Lewis wins in Nico’s backyard
Lewis Hamilton consolidated his grip on the world championship lead with a fine victory in a German Grand Prix largely determined by strategy and tyre management rather than wheel-to-wheel bravura, while Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg paid the price for squandering pole position with a poor start.
The tightest contest in the top positions was the battle for second place between the two Red Bull drivers. Daniel Ricciardo prevailed in that one in spite of losing a place to his team-mate, Max Verstappen, at the start. Rosberg’s ultimate destination was fourth place after incurring a penalty for an overly physical pass on Verstappen while fighting his way back into contention.
If this weekend’s qualifying hour was more straightforward than its equivalent last time out in Budapest, it was nevertheless tight. During the morning’s third practice session it had become apparent that the track conditions were very different from what the drivers had experienced the day before, so the first half of Q1 was very quiet as the majority of the field sat on their hands, aiming not to burn through more than one set of tyres if possible, given the abrasiveness of Hockenheim’s surface.
As the track started to fill up with 10 minutes to go, Mercedes indicated its confidence by sending its drivers out on the theoretically slower soft tyre, leaving one unused set available for the race. Even so, Hamilton topped the times by two tenths of a second from Rosberg.
Tension mounted in the final moments for those drivers hovering near the elimination zone, and Jenson Button, Esteban Gutierrez, Carlos Sainz, Romain Grosjean, Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen were among those who had to use a second set of super-softs to elude the drop. Palmer underlined his impressive recent form by going quicker than team-mate Magnussen in spite of missing first practice on Friday while Esteban Ocon drove his Renault, proceeding to Q2 at Magnussen’s expense.
Behind Magnussen, Pascal Wehrlein came out on top in the battle of the Manors, but neither he nor Rio Haryanto got through to Q2 – albeit by just 0.15s in Wehrlein’s case. The troubled Daniil Kvyat, a driver whose career seems to have engaged reverse gear, also failed to make the cut, along with the Saubers of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson, who brought up the rear, half a second off where they needed to be to challenge for a Q2 slot.
Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen, Raikkonen and Ricciardo were quick enough on their first Q2 laps to sit out the remainder of that session, while Vettel was among those who had to make a second run. Gutierrez was the quickest of those to fall outside the top 10, just ahead of Jenson Button, who had locked up and flat-spotted his right-front at Turn 1 on his first hot lap. Sainz also missed the cut for Q3, ahead of Fernando Alonso, who felt he was baulked by Vettel.
Grosjean was two-tenths shy of team-mate Gutierrez but that was enough to be four places behind him on the grid, an unfortunate circumstance that was magnified by the five-place grid penalty he was also to receive for changing his gearbox. That promoted Palmer, who failed to better his Q1 lap and propped up the Q2 order in 16th place, and the Brit then gained another grid position when Sainz was penalised three places for impeding Felipe Massa’s first Q2 run.
In Q3 an electronic glitch forced Rosberg to abort his first hot lap, leaving him with just one opportunity to shoot for pole. Accordingly, Mercedes sent him out before the final rush so as to miss the traffic – but he would also be hitting the track before the theoretical evolution peak.
Still, Rosberg gave it a mighty effort and went fastest of all, but it remained to be seen if Hamilton could do better. He couldn’t, going slightly wide into Turn 1 and then locking up into Turn 6, falling short by a little over a tenth of a second. The world champion was manifestly disappointed afterwords, tersely describing the lock-up as “subtle” and causing minimal time loss.
“I brought it to qualifying,” he said. “I was quickest, quickest, quickest and I was easily quickest again in the end but I didn’t deliver.
“I’ve got my engineers who work until 0100, 0200hrs every night, so it’s a lot of weight when you don’t deliver the way they have delivered. So that’s where I am in my head.”
Ricciardo nailed third place, 0.363s off the pole time and feeling that he might have been closer, but only by a tenth or so, had he not spun up his wheels under acceleration out of Turn 8. Teenage wonder Max Verstappen was just a fraction off his Red Bull team-mate, leaving Raikkonen and Vettel fifth and sixth – the latter the best part of a second off the pole position time. Vettel blamed Ferrari’s relative underperformance on failing to find an ideal set-up for the day’s different conditions – and indeed, the three Mercedes-powered cars behind, driven by Valtteri Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez, all stopped the clock within two tenths of a second of him. He was much closer to them than he was to pole.
Hamilton began the process of putting this race in the bag by making a better getaway than Rosberg as the lights went out.
Both drivers reacted quickly, but then Rosberg got too much wheelspin and was simply overwhelmed. Ricciardo swept past well before Turn 1 and took up the racing line, only to see Verstappen cheekily slingshot past on the outside, rattling over the exit kerb.
