2019 German Grand Prix preview: will the Bulls be raging again?by Rob Ladbrook on 24th July 2019
Is Red Bull the team to watch at Hockenheim? A team-by-team preview of the 2019 German Grand Prix
What does the latest, and possibly last, German Grand Prix have in store? Photo: Motorsport Images
Say what you like about the British Grand Prix, but it’s always a highlight of the Formula 1 calendar. There’s always a decent dose of drama and spectacle as the cars tackle what is the first really old school flat-out thrash of a circuit on the schedule. But what did we learn from it? – aside from the fact Lewis Hamilton is now virtually unbeatable in Northamptonshire… We learned that Red Bull is now faster than Ferrari. And not too far behind Mercedes.
Despite the fact the Silver Arrows head into their home grand prix at Hockenheim this weekend – perhaps for the last time if whispers about the calendar are to be believed – it will be the blue cars that are possibly most worth watching.
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Hang on. Isn’t this first slot exclusively reserved for Mercedes this year – to explore why they probably won’t/might just on the off chance, be beaten? Not this time. Red Bull is a far more interesting target.
The thinner air and heat of the high-altitude Spielberg circuit in Austria allowed Max Verstappen to finally break Mercedes’ stranglehold on the top step of the podium this year. But it was Verstappen’s – and Pierre Gasly’s, too, finally… hooray! – performances at Silverstone that really highlighted the team’s progress.
Throughout the British race, both Red Bulls harried the Ferraris, and Sebastian Vettel even had to resort to using one as a brake, which was the only reason Verstappen didn’t make it onto the podium at the team’s home race. All this on a track that’s supposed to reward outright power over chassis agility.
Across the last two races, Red Bull and Honda have made the most progress of any team, after a difficult start to the season after being rather hamstrung by this year’s simplified front wings.
"We have confidence going to Hockenheim given the performance [at Silverstone]," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "After Monza it is one of the most power-sensitive circuits on the calendar. You are flat out on the lap for pretty much the equivalent of the entire Barcelona lap. So that is encouraging for us, and certainly for a circuit like Hockenheim that is less power sensitive.
"To be this close to Mercedes around that type of track that we know is power sensitive, and to be able to follow the Ferraris as close as we were able to through Maggotts, Becketts and Copse, Max was able to take some serious momentum behind the Ferraris there, and that is usually the sign of a pretty decent car."
Is Red Bull the team to watch – even more than Mercedes – in the German Grand Prix? Photo: Motorsport Images
So, what’s prompted the turnaround in form?
"I think the last couple of races we have started to get some performance on the car and it has been working well," added Horner. "I think we definitely have unlocked some potential. There was a significant change in the regulations in two fundamental areas on the chassis side, where the front wing was quite a big hit for us. A stiffer, different construction of tyre probably compounded things as well.
"2019 was always going to be a transitionary year from a partnership point of view with the engine. I would say, in the early races, perhaps the engine delivered more and we delivered less than we thought on the chassis. As we've understood the regulation change better and better, and managed to optimise the car more and more, the performance has been getting stronger and stronger."
Gasly’s improvement was also stark. Finally looking more relaxed and in control at Red Bull, he’s now using Verstappen’s base set-ups to ensure he’s not over-thinking his driving.
“This has been the strongest year – to this point in the first 10 races – that I can remember ever having,” said Hamilton after Silverstone, and with good cause too, none of this cliched ‘that’s the best race ever, absolutely, definitely, maybe, I think…’ post-race hyperbole. Having won seven of the opening 10 races, this championship is pretty much done and dusted for Mercedes, and perhaps even Hamilton too, barring absolute disaster.
Mercedes should also be the benchmark in Germany, and will be celebrating its 200th F1 start, and 125 years since the three-pointed star’s first foray into motor sport.
Hamilton has won each of the last two German races – even if he got more than a little lucky as Vettel self-destructed from a comfortable lead last year. The medium-slow-speed layout of Hockenheim should play to the W10’s strengths in terms of both downforce and traction.
The team’s weakness of high temperatures could be a factor, with temperatures predicted to run into the 30s as Europe basks in the current heatwave. That weakness was exaggerated in Austria by the thinner air, but it could still sap some of Mercedes’ inherent advantage.
Hamilton isn’t getting too carried away, adding: “We’ve got some improvements coming and we’re understanding the car a lot. But the advancements this sport makes is amazing. I’m excited to see upgrades that the other teams have and the improvements for example that Ferrari make of their use of tyres, the improvements we make to downforce, all these different things, it’s different at each round.
