A GREAT WEEK FOR GERMANY
In the week of Germany’s fourth World Cup victory, Nico Rosberg and Mercedes couldn’t be denied
Nostalgists still rue the conversion of Hockenheim from a classic at-out blast through the forest to something more intimate and fiddly, but there’s no doubt that this is one of Hermann Tilke’s better nip-and-tuck jobs. Stand trackside at Turn 2, where once the cars would have been full on the gas, vanishing into the trees en route to the Jim Clark Kurve, and you soon see the cut of Herr Tilke’s jib: the corner snaps back sharply to the right then opens out to the left over a changing camber, tempting drivers to overstretch themselves. You watch Marcus Ericsson, terrorised by his Caterham’s handling and fearful of errors, brake cautiously in a straight line and back down all the way through the gears before turning in; then out come the two Mercedes, fast and super-committed but still twitchy on the way in and, over the kerbs, on the way out.
And yet, if you thought the controversial removal of the FRIC suspension systems pre-race would have a significant effect on the running order, think again. Mercedes were still fastest; Caterham still slowest. Ferrari were still locking their rear brakes pretty much everywhere, their tortured Pirellis squawking. The only team to take a discernible backwards step relative to their immediate rivals were the long-suffering Lotus, whose E22 looked palpably evil.
“At least you can say we’re consistent,” smiled Romain Grosjean ruefully. “We’re outside the window everywhere…”
As the denizens of Hockenheim perspired under blazing skies in temperatures above 30°C, this looked to be a race that would be governed by rear-tyre degradation. Then, overnight, everything changed: Sunday dawned overcast and wet – and, though it dried out by lunchtime, the track temperature was around 20 degrees below what it had been at its peak. We were now in front-limited territory and all those teams who had carefully dialled in understeer to protect the rear tyres would now be overworking their fronts.
Lewis Hamilton had particular cause to fret, since his front-right brake disc had broken in Q1. Besides the immediate damage to his car – and, with a pitlane start likely, his prospects – there was his confidence to consider. He’d tried Carbone Industrie brakes in practice and returned to Brembo for qualifying. So the choice was revert to CI, the unfavoured choice for this circuit, have a sub-optimal run, and possibly bring on a protest from rival teams. Or stick with Brembo and risk another failure. Meanwhile, team-mate Nico Rosberg was untroubled in P1 with Williams’ Valtteri Bottas alongside.
For Hamilton and Mercedes, the path of least resistance was CI fronts and previousspec Brembo rears, letting them start 20th, behind everyone but Ericsson and Max Chilton. Lewis, along with Kimi Räikkönen and Romain
Grosjean, would start on the soft Pirellis rather than the supersofts – counterintuitive, you might think, but if he could make enough ground in the early laps he would gain free positions when the supersoft runners began to pit.
Rosberg, predictably, roared off into an early lead. Bottas suffered wheelspin in fourth gear and was lucky not to get caught up when Felipe Massa and a fast-starting Kevin Magnussen each laid claim to overlapping territory at Turn 1; the right-rear of the Williams rode over the McLaren’s front-left, tipping Massa onto his roll hoop. Out came the Safety Car.
On the restart, Hamilton swiftly dispatched Chilton, Pastor Maldonado, Grosjean, Esteban Gutiérrez, Adrian Sutil (getting an accidental tap from his old Formula 3 team-mate as he followed Ricciardo through) and Jean-Eric Vergne. Daniil Kvyat spun while attempting an optimistic pass on Sergio Pérez, removing himself as an obstacle. Ten laps in and Lewis was tenth.
Now he was in elbows-out territory. As Ricciardo’s supersofts gave up abruptly, offering him up as prey to Räikkönen, Lewis tried to get past both cars at the hairpin on lap 13, clipping the Ferrari’s front wing but suffering no damage himself. Then, ahead, the frontrunners began to pit. By lap 16 Lewis was P2.
He made the softs last ten more laps before taking on another set and slotting into eighth behind Jenson Button. But he then mistook a slight error from Button at the hairpin – Jenson had been told to push in advance of his next stop – as an invitation to come through. The McLaren turned in and removed a chunk of front-wing endplate from the Mercedes.
Lewis soldiered on until it became clear that the loss of downforce was overstressing the front tyres, making a two-stop strategy untenable. The team quickly changed tack to a three-stopper – he’d missed Q2 and Q3, so there were enough new tyres for two short stints on supersofts. His nal stop put him in P4 behind Fernando Alonso, but the Ferrari’s tyres were also on the wane and the team dithered about replacing them. As 14thplaced Gutiérrez unlapped himself from Alonso and scampered away, it was clear that new tyres were overdue – but Fernando didn’t have any, having to make do with used supersofts in a nal 12-lap stint that placed him fth at the nish.
With Alonso out of the way, Bottas was the only obstacle to a Mercedes one-two, but Bottas prevailed over a tense nal few laps. The difference between second and third is but three points – but will Lewis come to rue leaving those three points on the table come Abu Dhabi and the widely reviled double-points rule? We may yet come to say that a decisive moment in the 2014 championship was a slight misjudgement, mid-race at the mid-point of the season.