As Hamilton streaked away with Verstappen in pursuit, Rosberg desperately probed for a way past third-placed Ricciardo, but also had to be mindful of the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen at Hockenheim’s pinch-points over the first lap. Vettel had a look on the outside line into Turn 6 but Rosberg ran him wide at the exit and he had to back off. The Ferraris were simply not quick enough to offer any challenge once the race was a lap old, even as the leading four switched into tyreconservation mode.
From then on it was a question of managing the gaps until the first round of pitstops, when both Mercedes and Red Bull split their strategies. Verstappen and Rosberg were first in – on lap 11 – and took on super-soft Pirellis. Any hope that Rosberg could make an undercut stick evaporated when his stop was slower, dropping him behind the Mclarens of Button and Alonso, while Verstappen emerged from the pitlane practically on Button’s tail and made short work of him.
Ricciardo pitted on the following lap and took on soft-compound tyres, emerging with three seconds in hand over Rosberg, who was then informed by his engineer that they were moving to “Plan B” – while Hamilton made his stop for softs on lap 14, emerging with his lead intact. Even in tyre-management mode the top four then edged away from the two Ferraris, although Verstappen was vocal that the super-soft was “definitely not the race tyre”, feeling that the softest rubber was vulnerable to degradation with the fuel weight still quite high.
Hamilton held his leading margin at around six seconds until the next set of pitstops were in the offing, whereupon he picked up his pace slightly as Verstappen began to struggle a little. Rosberg did 16 laps on his super-softs before switching to softs on lap 27, and Verstappen did the same the next time around – but this time the Mercedes pitstop was flawless, and Verstappen exited the pits only just ahead.
On the run down to Turn 6 Rosberg attacked on the inside line, braking super-late in a Senna-style let-me- through-or-we-crash move from a long way back. Verstappen once again began to weave in the braking zone, as is his want, but Rosberg was so committed that he had to think the better of it. Both cars sailed well past the apex before they could begin to steer, after which Rosberg sealed Verstappen off at the exit.
Verstappen complained that he had been forced off and the stewards agreed, handing Rosberg a fivesecond penalty and a reprimand. He protested that he had been on full lock and couldn’t make the turn, but replays of the incident confirmed that by then he had already ploughed straight on and caused Verstappen to abort the corner.
Ricciardo and Hamilton made their second stops, this time for super-softs, on laps 33 and 34. By now, with declining fuel loads, the super-soft was the right tyre to have, while Verstappen complained that his car was now understeering too much on the softs. Ricciardo caught his team-mate on lap 40 and the teenager offered no resistance as they swapped places cleanly at Turn 6.
Ferrari now entertained some
fanciful notions that Vettel, lapping around eight seconds behind Verstappen, could undercut the Red Bull if they pitted soon. Vettel pointblank refused to stop, saying that his tyres were working perfectly.
On lap 44 Rosberg made his third and final stop, taking more than his five-second penalty (owing to a stopwatch error by the team) and he emerged in what became a net fourth place. Red Bull covered this stop – and Ferrari’s clumsily telegraphed tactical musings – by bringing Verstappen in for his final pit visit a lap later, sending him out safely in third.
Vettel pitted at the same time as Ricciardo, on lap 46, and as was palpably obvious to everyone except the Ferrari pitwall, he emerged in fifth – four seconds behind Rosberg, let alone Verstappen. In spite of a few drops of rain, the order of the top six then remained static to the end as Hamilton crossed the line 6.996s ahead of Ricciardo, with Verstappen a further 6.417 behind, shadowed to the chequered flag by a frustrated Rosberg. Vettel and Raikkonen were a lonely fifth and sixth.
“Today I saved my engine a lot,” said Hamilton afterwards, “which is why they closed up as much as they did. Hopefully I’ve saved enough of my engine today to use it at the next race. It will either be the next race or Monza, because I’m going to run out of engines soon.”
Williams tried to run Bottas on a two-stop strategy that called for a long final stint on the soft tyres, but it left him vulnerable to assault in the closing minutes and seventh place slipped through his fingers. First Hulkenberg barged past and then Button, demoting Bottas to ninth.
Disastrous starts by Perez, Gutierrez and Massa had opened the door for the two Mclarens to break in to the top 10 again, but both cars had to save fuel in the latter part of the race, and while Button was protected to some extent by Bottas struggling on old tyres, Alonso was picked off by the recovering Perez and Gutierrez, dropping to 12th.
Victory for Hamilton leaves him flying high in title battle
Rosberg was punished for this pass on Verstappen (foreground)
Hamilton dominated for his sixth win of the year
Button picked up points with eighth place