The German Grand Prix was a race that many have said was ‘one for the purists': an all-out battle at the front between four teams, all of whom had a stint in the lead. Sebastian Vettel proved to everyone just why he is a three-time world champion by fending off Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean for the final stint of the race, but in truth Lotus and Ferrari may have missed a trick when it came to strategy.
To the winner first though. The crucial detail for Vettel was to get into the lead following the first round of stops once the ‘soft’ stage appeared to be over. Both he and Mark Webber had sublime starts, enveloping polesitter Hamilton to take the race by the stranglehold. The top five stayed in close company until the first round of stops where it was a case of “who will go longer?” The answer was Romain Grosjean. He managed to go deep into the race on the soft tyre, even outlasting Fernando Alonso on the medium compound. RoGro benefitted from setting a relentless pace and from Red Bull’s messy stop, elevating him to P2. This was an example of perfect strategy by Lotus and flawed strategy by Ferrari. Pirelli had predicted that the medium tyre would last until around lap 27 – Alonso did not manage half as many. Perhaps he was pushing too hard? Who knows. Either way, it was here that the race was lost for Ferrari. Had the Spanish driver managed to go longer into the race, he may have given himself options late on (if you will pardon the pun) to even convert to a two-stop. Effectively, Alonso ran the same strategy as Raikkonen but with the slower tyre during the first stint without taking advantage of its greater life. Regardless, it was a titanic effort by the Spaniard to finish P4 given his lack of early pace and the fact he was stuck behind Hamilton ahead of the safety car.
The safety car’s appearance was brought about by one of the most bizarre incidents in F1 of late as Jules Bianchi’s abandoned Marussia rolled downhill back onto the track. Lotus believe that this cost them a shot at the win, forcing them to stack their drivers and pit when Vettel did – i.e. no chance to undercut/go longer than the Red Bull. However, there was still a final round of stops where this could have occurred. Grosjean tried to get the undercut on Vettel by pitting one lap earlier and he certainly made up a bit of ground, but not enough.
So all eyes on Raikkonen. He was not struggling with the tyres, meaning that he had the chance to pick his time to pit easily (although the radio failure may have complicated matters). The pragmatic approach would have been to gauge the gap being opened up to Vettel and Grosjean, wait for it to fall and then take on medium tyres. The gambler’s approach? Go to the end, which Raikkonen reckons he could have done. It would have been a close-cut thing at the end, but Kimi may have missed out on the podium. Instead, it was the ‘safe’ approach the team took, going long and then taking on softs. This relied of Raikkonen to beat Vettel thanks to the advantage provided by the fresh tyres, a challenge too great for the Iceman. Had he stayed out, he would have required the mediums to last 36 laps; the most managed in the race was Bottas with 32. Maybe the victory was just a bridge too far?
Shortly before the race, we looked at how Nico Rosberg held the key to Mercedes’ championship credentials for 2013. The proof which came out of the Nurburgring was that there aren’t any. The idea of the Silver Arrows’ benefitting enormously from the tyre test following the Spanish Grand Prix is now unthinkable; the new tyres certainly took them back a few steps, with the rising temperature also working against the team. Hamilton did well to recover after shredding his tyres when holding off Alonso with the safety car coming at a good time for the British driver. The team certainly has a lot of work to do, but again, nothing can really be deduced until the new tyres arrive in Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The championship is slowly moving towards Red Bull and Vettel as Mercedes floundered on home soil, and although this was a race for the purists, it was another one dictated by strategy. However, this was a help, not a hinderance, but Lotus and Ferrari may be ruing their calls.
In terms of conclusions to move forwards, there aren’t that many. As Giedo van der Garde explained to Richland F1 earlier on this week, it’s back to square one for the Hungarian Grand Prix as the 2012 constructions return with 2013 compounds.
So yes, more tyre talk.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.