Conclusions from the German GP
Points-losing red mist descends at Red Bull, McLaren return to the front, while a couple of fishy tales emerge at the back...
Last Updated: 23/07/12 11:39am
Too Much Red Mist At Red Bull?
The puzzle is not that Red Bull argued their case after Sunday's race but, unless appearances were convincingly deceptive, they genuinely believed in their argument that Sebastian Vettel had not broken one of the oldest rules in the book. Which he clearly had.
As the stewards' statement bluntly summarised: 'Fact: Car 1 left the track and gained an advantage when he rejoined.' With four wheels beyond the white-lined confines of the track, and Vettel leaving the circuit behind Jenson Button and then returning to the road in front of the McLaren, it's a tough task imagining a more blatant infringement. And still Red Bull could not spot the problem.
At least when Lewis Hamilton did something similar a few years ago at Spa, cutting a chicane to slip around Kimi Raikkonen, he had the sense to let the Ferrari straight back through before repassing his rival with what the stewards judged to be unseemly haste. That little bit of past but pertinent history begs the moot question of whether Vettel would have been punished even if he had immediately let Button back in front before retaking the McLaren on the final lap. Though one is less glaring than they other, missing a chicane and slicing a corner into a kink are cuts from the same cloth.
The puzzle is that the debate on the Red Bull pitwall did not reach even that far. Indeed, judging by their emphatic and unswerving pleas of innocence afterwards, it appeared that nobody amongst the Red Bull hierarchy voiced any sort of concern that Vettel had transgressed.
How could they have missed it? Time was one factor, with the adrenaline-pumping close proximity of the race's end naturally clouding any rational assessment of the situation. But in view of the team's equally-animated and misapplied criticism of Lewis Hamilton - "stupid", in the words of Sebastian Vettel, rather blunted in the case of Christian Horner once the Red Bull boss was assured that there was nothing in the rules to stop the McLaren unlapping itself - the thought has to be that the red mist had descended on Red Bull.
Was it suspicion of McLaren sharp practice which blinded the World Champions to Vettel's otherwise obvious error and the inevitable repercussions? Maybe; such a surmise would at least make sensible marriage of the team's twin insensibilities of attacking Hamilton - for the crime of being the fastest car on track at a moment of inconvenience for Vettel - whilst defending the indefensible.
Whatever the explanation, the error committed by Vettel thus became the team's gross misjudgement. Hindsight, of course, is always seen with twenty-twenty vision, but providing clear-sighted judgements during the heat of battle is what several members of the Red Bull team are very well remunerated to provide. With Button fading fast on worn-out tyres, the situation was easily retrievable if only the team had immediately reined in their reigning champ and instructed Sebastian to give back what he could then collect with relative ease a lap later.
Instead, seemingly clouded by a raging determination to point-score back against McLaren, they lost sight of the World Championship picture squabbling with a driver already erased from contention. Silly.
The Revenge Of The Pirellis
That's the vengeful thing about this year's Pirellis: they've a long memory. Though Jenson couldn't be blamed for reacting with fractional over-eagerness to the realisation that victory was within his grasp, if there was a fault in his afternoon's work it was in the fleeting moment that he locked-up and flat-spotted his right-front tyre with twenty laps remaining - a slender misjudgement which probably cost him the win and ought to have robbed him of second, too.
As Jenson later remarked: "I had to push hard to try and catch Fernando, which meant I had nothing left for the end of the race. We pretty much ran out of rubber two laps before the end." Yet the suspicion has to be that the damage was done during that messy lock-up, rather than in pursuit, given that the distance between the two cars fluctuated by a mere second throughout the stint until the Pirellis belatedly retaliated to their earlier mistreatment.
It was interesting, too, to hear Jenson note disparagingly of Sebastian's mistake not merely as misdirected but also mistimed. "The thing is, there would have been more opportunities for him before the end of the race as my rear tyres were damaged," said Jenson. In fairness to Seb, the end of the race was fast approaching and his illegal pass occurred on the penultimate lap of the race.
