Alonso does it again
The complete German Grand Prix review
Fernando Alonso spent another race under pressure at the front of the field, but unlike Silverstone, in Germany he was able to hang on and take another race win, as our GP Review recounts.
There were three Germans in the top four on the grid for their home race. The current world champion, the man with more world championships than anyone else, and a man who may be world champion one day.
But they were all sat behind a Spaniard, and by the end of the day, that Spaniard was still there, while none of the home drivers made it into the top three, in the official results at least.
In his capacity as legend-of-the-week in Formula 1's quaintly retro new habit of having the drivers interviewed on the podium by star names, Niki Lauda asked Fernando Alonso what it felt like to be a Spaniard in an Italian car winning in Germany - in a light-hearted reference to those nations' differing roles in the Eurozone crisis. The unruffled Alonso quickly pointed out that Ferrari had a Greek design chief...
Whatever its other troubles at present, Spain can currently be very confident in its greatest racing driver's ability to deliver. The Ferrari is clearly now nowhere near as bad as it seemed in winter testing, but no one would claim it is the field's benchmark. Yet Alonso has taken it to three wins and a 34-point championship lead, while his team-mate must struggle to remember what the view from a podium looks like.
Asked before practice if he was in the best form of his career, Alonso agreed - but with the caveat that everyone improves year by year with experience, and that he was in better physical condition than before as well, revealing for the first time that he had struggled with various pains earlier in his Formula 1 life. Perhaps curing the leg and shoulder aches is what has unleashed this extra level of brilliance...
Dominant victories aren't possible with Alonso's current equipment, and he never had more than a few seconds' breathing space at Hockenheim. Sebastian Vettel had his hands full with a challenge from Michael Schumacher in the opening corners, but the Mercedes didn't have the pace to continue the battle of the German legends for long, and soon Vettel was lurking in Alonso's mirrors.
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[TD] The top three formed a train © XPB[/TD]
It got particularly close in the middle stint, when the Ferrari had a tougher time on medium Pirellis than its pursuers. And that was now pursuers plural, for Jenson Button was joining in the lead battle.
Button had been increasingly certain in recent weeks that the woes that had kept him off the podium since April were over, and he just needed a change of luck to prove his pace was back with a vengeance. Wet qualifying at Hockenheim brought more tyre issues, but McLaren and its drivers were so confident in the upgraded car's potential, they were still eyeing victory from sixth and seventh on the grid.
An early puncture for Lewis Hamilton meant it was Button who was demonstrating McLaren's gains. He sliced past Nico Hulkenberg and Schumacher early on, then closed in on the leaders after the first pitstops.
He had a little helping hand from Hamilton. A lap down after his dramas, but proceeding rapidly on fresh tyres, Hamilton passed Vettel's Red Bull and spent a while between the two leaders, leaving Vettel peeved.
"That was not nice of him," Vettel complained. "I don't see the point why he's trying to race us. If he wants to go fast he can drop back, find a gap and go fast there. But it's a bit stupid to disturb the leaders."
Alonso admitted having Hamilton as a buffer was pretty handy, and said he would have jumped out of the way and let him go had the McLaren tried a move.
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[TD] Lightning pit work was crucial for Button © LAT[/TD]
Button was the first of the leaders to make his final pitstop, coming in on lap 40. Alonso and Vettel both covered him by pitting next time around, but that was not enough to stop Vettel losing out to the McLaren, which left the German cursing Hamilton's earlier presence even more.
Although at first Button closed down Alonso, as the chequered flag neared it was the McLaren coming under heavier pressure. And that would lead to more Vettel/McLaren angst, as the world champion overtook around the outside of the hairpin on the penultimate lap, but made substantial use of the run-off area to do so. Vettel said he wasn't sure where Button was and hadn't wanted to close the door on him, and that he gained an acceleration advantage not through taking a wide line off the track, but because the McLaren was losing traction on worn tyres. Button said nothing... but bore a grimace. The stewards duly ruled that Vettel had gained an unfair advantage and bestowed a time penalty that dropped him to fifth.
That elevated Kimi Raikkonen into the top three after making good progress up the order from 10th on the grid in his Lotus. But the big movers of the race were the Saubers - which hacked through from 12th and 17th to what would become fourth and sixth for Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez respectively, showing great race pace. Given the excitement over Perez's achievements this year, a career-best fourth (after Vettel's penalty) was well-timed for Kobayashi.
Those moving in the other direction included Schumacher and Hulkenberg, neither of whom had the race pace to carry their qualifying achievements forward. Both Mercedes three-stopped, and that helped Schumacher finish on Perez's tail in seventh, and Nico Rosberg come through from 21st to 10th, between the Force Indias of Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta.
Hulkenberg finished right behind the man who won the previous grand prix: Red Bull's Mark Webber. The Australian's assessment was blunt: "I had no pace today and wasn't quick."
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[TD] This puncture ruined Hamilton's day © LAT[/TD]
Hamilton eventually retired due to damage from the puncture, which was sustained on some of the debris from the various first-lap incidents that sent Felipe Massa, Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean towards the pits for repairs. They rejoined to finish 12th, 17th and 18th. Senna's Williams team-mate Pastor Maldonado also collected debris, sliding from sixth to 15th in his wounded car as a consequence.
Toro Rosso had the sort of race it usually has these days and finished 13th and 14th with Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.
Vitaly Petrov's Caterham was quick enough to stay ahead of Senna and Grosjean in 16th, but team-mate Heikki Kovalainen was only 19th after a nose change.
In the tail of the field battle, a tough race for Timo Glock got worse in the closing laps as differential problems developed, and he finished behind Marussia team-mate Charles Pic and HRT's Pedro de la Rosa in 22nd, ahead of only de la Rosa's team-mate Narain Karthikeyan.