2014 German GP report

by Mark Hughes on 20th July 2014

Considering this was a start-to-finish demonstration of unstressed perfection for Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes, Hockenheim actually served up a great race. In its short circuit existence it may no longer be a formidable track – but it does serve up great action.

Through the section down to the Spitzkehre hairpin and the connected kinking run down to the wider hairpin of the Mercedes curve, they almost can’t help pass and repass – and with most of the field now getting very used to having to go wheel-to-wheel in this DRS age, racing in the pack is often scarily close. But no-one got close to Rosberg – not with the other Mercedes starting from 20th.

Lewis Hamilton, starting there as a result of his brake disc-induced qualifying accident the day before, was doing a lot of that passing. Naturally, he was taking no prisoners and eventually the law of averages caught up with him as he damaged a front wing in a misunderstanding with Jenson Button at the Spitzkehre.

That took the edge off his pace, but not enough to stop his challenge on the podium. The pace was too hot for the planned two-stop and like many he had to migrate to a three – the idea being two short 13-lap stints on the super-softs at the end, having been one of just three starting on the prime tyre (soft). But still that was looking OK for Lewis, as Valtteri Bottas’s two-stopping second place Williams-Mercedes was having to conserve.

“I knew Lewis would be able to make up the pit loss time,” said Bottas afterwards, displaying the same calm presence as he’d shown on-track when under severe attack for the last few laps. But Bottas was given a break by Adrian Sutil spinning his Sauber out of the final turn on lap 49, 17 from the end.

Expecting a safety car that never came, Mercedes brought Hamilton in for his final set of options just eight laps after he’d been in for his previous set. It consigned him to a 16-lap final stint – quite a long way for a set of super-softs. Would they retain their grip long enough for Lewis to get by the Williams?

“I knew it was important to get a good exit onto DRS straights and to brake always as late as possible for the hairpin at the end,” explained Bottas. Sounds easy enough; but difficult with a charging, faster, new-tyred car filling your mirrors. “Also, I got the right support from the engineers for the right engine modes to defend.”

That combination – a brilliant defensive drive from Bottas, an earlier than planned third stop for Hamilton plus the Merc’s wing damage – was all it took, for Hamilton’s final set of super-softs were just about spent after a couple of laps of Bottas defence and the Williams managed to split the Mercs. Rosberg was already 20sec gone by the time the Bottas/Hamilton train flashed by the chequer. Just as at Silverstone, it all had a feeling of rightness about it – as the local guy pleased the crowd with the result they came wanting to see.

“It worked out perfectly,” said Rosberg. “The car was so dominant, although the two-stop strategy was difficult to manage because at the end of the stints as the tyres were almost gone.”

Going into the race most teams were expecting to three-stop. The heat degradation of the rears, on the options (super-softs) in particular, meant that getting the primes (softs) to do the stint lengths required for a two-stop was going to be marginal. That’s what the practices had suggested. But Friday and Saturday had been incredibly hot, with track temperatures in the mid-50-deg C range. Sunday was overcast and the track 20 degrees cooler.

This changed the tyre behaviour completely. The rears were suddenly a whole lot less stressed and on cars that had been set up with understeer to protect the rears, the limitation became the fronts. It also shifted the limitation a few laps further on, making two-stopping a more feasible strategy.

Running up front without any significant competition – Rosberg was 10s clear by the time of the first stops – Mercedes could afford to run him into the margins of the end of tyre life. Williams made a call it could do the same with Bottas – running in clean air virtually the whole race, so quickly did Rosberg disappear.

But elsewhere, fighting for position put a much greater strain on the fronts, and Hamilton was among those, like the Red Bulls and Alonso, who couldn’t quite make the two-stop work. In Hamilton’s case that strategy switch was hastened by the front wing damage which in turn had increased the strain on the left-front.

Qualifying

From the moment a few minutes into qualifying when Hamilton’s right-front Brembo brake disc exploded as he braked from 140mph into the Sachskurve, this was always going to be Rosberg’s weekend. “I didn’t quite know what had happened to the other car,” he reported, “but I knew it didn’t affect me because I was on different brakes.”