After the steering wheel-bashing events of last year, Vettel is determined to make amends in front of his home crowd. Having crashed out in light rain from a comfortable lead, the German GP sparked the decline of Vettel’s title challenge last year. It would be somewhat poetic if it kick-started his revival this season. But can it happen?
For all its straight-line prowess, Ferrari has struggled with consistent race pace this year, and is still getting its head around the thinner-gauge tyres, and some of its own questionable strategy calls.
But Vettel’s not giving anything away about his hopes pre-race instead simply saying: “We have got to make up for last year and I’m looking forward to Hockenheim.” Beyond that, there’s not much of note. But Charles Leclerc is more vocal saying: “Over the past few weekends I’ve made progress in qualifying, but now we have to focus on race pace as that’s where we seem to be struggling at the moment.”
Sebastian Vettel has bad memories from last year's German race Photo: Motorsport Images
Team boss Mattia Binotto says there won’t be any new upgrades of note for Hockenheim, but reckons the team can still progress thanks to data it gleaned at Silverstone. “We really hope to do well at Sebastian’s home race. We are not bringing any specific updates, but studying the data from the last round has provided us with useful information in our quest to get a better understanding of our car.”
And in other, more interesting, Ferrari news: Schumacher’s back! Sort of…
Mick Schumacher, the son of the nine-time world-beater, will have the honour of driving his father’s Ferrari F2004 in demo runs during the German GP weekend. The chassis carried Michael to a record 13 wins in 2004, with Rubens Barrichello winning a further two in the sister car. It should be a suitably emotional tribute from rising F2 star Mick.
McLaren knows there’s very little wiggle room in the midfield fight, despite both Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris being on sizzling form in recent races. Norris won ‘Class B’ in Austria, before Sainz topped the order at Silverstone, albeit only just after a race-long battle with Renault, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso. Team head Andreas Seidl says: “We’ve had a few positive results in recent races, but there’s no room for complacency. Silverstone proved how close the midfield teams are. We’re motivated to give our drivers the best tools possible and it’s a collective effort that starts back at the factory. We’re always looking to improve.”
One team that really needs to improve is Haas. Having started the year with perhaps the fifth-fastest car in the field – at least over the course of one lap – the team has gone backwards in races, not helped by its drivers taking each other out at Silverstone. Haas has some fundamental car balance and tyre issues it needs to sort out, and will continue running different set-ups across its two cars in Germany. Kevin Magnussen will have the team’s latest upgrade package, while Romain Grosjean will continue to run in the ‘Australian GP’ set-up – provided he doesn’t chuck it at the pitlane scenery again – as the team chases data to find its problems.
After off-colour French and Austrian GPs, in which its car struggled for grip in high temperatures, Renault at least returned to some semblance of form at Silverstone, with Daniel Ricciardo securing seventh and Nico Hülkenberg in 10th. But the team knows it needs to be aiming higher than that, especially with its customer McLaren currently putting it in the shade. Ricciardo says: “We had to make a recovery at Silverstone and overall it was an encouraging weekend but we want to build some momentum for Germany and Hungary before the summer break. It’s an important time and the midfield is so tightly packed.”
Williams insists it is making progress Photo: Motorsport Images
The next few races are crucial to Racing-Force-Stroll-Point-India, after a torrid run over the last few races. Neither Sergio Pérez nor Lance Stroll has managed a single point since the Canadian GP. The team expects to introduce an almost-all-new B-spec car before the summer break, with team head Otmar Szafnauer promising a whole batch of new aero upgrades for Hockenheim and beyond: “This weekend sees the arrival of some aero development items as we continue our push to bring performance to the track. We will use Friday for testing to hopefully unlock more speed from the car.”
Toro Rosso also enjoyed a decent run in the British GP, with Alexander Albon getting into Q3 and Daniil Kvyat scoring points. This will be Kvyat’s first race at Hockenheim since the 2016 German GP. He says: “It’s hard to know whether Silverstone was the start of an upward trend, as every race seems to be different at the moment.”
There’s not much interesting to say about Alfa Romeo, which has been nice and consistent of late – with both
And finally on to Williams, still anchored mercilessly at the bottom of the constructors’ standings with an oh-so-British ‘nul points’. That’s unlikely to get much better in Germany, but the team is acting to address the problems and remains convinced that this year’s car is still a step up from last year’s.
George Russell says: “It’s a step-by-step process at the moment. They wanted to change a lot of the structure and it was almost like we had to make two steps back before we made three steps forward. The groundworks are kind of in place at the moment to try to bring more performance to the car as the season progresses, and I’ve got confidence we can do that.”