The top three cars separated by less than three seconds with a handful of laps to go; it’s the ideal scenario for F1 racing and this is what we had in Germany.
All three leaders had followed the same strategy of soft/medium/medium tyres, but this was a weekend which showed a lot about how far many teams have come in getting on top of the Pirelli tyres, which were described by some as a “lottery” early in the season.
The tyre selection for Hockenheim was soft and medium, the same as in Melbourne and four other events this season. In many ways the race track and its demands on the tyres were comparable with Melbourne, but it showed how much progress some of the teams have made and how others are still struggling to balance tyre temperatures and this is affecting their strategies and how much impression they can make on the race.
Earlier in the season some teams experienced a difference in temperature from front to rear tyres of as much as 20 degrees, which played havoc with balance. Ferrari, Red Bull and Lotus lead the way in terms of progress made on balancing temperatures, Sauber have been pretty good all along, while McLaren have lost out recently but are now getting closer and Mercedes still seem to have significant problems.
In Germany there wasn’t much to choose between the performance of the soft and medium tyres. It came down to preference, although some teams that go well on the soft found that over a stint the soft would be around 2 seconds faster.
It was certainly faster in the opening laps of a stint than a medium and this raises the question of whether Vettel could have attacked Alonso at the first stops.
The pre-race wisdom was that the soft tyre would be similar on pace to the medium in race conditions, even though it had been 0.7s slower in qualifying trim. The softs were expected to be good for up to 21 laps and the mediums 24 laps. This tended to push teams towards thinking about a soft/medium/medium strategy, which is what the podium finishers used, but it did give scope for soft/soft/medium and we saw that this was actually a little faster. With such tight battle at the front to the end, had one of them taken a gamble, we might have seen something different.
The battle among the front three
Alonso’s engineer Andrea Stella has said that the only time they were worried on Sunday was after the 1st stop when the medium tyres were taking time to come in. Alonso had pitted on lap 18 and Vettel didn’t stop for another two laps.
Alonso did a 23 lap middle stint while Vettel did only 21 laps. Arguably, looking at what Raikkonen did on soft tyres in the middle stint, there might have been an opportunity here for Red Bull.
Having watched Alonso go to the medium tyre, by switching to softs Vettel might have got ahead of the Ferrari, but in all probability Alonso would have reacted by doing a soft tyre stint at the end, while Vettel would have been forced to use mediums and this probably would have evened things out. It’s a fine margin, but it would have been interesting to see Red Bull try it.
Red Bull and Ferrari did not do a lot of race preparation work on the tyres in the brief time the track was dry at Hockenheim. So they went for the medium as the preferred race tyre, also Ferrari put Massa onto it on lap one after he was forced to pit for a nose change, so they were gathering data on it as the 1st stint unfolded.
The softs degraded at 0.1s per lap on Sunday, while the mediums degraded at 0.08s per lap, so there was very little in it on degradation. It was more about relative pace.
Strategy wise the main move between the top three was an “undercut” by Button on Vettel for second place at the final stop. This was helped by the fastest pit stop carried out by an F1 team in 2.31 seconds as Button pitted a lap earlier than the German and then put in a fast out lap to be in front when Vettel emerged from his stop.
It was another strong showing by the Lotus team with Kimi Raikkonen classified fourth but promoted to third after Vettel’s penalty. Once again they showed that if they could get to the front they have the race pace to win. In Hockenheim they pitted Raikkonen early on lap 11 and stayed on the soft. By doing so he jumped Webber, Hulkenberg and Maldonado. Then by using Lotus’ gentle action on the tyres he did a 27 lap middle stint, which included overtaking Michael Schumacher, that gave him the platform for his fourth place finish.
Raikkonen was the highest placed finisher to do soft/soft/medium, which Lotus are convinced was the fastest strategy last weekend. It didn’t work for everyone: Schumacher tried it but the Mercedes’ continued roughness on rear tyres meant that he ended up having to make a third stop which cost him fifth place. He was also hamstrung by having only one new set of medium tyres for the race.
We have seen a number of drivers in the Pirelli era come through the field in a quick car with a reverse strategy to everyone else, but usually it is because they have saved new sets of tyres from being eliminated early in qualifying.
On Sunday Kamui Kobayashi came through from 12th to fourth (after Vettel’s penalty) on medium/medium/soft strategy – but as qualifying had been wet everyone had new tyres to use, so he didn’t have that advantage. So how did he do it?
The Sauber is extremely fast on full tanks, so he had a strong opening stint and as he had started on mediums, he was able to go to lap 22 before his first stop. At that point he was up to fourth and he came out from the pits in ninth place, but in a position to attack with two short stints of 21 and 24 laps. He passed Webber and Perez in the middle stint and Hulkenberg in the final stint and then inherited a place from Schumacher when he made his third stop.
He even looked like he might mount an attack on Raikkonen on his final stint on softs but his pace dropped off at the end. Nevertheless it was a great return to form for the Japanese driver and an illustration that if you have a quick car you can make a different strategy work. Also it was impressive how easily he was able to overtake.
However like Lotus, Sauber have to deal with the fact that they do not qualify well.
GERMAN GRAND PRIX, Tyre Choices
Alonso: SN MN (18) MN (41) 2
Vettel: SN MN (20) MU (41) 2
Button: SN MN (19) MN (40) 2
Räikkönen: SN SN (11) MN (38) 2
Kobayashi: MN MN (22) SN (43) 2
Perez: SN MN (17) MN (40) 2
Schumacher: SN SN (14) MN (36) SN (52) 3
Webber: SN MN (12) MN (40) 2
Hülkenberg: SN MN (12) SN (31) MN (46) 3
Rosberg: MN SN (12) SN (32) SN (50) 3
Di Resta: SN MN (10) MN (39) 2
Massa: SN MN (1) MU (24) SN (47) 3
Ricciardo: SN MN (19) MN (38) 2
Vergne: MN MN (6) MU (27) SN (45) 3
Maldonado: SN MN (13) MN (38) SN (57) 3
Petrov: SN MN (14) MN (32) MN (50) 3
Senna: SN MN (1) MN (25) SN (47) 3
Grosjean: SN MN (1) MU (24) SN (42) 3
Kovalainen: SN MN (13) MN (31) MN (44) SU (53) 4
Pic: MN SN (21) MN (43) 2
De La Rosa: SN SU (20) MN (45) 2
Glock: MN SN (19) MN (40) 2
Kartikeyan: SN MN (22) MN (46) 2
Hamilton: SN MN (3) MN (31) SN (47) 3 NC
Kindly provided by the Williams F1 Team
Note Kobayahi’s strong pace in the opening stint and the way he picks up places as others pit. Also note Raikkonen’s middle stint on soft tyres and the relative pace of Vettel and Alonso before and after the 1st stops