Hamilton changing from Carbone Industrie to Brembo front discs (matching the Brembos both he and Rosberg used on the rears) on Saturday morning turned out to be the weekend’s crucial decision. “You can either have better initial bite, but some fade or don't give quite as good a pedal feel, but better fade resistance,” explained Lewis.

Through the Friday practices, when they were both on the Carbone fronts, he found he was constantly losing time to Rosberg under braking for turn two. The Brembo fronts, he reckoned, would give him the tools to turn that around, even if it did mean a bit more fade after continued hard use. The implication was he was trying to ensure he out-qualified Rosberg, and that way he’d be able to look after the fade resistance in the race.

Instead the disc broke in three parts, through a suspected manufacturing fault. So you might say it was just bad luck that Hamilton was never in a position to compete with Rosberg on this weekend, but it was Rosberg’s consistently excellent pace on Friday that triggered a Hamilton decision that should not have had such serious implications – but did.

This continues to be a fantastically close grinding struggle for the title between two very different competitors. Events at Hockenheim just served to remind that there are sure to be many twists and turns remaining.

Rosberg was actually pushed reasonably hard for pole by Bottas’s Williams-Mercedes. The gap was just a couple of tenths, but their respective pace in the race – and the fact that Rosberg didn’t improve upon his first Q3 time – suggests that perhaps Nico left something on the table, doing only as much as needed. What actually happened on his second Q3 run was that he got on the DRS button too early, just before the activation line. When you do this the DRS does not open and the only way to correct that is to come off the button and try again. He hadn’t realised it hadn’t deployed until it was too late.

Hamilton’s accident came only a few minutes into Q1, leaving him unable to take any further part. This theoretically put him 15th on the grid but the accident had damaged the gearbox, the change of which incurred a further five-place penalty. As a precaution, all four brakes were changed back to Carbone Industrie.

Controversially, the FIA did not consider this to constitute a spec change. All that was required was that the brakes were of similar mass and density. A compulsory pitlane start was thus avoided – to the irritation of several rival teams. But what intensified that irritation was that Rosberg’s rear Brembos were also changed, as a precaution.

Felipe Massa started his Williams from third, a solid 0.3sec adrift of Bottas and only a couple of tenths clear of the improved McLaren-Mercedes of Kevin Magnussen. A new rear wing was the most obvious of the raft of aero upgrades made to the MP4-29 and the team had spent a lot of time understanding why it had failed to get the full performance from the super-softs in Montreal and Austria.

There was also the suspicion that the car had fared well competitively from everyone’s surrender of FRICS. Plus Magnussen was prepared to hang it out through the car’s weak bits on a day when Jenson Button was over 0.3sec slower and unable to make the top 10.

The Red Bulls lined up on the third row, Daniel Ricciardo again ahead of Sebastian Vettel, Seb having been ahead for much of the session but not finding the necessary time on his last run. The Red Bulls seemed to be carrying even more understeer than the others. Some of this was to protect the rear tyres on a track with a lot of traction events (and on a weekend that started scorchingly hot).

But part of it was believed to be the loss of FRICS. The peakier downforce profiles of front wing undersides that FRICS has allowed was perhaps biting – though most teams were estimating the lap time loss to be no more than a couple of tenths.

The race

Rosberg’s perfect week – during which he’d extended his Mercedes contract, watched Germany win the World Cup and got married – continued as the lights went out and he was unchallenged into the first turn. Bottas’ initial start wasn’t quite as good as Massa’s and Felipe actually backed out of contesting the turn with his team-mate.

So preoccupied with that was he that he didn’t appear to notice that Magnussen was up his inside and he made for the apex as if the McLaren weren’t there. Magnussen was the innocent victim as the two cars interlocked wheels, flipping the Williams over onto its roll hoop and back on its wheels.

Magnussen stopped, restarted at the back and pitted for a new nose, while Ricciardo lost a load of places by having to take to the run-off to avoid getting involved. From fifth on the grid he was down to 15th, with team-mate Vettel hard on Bottas’s tail in third ahead of Alonso, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India, Button and the rest. Hamilton was in 17th as the race came under the safety car while the mess was cleared.

