“At the Jerez test, before the season started,” said Fernando Alonso at Hockenheim, “we were two seconds off the pace. At Melbourne, the first race, it was 1.6. I think we saw again today that we are not the fastest in the dry, but it’s difficult to overtake here, and we were able to hold the position…”
He sells himself short. Upgrades have improved Ferrari’s F2012 to a point that it is now competitive, but if Fernando was right in stating that it is still not the quickest car, he was wide of the mark – perhaps being gratuitously modest – in suggesting that this latest victory had been nothing more than ‘holding position’. In fact, it was a tour de force by the best driver on earth, who now – at the halfway point in the World Championship – holds a 34-point lead.
Alonso may not have the quickest car – by general consent Red Bull and McLaren had the edge of Ferrari at Hockenheim – but what he and his team currently do better than any of their rivals is make the absolute most of what they have to work with. A few weeks ago Jackie Stewart commented that the best thing about Ferrari was the man in the cockpit, and that remains so, even though now the car has been significantly improved. Fernando may have controlled the German Grand Prix, but at different times he was under fierce pressure from Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull and Jenson Button’s McLaren, and for only a handful of the 67 laps did he lead by more than a couple of seconds.
Had qualifying been dry, the likelihood is that Vettel – just a few miles from his home town – would have taken pole position, as at Valencia, where he left everyone behind until his car’s alternator failed. Perhaps the superiority of the Red Bull was amplified at a circuit which might have been designed for it, but there is little doubt that, race for race, Adrian Newey’s latest creation has the edge on anything else, with McLaren – who had plenty of effective upgrades in Germany – not far behind.
If Red Bull has the greatest designer, however, Ferrari has the greatest driver – a fact that few rival team principals would dispute. That said, if his virtuosity in the wet put him on the pole (as at Silverstone), most expected a victory in the dry for Vettel.
Once they knew he was definitely to take part, that is. On race day morning the FIA issued a report by its F1 Technical Delegate Jo Bauer, which stopped the paddock in its tracks.
“Having examined the engine base torque map of car numbers 1 and 2,” Bauer’s report read, “it became apparent that the maximum torque output of both engines is significantly less in the mid-rpm range than previously seen for these engines at other events.
“In my opinion, this is therefore a breach of Article 5.5.3 of the 2012 Formula 1 Technical Regulations, as the engines are able to deliver more torque at a given engine speed in the mid-rpm range.
“Furthermore, this new torque map will artificially alter the aerodynamic characteristics of both cars which is also in contravention of TD036-11.”
This last was a presumed reference to ‘blown diffusers’, which were effectively – supposedly – done away with before the start of the season.
“I am referring this matter,” Bauer’s statement concluded, “to the stewards for their consideration.”
On the face of it, this was serious stuff, but while that may have been Bauer’s opinion, it cut no ice – or not much, anyway – with the stewards. There was some considerable surprise when, only an hour or so before the start, they issued a statement, saying that they had decided ‘to take no further action’.
That said, the tone of the statement rather implied ‘not proven’, rather than ‘not guilty’. Having met with representatives of both Red Bull and Renault, the stewards said, they ‘did not accept all the arguments of the team’, but their conclusion was that ‘as the regulation is written, the map presented does not breach the text of Article 5.3.3 of the Formula 1 Technical Regulations’. Putting it another way, Red Bull’s actions may have been contrary to the intention – the spirit – of the regulation, but did not strictly contravene it, given the way it had been written.
In the paddock the stewards’ decision left everyone a little lost for words, but the fact was that the Red Bulls would be starting from their correct grid positions, rather from the pit lane, as some had suggested – and they would not, either, be racing ‘under appeal’: no action of any kind was being taken.
On to the German Grand Prix, from which World Champion, local boy, and Red Bull driver, Sebastian Vettel would be starting from the front row. No fewer than four drivers – Webber, Grosjean, Rosberg and Perez – had five-place grid penalties, the first three for gearbox changes, the last for impeding other drivers during qualifying.
When the lights went out, Alonso got away perfectly, and had a clear lead at the first corner. At the end of the opening lap he led by a second and a half, but next time round Vettel had halved that, and when DRS was ‘activated’ after three laps, it looked likely that the Red Bull would pounce.
Overtaking at Hockenheim, though, is not easy, as Alonso pointed out. The DRS zone, approaching the hairpin, is quite long – but the corner before it is very quick, so that closely following another car through there is nigh impossible: try it, and your downforce is swept away in the ‘dirty air’, and you run wide. As lap succeeded lap, Alonso first stabilised his lead, then began gradually to increase it.
