Alon-so cool - Hockenheim race report

 

Hockenheim marks the half-way point of the season. Will it set the precedence for the remaining races? I'm not sure, but this race combined with next weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix could be vital come the end of the season. The teams will be determined to head into the summer break with plenty of momentum and positivity. So who came out on top in Hockenheim?

After changeable conditions and grid-place penalties, the grid for the tenth round of the championship was more mixed up than many had expected. Alonso lined up on pole ahead of Sebastian Vettel, with fellow Germans Michael Schumacher and Nico Hulkenberg just behind. The top 10 on the grid (after penalties) were: ALO, VET, MSC, HUL, MAL, BUT, HAM, WEB, DIR, RAI.

An excellent start as always from Alonso saw the Spaniard lead into the first corner with Vettel, Schumacher and Hulkenberg following behind. Further back in the pack Felipe Massa found himself caught out before he'd even reached the first corner. The Brazilian made a better start than the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo in front of him but misjudged the movement of the Australian when heading down to the first corner. A slight movement by Ricciardo seemed to catch Massa out and caused him to clip the back of the Toro Rosso. As a result Massa's front wing fell off and shards of carbon fibre covered the end of the pit straight and first corner.

An eventful first lap for Massa continued on the run out of turn 4. With his front wing missing, Massa was much slower out of turn 4 than Romain Grosjean (behind at the time) would have expected. Grosjean clipped the back of the Ferrari and he too damaged his front wing; causing yet more carbon fibre to be left on the racing line. Then on the run down to the turn 6 hairpin Grosjean ran wide, somehow avoiding the rest of the pack. Bruno Senna also appeared to run wide, and although I haven't seen what exactly happened to Senna, I'm making an educated guess that he made contact with Grosjean during the Massa coming together. Massa, Grosjean and Senna all pitted at the end of the lap.

With the shear amount of debris on track at turn 1 and on the exit of turn 4, it seemed inevitable that someone would pick up a puncture. Unfortunately that someone was Lewis Hamilton. Racing in his 100th GP, Lewis picked up the damage either at turn 1 or turn 4 and by the time he reached the hairpin, the Brit had dropped towards the back of the field. Having to nurse his car back to the pits for over half a lap, Lewis' race was effectively over. Lewis himself even said over the team radio that he should just retire; something that the team didn't agree with (thankfully).

Alonso and Vettel were battling it out for the lead during the opening stint of the race. Despite Vettel often being within the 1 second window needed to activate his DRS, the double World Champion couldn't get close enough to challenge Alonso on too many occasions. It appeared that whenever Alonso wanted to extend the gap beyond the 1 second, he could.

Further back Jenson Button began to work his way through the field. McLaren knew that a podium spot was up for grabs with Lewis dropping to the back and Webber stuck towards the bottom of the top ten, so told Jenson over the radio that he needed to get past Hulkenberg and Schumacher as soon as he could. Typically clean overtakes from Jenson saw him pass both German drivers on the run down to the hairpin with the move on Schumacher being particularly impressive. The seven time World Champion seemingly not knowing that Jenson had switched from the outside to the inside heading into the corner. Jenson was now third and instantly began to match the pace of the lead two.

After a five place grid-drop for blocking Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying, Sergio Perez knew he had a lot of work on to save something from the weekend. The Sauber's had shown good pace on both tyres in the limited dry running and must have been disappointed to see their two drivers line up in 12th and 17th, so knew that a good strategy was key to success. The Sauber is notoriously good on it's tyres and in the hands of Perez in particular, is probably the best on the grid. He has a knack of being able to get tyres to work at any stage of a race, often when many others can't. Perez soon worked his way up the field, passing team-mate Kobayashi and moving inside the points within the opening stage of the race. He started on the soft tyre and knew that he'd need to gain ground as quickly as he could. Kobayashi meanwhile started on the medium tyre, something we've often seen from Sauber this season.

Everyone from 4th place down pitted earlier than they'd probably wanted to as a reaction to the pit stops of Rosberg and Raikkonen. With clear air Kimi began to show some of the pace that the Lotus again was expected to have. He managed to get past Webber using the undercut before getting past the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg, who'd began to drop back from his impressive 4th place on the grid. Raikkonen's next challenge was to overtake the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher. It was a great little battle between two former World Champions, with Kimi eventually getting the move done on the run out of the hairpin. Kimi is showing absolutely no signs of rustiness when it comes to overtaking after spending the last two years in the WRC; and his preciseness and cleanness have to be admired. Schumacher too had earlier in the race pulled off a superb move on Hulkenberg heading down into turn 8 (in front of the Mercedes stand), also allowing Raikkonen to get through.