Nonetheless, the echo of Valencia, when the rashly-impatient Pastor Maldonado neglected to wait for his moment before trying to overtake a stricken McLaren, is loud. Perhaps the other common denominator in the two incidents - impatience - is a symptom of the modern tendency to replace gravel-traps with harmless run-off areas, a change in environment that encourages reckless expansion at the expense of precision. As with Maldonado, Vettel wouldn't have been able to return to the track if his first mistake - his second being failing to appreciate, let alone accept, the blatant legality of his move - had received any sort of timely punishment.
Mistakes are inevitable when impunity is on offer and Hermann Tilke's bespoke designer leniency has much to answer for.
Fernando Is Sometimes A Little Too Good
It was just as well, though, that Jenson's tyres did take their revenge and Sebastian acted in haste because otherwise the race would have culminated in an anti-climax made all the more unsatisfactory for the amount of tension built up over the 67 laps.
The crux of the matter was that Fernando was just a little too good for the race that tantalized close to becoming a classic. He was so near and yet so far, for despite never escaping the close proximity of first Vettel and then Button, Alonso always managed to wriggle clear of a potential overtake (unlike, of course, both Vettel and Button to each other).
Little wonder that Mark Webber suspected two weeks ago that the Spaniard was "playing" with him when he began to catch the Ferrari because Fernando is the ultimate race-stopper.
It was a reputation faultlessly, and craftily restored to non-dramatic effect in Hockenheim. As so often, hats off. You may not like him, but it's impossible not to admire his brilliance.
The Man To Beat Is The Man In Red
Mind the gap? Fernando's thirty-four point lead of the World Championship has not yet assumed an ominous proportion and sounds rather less daunting even for the fifth-placed Lewis Hamilton when converted into old money. But the equivalent of two race wins - the now gap now between Hamilton and his former team-mate - is a sizeable deficit to overcome when the leader is, as we've said before, a human metronome driving a bullet-proof car. Sunday was Fernando's twenty-second successive points-scoring race. The Red Bulls will find him tough to catch, nevermind Hamilton.
Pace is the one weakness in Alonso's Ferrari armour and the law of F1 history is that, sooner rather than later, the F2012's relative weakness to the RB8 and, as of this weekend following the evident success of their upgrades, the MP4-27, he will be forced to concede ground. But that relative weakness is only one half of the emerging picture. The other, depicting Fernando in far better light, is that the Ferrari - which in plain speak just means Alonso given that Felipe Massa is a distant afterthought in a one-driver team - is faster than the Mercedes and seemingly a better all-round package than the flattering-to-deceive Lotus.
Barring abnormality or retirement, two things that Alonso seems immune from enduring, he can be expected to collect a decent haul of points on a race-by-race basis. What both Red Bull and McLaren thus now need is for the other to also start consistently beating Alonso if either team is to quickly reel in the Spaniard. Otherwise, he really might be uncatchable.
Pace Is Ceasing To Matter, Part Two
Here's a startling statistic to highlight how what was once a meaningful race-by-race barometer of the pecking order has been rendered meaningless by this year's brand of tyre: Michael Schumacher set the fastest lap of the German GP.
It was the 77th such landmark of Schumacher's career, but given that setting fast laps is now a backmarker compared to the priority of conserving tyres over a full stint, it's a wonder if anyone will still be bothering to publish such statistics in 77 races' time.
That Schumacher headed Sunday's timesheets sounds like a bad joke, and Nico Rosberg's position of third in the charts the lame punchline, at the end of a weekend when Mercedes were slow throughout.
Both their drivers wrung as much as they could out of the W03, with Schumacher over-achieving to take third on the grid and Rosberg rescuing tenth from 21st on the grid, but this was a chastening weekend for a team - especially as it was their home event and, on its eve, they predicted Hockenheim would suit their car. "The worst is behind us," remarked Schumacher on Thursday night. Alas not. Mercedes continued to fall further behind at Hockenheim too and suffered the indignity of being overtaken by Sauber - a team operating at a fraction of the cost.
