managed to run into each other again, raising the question as to whether the best thing the team could do is fire them both and get people who have some respect for the cars and the people that have to keep repairing them).

Everyone had some kind of incident: Verstappen's was the most interesting: he spun 360 degrees, the car balanced on top of the kerb at the exit of the chicane, and then carried on regardless. And he went on to win the race. If that sounds prosaic and disrespecting of his efforts, it's not: his lack of drama, his calm decision-making over tyres, and his team's trust in his decisions were what won the race in a car that seemed to be far from the fastest on the day - but which proved just how much MV was driving within his limits when he picked up FTD on the last lap while Vettel was storming up the field.

The fastest in terms of progress was the Ferrari that had failed to get out at all during qualifying. Starting last, Vettel soon made it up to eight where he more or less plateaued. But as safety cars, pit-stops and crashes (notably Hamilton who got going again, Bottas and LeClerc who didn't) disrupted and, in the case of crashes, more than decimated the field, Vettel realised that a top-three place was on the cards. Spoiler alert: in the last five laps, he moved up three places to take second denying Stroll and Albon their chances at glory. Third was Kvyat, proving that second, even third, chances can pay off. His weekend just kept getting better: he became a father on Saturday evening. Sainz finished 5th, his best result for a very long time; his team-mate Norris had a tech-inspired DNF.

Bottas his the wall, so did LeClerc and Hulkenberg all in front-running spots. Perez, somewhere in the middle, was the first. Ricciardo's exhaust system broke resulting in yet another DNF.

Those who talk about the "commentator's curse" found fun in the Ricciardo Curse, a joke borne of the fact that of ten people stuck in a lift with him on Friday, seven failed to finish the race. See https://twitter.com/RenaultF1T... . Team Boss Cyril Abiteboul said after the race "We missed an opportunity for big points over our direct competitors, but there are certainly positives from the weekend." Really? Go on. Convince us. True, Hulkenberg was going well until he had a minor "off" with big consequences but even so they had a 50% failure rate, again with the exhaust. Haven't they noticed that their car sounds so different to all the other sewing machine noises out there?

What did the race show? With four safety cars plus two virtual safety cars, it showed that full safety cars decide results. Hamilton, at one point 33.5 seconds in the lead, ended up dead last at one point. Yes, his pit stop after his crash cost 55 seconds and he got a five second penalty because he made a hard choice, all of which were wrong: the front of his car was hanging off and he was literally across the road from the pit entrance. His choices were: a) run a lap with parts falling off as he went b) run the wrong way along the track (illegal) (albeit perhaps on the run-off area where cars were crashing often) and turn into the entrance in the correct place or c) take the shortest, safest route which was across an empty track into the pit lane but the wrong side of a bollard placed to mark the last point of entry. He chose illegality over unsafe, then chose the less risky of the two illegal options. Was it a breach, yes. Was it a necessary breach? Yes, unless he had dumped his car and caused yet another safety car.

What was even more bizarre was that, later, the stewards said they were investigating him again - for going to slowly behind the safety car. It turns out that this was not Hamilton's fault at all: it was FIA data that showed his "delta" was too far adrift from the time set. The data failed to take into account that he was stopped, waiting for a new nose and new tyres, when he arrived, unannounced, in the pits after his crash. Although no one has said this it might be that his "short cut" into the pits was after a timing beacon and so when he passed the next one, the system computed his time as a minute longer than it should have been. Perhaps a bit of common sense might have prevented the announcement of an inquiry that should never have taken place.

Then there's the penalty awarded for unsafe release: Ferrari were fined (amount not specified) for releasing LeClerc into the path of another car. This is strange: I am unable to think of another case where the driver has not, or has not also, been penalised in such circumstances. Had LeClerc got points in a close race, that result would, taken against the history of F1, have been a bit of an anomaly.

The stewards also came up with a penalty for both Alfa Romeos. If I said I understand this, I'd be lying. They were both awarded 30 second penalties for something to do with the clutch which relates to something that happened involving 300 milliseconds. They were pushed back several places (the safety car system being to blame for the cars running nose to tail with five laps to go) . That gave Hamilton a point (so continuing his long run of finishes in the points even though he was 11th on track) and giving WIlliams their first point of the season: pit stops and safety cars having put Kubica uncharacteristically ahead of his young team-mate Russell, the record books will show one thing while racing histories will show another. But whichever got the point, it's worth millions of dollars to Williams because even one point has traditionally resulted in subsidised or free transport for the next half-season (unless that's something that's changed without attracting attention).

The current, relatively new, layout is an emasculated version of one of the world's greatest tracks. Today, the old track through the forest has been dug up and returned to nature. The layout is stiff visible but the only man-made reminder is the small stone monument to Jim Clark. Obviously, no matter how many people including drivers and team bosses, are saddened by the loss of the old track, the cost of restoration and maintenance is clearly beyond economical good sense. And the new track, viewed in isolation, is a find circuit that throws up great racing. Sadly, today's may be the last German GP for the foreseeable future: the costs of staging a GP exceed the revenue that it generates, a problem that is becoming increasingly common.

Long, long ago, in a previous iteration of this newspaper, I said that tracks should have sprinklers so wet races could be engineered. Some months later, Bernie Ecclestone said the same. Yesterday's race showed that while a wet race at Silverstone isn't much fun, at tracks like Hockenheim, they are great fun to watch and a huge challenge to the drivers and teams.

It was a shame that Jenson Button wasn't racing in the conditions he excels in but he was busy in California being a new dad. Congrats to him and his family. "Hendrix Jonathan Button you’re going to be so very spoiled! " he said.

The race had all the drama, twists and turns of a German Opera with far more excitement. Please, Fat Lady, don't sing for Hockenheim for a very long time.

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