Jenson had pitted earlier than both Alonso and Vettel, allowing him to gain a couple of seconds and really make it a 3 horse race heading into the second half of the race. Jenson's pace was hugely encouraging for not only the team and driver, but the fans as well (me included). Many were beginning to ask some pretty serious questions, but the pace on display from Jenson was extremely satisfying to see. He began to close in on Alonso and Vettel at the front. Now here is why McLaren were so right to keep Lewis Hamilton in the race.

Languishing down in 18th place, Lewis came out from his second pit stop right in the middle of the battle for the lead. A lap down but in a quicker car (at the time) on fresher rubber, what would you do? Lewis spent a few laps behind Vettel before eventually overtaking the German down into the hairpin. This clearly angered Vettel as he spent the whole of the next straight remonstrating with his hand at both Lewis and Race Direction. Lewis was perfectly within his rights to unlap himself as he was in the quicker car and instantly began to pull away from Vettel and catch Alonso. After the race Vettel called Hamilton “stupid” for un-lapping himself (sorry Seb, but I have to disagree with you).

Hamilton then tried the same with Alonso, but the Spaniard had just enough pace to remain ahead (despite defending a few times in to the hairpin). This tactic used by McLaren allowed Jenson to gain more ground on the two ahead of him and really get him into the fight for the race win. As soon as Martin Brundle commented that now was the perfect for McLaren to pit Jenson, they did. An astonishingly quick 2.31s pit stop, combined with the undercut he got from the fresh rubber allowed Jenson to overtake Vettel as the German exited the pit on the following lap. A mixture of great tactics and outstanding work in the pits gave Jenson the opportunity to move up to 2nd, and after successfully holding off Vettel and the DRS on that first lap, Jenson could now begin to mount a challenge for the lead.

Raikkonen and Schumacher remained in 4th and 5th, but it was the movement through the pack of the Sauber's that was really interesting to watch. Both were on 2 stop strategies, with Kobayashi choosing to run the opening two stints on the medium tyre, with Perez switching to the medium tyre after his first stop. Two superb Force India/Sauber battles happened during the race, with Perez and Kobayashi coming out on top in both. Kobayashi continuously pulled off some great overtakes down into the hairpin throughout the race, particularly on Hulkenberg and Webber. It left the two Sauber's running in 6th and 7th after their second pit stops; Kobayashi leading Perez.

The Force India's struggled for pace and dropped back as the race went on. They tried something different with Hulkenberg by putting him on the soft tyre during the middle of the race, but by then the medium tyre was the one to be on and it lead to the German dropping outside the top ten at one point (just behind team mate di Resta). Someone I've not mentioned yet is Nico Rosberg. A disastrous qualifying (compounded by his grid penalty) saw him start down in 21st. From there he knew he could only realistically aim to get into the lower points scoring positions come the end of the race. His pace, particularly during the middle of the race, was impressive and would've easily seen him running with team mate Schumacher.

Back to the race at the front. Alonso and Button had dropped Vettel (who was looking ragged and more erratic than usual) and were battling for the lead. Although Button was often within the DRS zone, he wasn't seemingly able to mount a serious challenge on Alonso. The Spaniard is exceptionally good at soaking up pressure and seemed unfazed by anything Button, Vettel or Hamilton had tried on him during the race. Heading into the final five or six laps of the race Button began to drop back into the clutches of Vettel as Alonso built up a comfortable 4-5 second lead.

Then on lap 66 came the most controversial moment of the race. Vettel was quicker than Button towards the end of the race; and on the run down to the turn 6 hairpin, with DRS in use, Vettel tried to overtake Button around the outside. Button held the inside line and Vettel took to the run-off. By taking to the run-off Vettel was able to keep a wider line and accelerate first and faster than Button could. Vettel rejoined the track further down the straight, but ahead of Button. He'd completed the move whilst being off the track, something which is simply not allowed. Vettel made very little effort to fight Jenson on the exit of the hairpin and just took to the run off to gain extra traction out of the hairpin. Jenson immediately radioed the team stating Vettel had just overtaken him whilst off track, to which the team responded by saying the stewards were already aware.

Alonso went on to the take the win, his third of the season in what was yet another masterclass from a simply wonderful driver. Vettel crossed the line in 2nd with JB rounding off the podium positions in 3rd, although the incident involving Vettel and Button was under investigation. Kimi Raikkonen came home 4th ahead of the two Sauber's of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez in 5th and 6th. A late pit stop from Michael Schumacher saw the German drop back to 7th, although he was catching the Sauber's by over a second a lap at the end. The top ten was rounded out by Mark Webber in 8th ahead of two German's; Nico Hulkenberg in 9th and Nico Rosberg in 10th. Hulkenberg dropping back from 4th at the start, whereas Rosberg came through from 21st.