At the end of the second lap the race got properly underway, Rosberg pulled out 0.8sec per lap to get himself out of Bottas’ DRS range and prepared for an afternoon of managing his dominance. He would do it flawlessly. Bottas used the straightline speed of the Williams to ensure he was always out of range of the especially-slow-on-the-straights Vettel while Alonso was pleasantly surprised to find he could hold onto their pace. “Maybe the cooler conditions helped us compared to yesterday,” he said, “because after qualifying I could not have imagined I could be fighting with Red Bulls.”

Button quickly dispensed with Kvyat to go sixth, with the latter then getting himself nudged into an inevitable spin by trying to go around the outside of Sergio Pérez at turn eight, the Mercedes hairpin, trying too early into the turn to squeeze the Force India, leaving Pérez nowhere to go. Kvyat pitted, where the Toro Rosso bodywork was found to be quite heavily damaged and its aero performance suffered. Daniil later pulled off the track with the engine well ablaze.

Hamilton was coming through the backmarkers with ease for the first half-dozen laps but as he got up with the delayed Ricciardo in 12th it became harder. Some beautifully judged racing ensued as they came past the likes of Sutil and Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari together. The former hadn’t realised the Mercedes was there after surrendering to the Red Bull at the hairpin and light contact was made.

Race results

1. N Rosberg, Mercedes 1h 33m 42.914s
2. V Bottas, Williams +20.7s
3. L Hamilton, Mercedes +22.5s
4. S Vettel, Red Bull +44.0s
5. F Alonso, Ferrari +52.4s
6. D Ricciardo, Red Bull +52.5s
7. N Hülkenberg, Force India +64.1s
8. J Button, McLaren +84.7s
9. K Magnussen, McLaren +1 lap
10. S Pérez, Force India +1 lap
11. K Räikkönen, Ferrari, +1 lap
12. P Maldonado, Lotus +1 lap
13. JÉ Vergne, Toro Rosso +1 lap
14. E Gutiérrez, Sauber +1 lap
15. J Bianchi, Marussia +1 lap
16. K Kobayashi, Caterham +2 laps
17. M Chilton, Marussia +2 laps
18. M Ericsson, Caterham +2 laps

DNF
A Sutil, Sauber 47 laps
D Kvyat, Toro Rosso 44 laps
R Grosjean, Lotus 26 laps
F Massa, Williams 0 laps

Ricciardo nailed Räikkönen into turn eight, Hamilton trying to follow him through but not quite making it, then going for the inside of the Ferrari into Mobil 1, the fast entry to the stadium section. Side-by-side they went through there, breathtakingly scary, the Ferrari remaining ahead. Hamilton would encounter Räikkönen again later in the race as their differing strategies played out, this time taking a bit of Ferrari front wing with him.

These were two of only three cars which had started on the prime tyre, the rest having opted for the much greater initial grip of the option – particularly crucial off the line. By the 13th lap Ricciardo’s tyres were losing grip and as he was re-challenged into Spitzkehre by Räikkönen, Hamilton slid by them both!

Hamilton’s primes allowed him to keep going until lap 26, long after the option-tyred runners had stopped and for a time he was running only behind Rosberg. Alonso had kicked off the stops at the end of lap 12. “I felt we were getting through the tyres too quickly for the two-stop we’d been planning,” said Alonso, “and we changed to a three quite early.”

Button, Ricciardo, Vettel and the Force Indias followed in the subsequent two laps. Vettel was actually undercut by Alonso’s earlier stop but on his out-lap managed to make a super-ballsy pass into the hairpin, three-abreast with Alonso and the other Ferrari of the yet-to-stop Räikkönen, flicking over to the extreme right of the track, outer wheels beyond the white lines, foot never for a moment flinching.

Button remained close behind Hülkenberg, though both had long-since lost contact with Alonso. Vettel had edged away from the Ferrari, Bottas in turn was unchallenged by Seb. Rosberg and Bottas, on their two-stops, stayed out until lap 15. Hamilton on his different tyre strategy didn’t fight Bottas when the Williams came through five laps later to reclaim second. A few laps later Hamilton stopped for another set of primes, exiting eighth and back behind the earlier-stopping Ricciardo, with Button and Hülkenberg not far beyond that.

After placing himself cannily through the tight hairpin, Hamilton got a run on Ricciardo to go through the kink of turn seven and it was the lap after this that he saw a gap at the hairpin that he believed Button was leaving him. By the time he got there it had closed and the Merc’s left front cascade wing was crushed against the side of the McLaren. “I thought he was letting me through,” said Hamilton apologetically.

