The German Grand Prix at Hockenheim didn’t turn out the way many people expected for many reasons and there were some big decisions taken, which we will be talking about for some time.
The two widely different tyres behaved far better than expected, leaving few tactical options to the teams, while Ferrari were more competitive than many had expected and were the centre of attention. They took a one-two finish, but not in the same order in which they ran for most of the race.
But what was the mechanism by which this crucial decision was taken?
If it had been agreed before the race that Alonso was the driver Ferrari wished to take maximum points from the race, then there would have been an arrangement in place to switch the cars around if Massa found himself ahead. It doesn’t appear to be the case here and anyway I doubt whether Massa would have agreed to that.
However he would have agreed to a system for establishing who is the faster driver. It seems that there was an agreement in place about the size of lead and a mechanism for showing who is faster, as a basis for Ferrari to make a decision. This may be a legacy of incidents earlier in the season, such as Australia, where Alonso was held up by Massa and the team took no action.
Judging from the messages to Massa from his engineer Rob Smedley, it seems that the notion of a three second lead was important, Smedley pointed out to Massa that he had three seconds in hand over his team mate at one point and described that as important.
But Alonso soon ate into that lead, getting it down to below a second, which was his way of proving that he was faster. Faced with Massa’s inability to match the pace and having lost the three second lead, the team had the evidence it needed to tell Massa that Alonso was faster than him, which was clearly the agreed etiquette.
I’ve been researching this a bit over the last few days and this kind of arrangement is quite common within teams. There has to be some way for teams to assess which driver is faster on the day and if the driver who is following can prove that he can close up a gap then it shows that he is faster.
This tipped the balance in Alonso’s favour in Germany.
We saw it last year in Germany when Jenson Button was behind Rubens Barrichello and Ross Brawn radioed the Brazilian to say that they were losing time to Rosberg and that if Barrichello couldn’t keep the pace up then he “should let Jenson have a go”.
So it was last weekend; with a threat from Vettel in third place and mindful of the championship situation, Ferrari formed its decision.
On a wider theme, the much discussed three step gap between the super soft and hard tyres didn’t create the tactical variations many had hoped for. Both tyres were just too good and a repeat of the chaos of the Montreal race was never on the cards from the early practice sessions onwards.
Hockenheim is a track which improves quickly once some rubber goes down and despite the rain over the weekend, it rubbered in and this meant that the supersoft lasted well in the opening stages of the race.
This caught out Mark Webber, who pitted on lap 15 and lost a place to Jenson Button, who pitted on lap 24. Webber had done a run on Friday on supersoft, where he had quite a lot of graining and this might have spooked him a bit into deciding not to run too long on that tyre in the race, even though he knew he was racing Button, who was likely to run longer.
Conversely it was another example of Button’s smooth driving style giving him the ability to make a set of option tyres last longer than his opposition. He did the same in Silverstone where he gained two places by staying out longer. Here he jumped Webber and picked up a vital position.
Button was helped in this by the new tyre pace on the hard, which wasn’t great. Although the track temperature of 25 degrees meant that the hard tyre didn’t struggle to warm up, neither did the new tyres give an injection of pace, so a well managed set of used supersofts was still faster than a new set of hards. The situation was tailor made for Button.
The experiment of the three step gap revealed that the four tyres in the Bridgestone range are too close together to make much of a difference. What made Montreal so enthralling was that both tyres were suffering from high degradation.