The stewards took there time in making a decision regarding Sebastian Vettel, but eventually made their minds up. The double World Champion was given a 20 second time penalty and as a result demoted to fifth in the final result. This moves Button up to 2nd and Kimi Raikkonen up to 3rd (who is probably glad he got to miss out on the podium ‘interviews'). Kamui Kobayashi has as a result of the penalty for Vettel achieved his best finish of his Formula 1 career to date with 4th and with some whispers around the paddock of his place being under threat, the result couldn't have come at a better time for the very likeable and exciting Japanese driver.

Vettel though could well feel harshly done. Yes his overtake on Button was illegal and yes he deserved a penalty, but personally I feel the 20 seconds dished out to him is harsh. If I'd been a steward today I'd have asked for Vettel to be given a 5 second penalty that would've seen him drop back behind Button. Button deserved his 2nd place back but I'm not so sure Vettel deserved to be demoted to 5th. It's hard to feel sorry for Vettel after the last two years he's had, but 20 seconds? I'm not sure. If this happens again this season, then all I can say is that I hope the stewards stay consistent and hand out a 20 second penalty to the next driver (if it happens near the end of the race). We need consistency, but I'm not sure it's what we always get.

So who are the winners and loser of today's German Grand Prix? Winners: Alonso, Button, Raikkonen, Sauber. Losers: Vettel, Hamilton, Webber, Maldonado, Grosjean, Massa, Force India.

I'll start with those who lost out. Vettel's penalty for me is too much and should have been only 5 seconds. Hamilton, in his 100th GP, had a race weekend to forget. Qualifying behind Button for the first time this season, getting a puncture early on in the race and then retiring towards the end made this arguably one of Lewis' worst (and unluckiest) weekends to date in Formula 1. Webber started 8th, finished 8th. He was strangely off the pace all day, even being overtaken by the likes of Kobayashi. Definitely one to forget for the Australian too. Maldonado started 5th and ran strongly in the early part of the race but when he changed onto the medium tyre the car just changed. He was slipping and sliding all over the place, being overtaken hand over fist by anyone who came up behind him. Still, he again outperformed team mate Senna. Romain Grosjean's worst weekend in 2012? Yes, no doubt. Starting down in 19th it was always going to be tough, but based on what he did at Silverstone two weeks ago, anything was possible. Unfortunately another opening lap incident ruined the young Frenchman's race. Massa too had a day to forget after two incidents on the first lap which effectively spoilt any chance of him continuing with his recent revival. Force India qualified well, but the race pace wasn't there and eventually came away with just 2 points. Questions will need to be asked within the team as to why this continues to happen.

Now to the winners. Jenson Button is back! Hopefully this is a sign that he's turned some kind of corner and that his season is back on track. A third podium of the season for the Brit keeps his ever-slimming chances of the World Championship alive. Let's hope he backs it up at Hungary next weekend (a track at which he goes well at). Starting 10th, I'm sure Kimi Raikkonen will be happy to come away from the weekend with another podium result (even if he doesn't show it). Lotus and Kimi will want a race win soon though, maybe Hungary will be the place? If it's hot who knows, they could well do it. What a fantastic day for Sauber. 4th and 6th for Kobayashi and Perez is a fantastic result for the very likeable Swiss team. Kobayashi has achieved his best result in Formula 1 to date, and Perez has again shown why he will surely one day drive for Ferrari by moving through from 17th at the start to end up 6th. They showed great pace on both tyres throughout, pulled off some great overtakes and thoroughly deserve to celebrate a fantastic double result for the team.

But the big winner of the day is of course Fernando Alonso. This guy is simply fantastic and for me the best driver currently in Formula 1. Another pole and another win, his third of the season, has seen the Spaniard extend his lead at the top of the standings to 34 points. I'm not sure what else can be said about Alonso this season, he's simply driving the best I've ever seen him do. He's competing against an arguably stronger Red Bull (and to some extent McLaren) and is more often than not coming out on top. He soaks up pressure like no one else and can seemingly pull out a lead whenever he needs. He's now scored in 22 consecutive races and is moving ever closer to Michael Schumacher's all time record of 24. He's amassed over 150 points in the opening 10 races in a car that at the start we all thought was midfield at best. What an outstanding job he's done and continues to do. The last time we were at Hockenheim, Alonso won but under ‘dodgy' circumstances. This time around Alonso has won from pole and although he was under pressure from Vettel and Button for large parts, never looked in too much danger of letting the lead slip. Alonso is a class act, both on and off the track. He's surely now just more than a contender for the title, is he the favourite? At this moment in time, for me, yes.

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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