Immediately the Mercedes was understeering more heavily through right-handers and the team kept a wary eye on his pace. He was slower – but not disastrously so. Indeed, he was frequently still the fastest car on track, just not by as much. He finally got by Button cleanly on the turn five kink before the hairpin, waving an apology at 200mph as he did so.

“We could see that Lewis had lost a lot of downforce from the wing damage,” said Paddy Lowe, and the team began to think in terms of changing from the planned two-stop to a three – a) so they could adjust the wing earlier to reclaim the aero balance and b) because of the increased stress on the left-front. But even on a three-stop he had to keep going a while yet.

Drivers' Championship

1. Nico Rosberg 190
2. Lewis Hamilton 176
3. Daniel Ricciardo 106
4. Fernando Alonso 97
5. Valtteri Bottas 91
6. Sebastian Vettel 82
7. Nico Hülkenberg 69
8. Jenson Button 59
9. Kevin Magnussen 37
10. Felipe Massa 30
11. Sergio Pérez 29
12. Kimi Räikkönen 19
13. Jean-Éric Vergne 9
14. Romain Grosjean 8
15. Daniil Kvyat 6
16. Jules Bianchi 2
17. Adrian Sutil 0
18. Marcus Ericsson 0
19. Pastor Maldonado 0
20. Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21. Max Chilton 0
22. Kamui Kobayashi 0

The decision was thus deferred until Hamilton radioed in saying the left front was definitely not going to do the target distance required for a two-stop. That decided it: a three-stop it would be. They’d bring him in on the 42nd lap and the remaining distance was planned to be split equally on two sets of the faster but less durable options. Meantime, he passed Hülkenberg into the hairpin on the 33rd lap.

As Rosberg and Bottas drove what at this stage were fairly lonely races, the contest between Vettel and Alonso – around 10s behind Bottas – was shaping up to continue where it had left off at Silverstone. Alonso had got to within a couple of seconds of the Red Bull when his pace began to fall off and Ferrari brought him in and fitted a new set of primes. Red Bull responded immediately and got Seb out still ahead – on used options.

Just as at Silverstone Alonso was able to use his warmer tyres to put an immediate pass on Vettel, going past on the run out of the hairpin where Seb was at his most vulnerable with his mix of poor traction on cold tyres and weak straightline speed. Vettel, though, was able to stay in touch and 11 laps later, as his options were coming to the end of their life, he’d got himself close enough to potentially undercut the Ferrari.

He came in for his third and final stop on the 45th lap and rejoined on primes. Ferrari chose not to respond. To do so would have consigned Alonso to a final stint of 20 laps, which was felt to be a little too long. Besides, the intention was to get onto the fast options for the last stint, when the car was at its lightest, the better to make up places. So the battle was deferred.

As it happened, Alonso never got to see Vettel again, the Red Bull’s pace strong enough in clear air that Seb could build the necessary margin in the next 10 laps as Alonso circulated in fourth, behind Bottas and the Mercs. This was a relief for Seb. “Up to that point we’d been really marginal on fuel. This allowed me to bring it back.” He wasn’t the only one worried about fuel – Alonso was marginal too.

Sutil’s Sauber spun out of the last corner on his 48th lap. He’s just pitted and noticed upon rejoining that the engine response was not clean. Entering the turn it hesitated again, and it was this which spun him. It stayed alive long enough for him to spin-turn the car before then cutting out completely. So there was now a stranded car in the middle of the track and a safety car seemed inevitable. Rosberg, potentially seeing his 15s lead over the fast-on-the-straights Bottas wiped out, got nervous.

Ferrari, whose radar was insisting there was going to be a rain shower in the last few laps, got anxious too. “It was 17 laps from the end and so if a safety car had come out, obviously that’s when we would have had to pit,” explained Alonso. “But because we were expecting rain it wasn’t obvious what tyre to put on. The risk was if we put on the option it would be worn out by the time the rain came. With the prime we’d probably have been able to make it to the end without having to stop – but it would have been slower than the option before then.”