Mercedes, thank goodness, are not yet the new Toyota, but the conclusive upshot of their steady decline over the last three months has been the exposure of their 'breakthrough' win at China as deceptive as this Sunday's fastest laps chart. Awkward times all round.
One Half Of Schumi Changes For The Better
The word on the paddock street, meanwhile, is that Schumacher is likely to stay on at Mercedes. It's an expectation understandable from both sides: Schumacher, to his endearing credit, simply loves driving F1 cars, whilst Mercedes, following this year's regression, are unlikely to lure anyone better - true, both Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta might be quicker, but neither possesses the brand-name that makes Schumacher such a valued commodity.
That the old boy has returned to F1 a less rounded driver but a more rounded individual was summed up on Friday night when he unreservedly confessed to being a fault for his smash at the end of Practice Two: "I simply slid off track because I lost a little concentration: we were talking on the radio and I was altering some settings at the same time."
How time changes. Schumacher, in his first life in F1, would not have admitted fault; equally, he wouldn't have had anything to own up to because multi-tasking was one of the skills he could accomplish without anybody being the wiser that he was travelling at 200mph with his Ferrari on a knife-edge.
Heikki's Driving Better Than Ever. He Could Also Be Driving Around In Circles
And there was another little telling press-release vignette on Saturday night worth highlighting. "That was pretty much the perfect lap," reported Heikki Kovalainen in Caterham's qualifying report. "I didn't make any mistakes, nailed every apex and had a clean lap, so I'm pleased with what I got out of the car." But he was still in his usual position, isolated in no-man's land, a second clear of team-mate Vitaly Petrov but another second shy of Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso.
If this was football, and this page was a backpage tabloid, we'd be talking about Kovalainen taking Caterham as far as he can. The problem Heikki faces as he seeks an upgrade is that, whereas a leading football club generally operates with a twenty-something man squad, there are only twenty-four seats available in F1 and the sport is currently locked down in an era of unprecedented stability. With the smart money now on Massa, Hamilton and Schumacher all following Webber's lead and signing an extension, all of the top seats in F1 looked to be filled for 2013.
Almost his only hope of a better opportunity exists at Williams following Bruno Senna's season-long lonely vigil to his own anonymity. But money talks and Heikki is mute when it comes to funds. He's also dogged by the memory of his underwhelming time at McLaren. Heikki would argue that he's now a better, more mature driver than he was then, but any prospective employers further up the food chain will also be wondering if Heikki is temperamentally better suited to being the big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big pond.
It's a crux that might be self-defeating; the better Heikki does at Caterham, the less likely he could be to return to F1's top table. The Finn surely deserves better than to be stuck playing catch-22 - Petrov is no mug, and his inability to come close to his team-mate follows the 2011 travails of Jarno Trulli - but in the brutal numbers game of F1, the harsh reality is that Heikki's best time may already have come and gone.
The Grand Prix Is Only Two Hours In A Day-Long Event
So that's why they said the race was only part of the story.
As a share of Sunday's Hockenheim narrative, the actual German Grand Prix filled less than a third, with confirmation of Vettel's punishment delivered two hours after the chequered flag fell and almost three elapsing between Jo Bauer's bombshell and Red Bull's official escape. Or did they? In the court of public opinion the stewards' explanation amounted to damning - if not devastating - testimony and was delivered with the wonderful irony that such a carefully-written communiqué was being used to expose the exploitation of a badly-written ruling. Or is that badly written?
In any case, the upshot is unwelcome publicity for a team that due to its brand name will care deeply about such things, embarrassment for the FIA given that they reported Red Bull to the stewards only to be told that any car with an open throttle could drive straight through their rulebook, a timely meeting of Formula One's Technical Working Group, and yet another reason to demand that Nick Freeman gives up the title of Mr Loophole in deference to Adrian Newey - but only after making any associated regulations and responsibilities look like a sieve, of course.