To some degree, it was a risky strategy, but in the end it worked out to perfection, and Lewis Hamilton won the German Grand Prix, thus becoming the first driver to win two on the trot in 2008.
“I’d have preferred it to be straightforward,” Hamilton smiled afterwards, “but it didn’t work out that way…”
Lewis had started from pole position, and confidently seized the initiative from the beginning, pulling away from Felipe Massa’s Ferrari at the rate of half a second a lap, and more. After the first stops his lead stabilised at around 12 seconds, and to that point it had been a remarkably uneventful afternoon.
Then, out of the last corner, the right rear suspension of Timo Glock’s Toyota failed, and instantly the car pitched backwards into the pit wall. Debris was showered everywhere, of course, and as a shaken Glock was helped from the wrecked car out came the safety car.
This happened shortly before the second stops were due, and as soon as pit lane was declared open all the front runners were in – apart, that is, from the race leader. To those watching, the decision to leave Hamilton out there seemed almost unfathomable, and even Lewis was taken aback: “I said to the team. ‘Are you sure about this?’”
McLaren opted for this strategy because, for his last stint, Hamilton was obliged to use the softer Bridgestones, and there were doubts that these could survive the 30 laps remaining to the flag. Therefore, they told Lewis, on the restart he needed to build up a 23-second lead if he were going to retain his lead through his final stop.
After five laps behind the safety car, they got the signal to go again. “I really nailed it,” Hamilton said, “but to build up that big a lead just wasn’t do-able in the time available…”
Lewis came in at the end of lap 50, with 17 to the flag, and when he came back out he was back in fifth place, and looked unlikely to get back to the lead. Fortunately the first man in his sights – team mate Kovalainen – obligingly let him through, and at the same time Nick Heidfeld, who had inherited the lead, made his final stop, so now Hamilton had only Massa and Piquet to worry about.
Yes, Piquet. You read it right. After Nelson had qualified his Renault a lowly 17th, his team sent him into the race with the possibility of a one- or two-stop strategy. On lap 35, immediately before Glock’s accident, Nelson made what was to be his one and only stop, and thus found himself in the pound seats when all those ahead of him made their stops during the safety car period. When Heidfeld later made his stop, Piquet found himself in the lead, no less.
Hamilton, though, was on a mission. On its soft Bridgestones, the McLaren was way quicker than anything else, and Lewis swiftly caught, and passed, Massa in a muscular, but fair move, at the hairpin.
In no time the McLaren was up with the leading Renault, which it passed at the same spot, Piquet offering no resistance worth the name. “I knew Lewis was much quicker than I was, but I also knew that Felipe wasn’t. If I’d tried to keep Lewis back, it would have slowed both of us, and I didn’t want to give Felipe the chance to close…” How much resistance Nelson would have been able to put up against Hamilton is open to question, but, whatever, the thinking was smart, and, after a dreadful start to his Grand Prix career, he did an excellent job in Germany.
At the end of lap 60 the McLaren came by in the lead once more, and thereafter Piquet was able to keep Massa comfortably at bay to the flag. Afterwards Felipe seemed a bit confused by the turn of events: “For some reason the Ferrari has been very difficult to drive this weekend – particularly on the soft tyres. I also had a small brake problem, which slowed me a bit, but…”
Clearly, what Massa was struggling to face was that – for now, at least – McLaren have a performance advantage over Ferrari: not a big one, perhaps, but discernible all the same.
As has been the case too often this year, Massa, not Raikkonen, was Ferrari’s pacesetter at Hockenheim. Following his debacle at Silverstone debacle, Massa was a bit chippy at the post-qualifying press conference, demanding to know why people had suggested he wasn’t very good in the wet. He had won Brazilian kart races in the wet, he protested, which may very well be true, but the fact remains that in the British Grand Prix he spun five times.
Perhaps fortunately for Felipe, the rain promised for all three days at Hockenheim failed to materialise, and Felipe was on good form this time around. Who had the advantage at the moment, Ferrari or McLaren? He said that was too close to call, and predicted that the race would be, “A very big competition between the two teams – between all four cars, maybe…”
The ‘maybe’ of course referred to his team-mate, for a while Kovalainen strongly backed up Hamilton (and, without mistakes, might even have pipped him for pole), Raikkonen’s form in practice and qualifying seemed to suggest he was having one of his ‘off weekends’. And that, given his poor run of results recently, was a surprise, for most expected Kimi to come back strongly here.
“All the way through, we’ve been struggling to find a good set-up,” he said, “and the car seemed reasonably good until the end of qualifying. Clearly, sixth place is not satisfying…”
Nor was sixth in the race, which is where the reigning World Champion finished, and at Ferrari they are quietly beginning to ask questions, one of which is this: can the most highly paid racing driver in history be permitted to have these periods ‘off the boil’?
At the moment Raikkonen’s form is rather reminiscent of the first half of 2007, when he figured much less strongly than expected, only coming fully to life in the second half, when he was routinely scintillating, and went on to steal the World Championship at the last. As things stand, though, Ferrari are privately very disappointed in Kimi, be in no doubt of that.
On home ground, BMW rather fell away this time out. Heidfeld did a good job in the race, remarkably even setting the fastest lap, but he had qualified nowhere, and Robert Kubica said his car was curiously short of grip throughout the race. And it was a disappointing day, too, for Red Bull, neither Mark Webber nor David Coulthard figuring seriously.
Ten races down, eight to go. The advantage tends to pinball between McLaren and Ferrari, and by Budapest or Valencia, who knows, Ferrari may well be ahead once more. But at the moment there is no doubt at all about the driver in form. Hamilton may have had his flaky moments this season, but as the Grand Prix season goes into the homestretch he would be a brave man who bet much against Lewis’s taking the title he so nearly won last year. As at Silverstone, there was something inexorable about this victory: “In the early laps,” Massa said, “I couldn’t believe how quick he was. We need to work very hard – and very quickly…”