The Pirelli compounds available this weekend were medium and soft, and it was on the soft that all the front runners chose to start – even the Q3 drivers had the luxury of choice because qualifying had been conducted on either intermediates or full wets.
Behind Alonso and Vettel in the early laps ran Schumacher’s Mercedes, as in the British Grand Prix, but this time Michael did not constitute a mobile chicane. While unable to live with the leaders’ pace, he held off Hulkenberg’s Force India, Button’s McLaren and Maldonado’s Williams. Already effectively out of the picture was Hamilton, who picked up a puncture on accident debris (from Massa’s Ferrari or Senna’s Williams), and although he made it to the pits for a tyre change, the floor of the McLaren had also been damaged. Lewis thereafter found the car handling strangely, and eventually he retired with differential problems. Another bad day for his World Championship aspirations.
At the front Alonso and Vettel continued to trade new fastest laps, and this looked like another two-horse race, just as at Silverstone. Later in the afternoon Button would join in, but for now he concentrated on picking off Hulkenberg and Schumacher. By lap 11 he was into third place, six seconds behind Vettel, but not losing any more time to him.
Raikkonen started the first round of pit stops on lap 11, remaining on the soft tyres, but the leaders stayed out, Alonso coming in on lap 18, Vettel on 20. Both switched to the medium Pirellis, and Alonso maintained his position at the front. Again, though, Vettel quickly reduced the Ferrari’s lead, and seemed to have pace to spare. Surely it was only a matter of time before he made a move at the hairpin…
He never did, though, and as this second stint of the race got longer Alonso actually began to increase his lead again – while Button, at the same time, began to move in on second place. Hamilton, still circulating but without hope of any points, was asked on the radio to look out for his team-mate in his mirrors, and not inadvertently hold him up. This Lewis duly did, but Vettel was enraged at losing time behind him. By lap 35 Button was but a second and a half from the Red Bull, and looking threatening.
On lap 40 Jenson made his final stop, and a shatteringly quick one it was – to the point that when both Alonso and Vettel made their last stops a lap later, he was able to leap-frog Sebastian. Now the McLaren was second, but there was no respite for Alonso, merely a different driver looking to separate him from first place. Button really had the hammer down, and closed to within half a second of the Ferrari.
The gap stayed like that for several laps, but it was as close as Jenson was to get, and he admitted later that maybe he took too much out of his tyres during the early laps of the stint, as he sought to put pressure on Alonso. Meantime, Fernando was concentrating on keeping his Pirellis in good shape, so as to have something left for the late laps, should he need it.
As the race went into its last 20 laps Button began to fall back, little by little – and into the sights of Vettel. Gradually the gap between them closed, and on lap 66 – with one to the flag – the Red Bull passed the McLaren at the hairpin.
Not exactly on the road, though. Vettel went off it at the exit of the corner, claiming that he was wasn’t exactly sure where Button was, and was trying to ensure that both had plenty of racing room. In effect, he was off the track when he took the place, and Jenson was incensed.
The stewards weren’t too impressed, either. Long after the finish, after Vettel had been on the podium with Alonso and Button, they announced that Sebastian had ‘left the track and gained an advantage when he rejoined’. That being so, they were punishing him with a retrospective ‘drive through’, which they reckoned equated to a 20-second penalty, and thus Vettel was demoted from second to fifth place, behind not only Button, but also the Lotus of Raikkonen and the Sauber of Kobayashi.
A very tense Grand Prix, this one, with the leader never in front by much. Alonso is riding a wave at the moment, making no mistakes, and simply driving better than anyone else. “My God,” said a former Grand Prix winner in the paddock, “If Fernando was in a Red Bull, there’d be no point in anyone else turning up…”
If he drove a perfect race at Hockenheim, perhaps the seeds of the victory were sown the day before, when it rained. Had it not, the likelihood is that Vettel or maybe Hamilton would have taken pole position, and overtaking at Hockenheim is not easily done. In Q3, though, when the rain was beating down, only two laps under 1m 41s were recorded – and both were by Alonso. That put him at the front, and there he stayed.
“It was a tough race,” Fernando allowed. “Not easy at all, with a lot of pressure from Sebastian and Jenson. However, we are OK on traction and top speed now, and it wasn’t like that at the start of the season, so that’s good. I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect of the tyres today – like at Silverstone, we had hardly any dry running in practice – but everything worked out.”
His own role Alonso played down. Close to the mark, though, was Pat Fry’s opening remark in Ferrari’s post-race press release: “Once again Fernando was fantastic…”