Mercedes was certain there was going to be a safety car – and brought Hamilton in from third, just eight laps into the planned 13-lap stint. But there never was a safety car. Marshals managed to move it out the way. Hamilton rejoined fourth, but committed to trying to make his options last for 16 laps while chasing down positions. He was 13s behind Alonso but with the Ferrari still needing to make another stop. He was just about to devour it when Fernando finally came in on his exhausted tyres, going so slowly that Sauber’s Esteban Gutiérrez unlapped himself from it.

Constructors' Championship

1. Mercedes 366
2. Red Bull 188
3. Williams 121
4. Ferrari 116
5. Force India 98
6. McLaren 96
7. Toro Rosso 15
8. Lotus 8
9. Marussia 2
10. Sauber 0
11. Caterham 0

Hamilton, on his new options (saved from not having completed qualifying), was 5sec down on Bottas on his 14-lap old primes. In the subsequent laps that gap came down to 4sec, 2.6sec and 1sec. By the 60th lap Hamilton was within DRS range of the Williams and the pass seemed inevitable. Except he’d arrived on Bottas’ tail perhaps one lap too late.

The tyres had now done 10 laps, the left front was grained quite badly and out of the crucial turns 2/3 – traction zones that determine your speed down the long DRS straight – he was not able to get as early on the power as Bottas. Plus the Williams was super-quick down the straight. All Hamilton’s DRS was doing was regaining the ground he’d lost coming onto the straight. Bottas remained icy calm, concentrating above all on a good exit out of three and braking as late as possible into the hairpin, but without ever overshooting. He did it to perfection.

As Hamilton was left to chase down Bottas, Alonso had rejoined just behind Button and Ricciardo, who’d been enjoying a long fight, but one which had taken a lot from Button’s tyres. Alonso quickly nailed Button and thus began a great dice with Ricciardo. With seven laps to go Alonso got by on the kink of turn five but Ricciardo hung on to retaliate into the hairpin.

The next lap, a repeat, but this time with Alonso getting a better run out of the hairpin to be inside for the kink of seven, the pair side-by-side through there, wheels-to-sidepod close at 150mph, Alonso marginally ahead, but Ricciardo diving past into eight. They even went through Mobil 1 side-by-side as Hamilton and Räikkönen had done earlier.

Three laps from the end Alonso got ahead into the hairpin and again the move lasted for the next two corners – but this time into turn eight, the Ferrari was definitively ahead. “I was so low on fuel I had to decide whether to just follow Ricciardo, save fuel and make sure I crossed the line or try to pass but risk running out before the end. I went for the pass but on the last lap I was in eighth gear nearly all the way round and if I’d had to go another 100 metres I wouldn’t have had enough.”

“We didn't leave anything on the table,” said a thrilled Ricciardo afterwards. “These are the moments and battles that I personally thrive off and enjoy. Fernando is known to be a tough racer and I thought who better to have a good fight with. I was on the primes and he was on fresher options and I gave it the best fight I could and, well... nearly!”

Alonso was effusive in his praise. “He is a fantastic driver,” he said. “He’s very smart, very clean, very aggressive. He was always taking the slipstream perfectly judged, he’d attack on the brakes very late, but without ever going too deep and always respecting the rules.”

Rosberg’s qualities weren’t called upon much on this day, but his too was a drive of perfection, while Bottas held his nerve and hung onto second as Hamilton exhausted his tyres – another two great drives. Vettel, Alonso and Ricciardo were well clear of Hülkenberg who’d had a challenging two-stop race, with the Force India’s power unit playing up and needing constant monitoring and systems rebooting.

He’d passed Button with five laps to go, McLaren’s two-stop attempt having bust. Jenson was sufficiently far of recovering team-mate Magnussen that he was able to make a third stop without losing a further place. With hindsight, McLaren had made Button’s first stop too early. Magnussen was rueing Massa’s antics at the first corner but during his comeback was delighted with how the McLaren, with its new rear wing, was retaining its rear grip over a stint like it never had before. Pérez took the final point after having to move to a three-stop with a car unbalanced by the cooler conditions.

It was a day of great drives and great dices and at the end of it there were doubtless plenty of warm glows of satisfaction – from drivers, teams and crowd. Forty-four years ago Hockenheim hosted its first Grand Prix and the crowd thrilled to see a German-born driver take victory, even if he was officially Austrian. This time around the winner was officially German, even if he is half-Finnish.

 

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