After the trauma of Silverstone Pirelli speedily produced a one-off concocting of tyres designed to guard against further mid-race blow-outs.
The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association even threatened to boycott the German race if further punctures occured. But there was no sign of them throughout practice, nor during the race itself.
Once the furore over tyres had subsided the main event saw Sebastian Vettel weather fierce pressure from both Lotus drivers to finally add one of the few achievements missing from his Formula One CV: a victory in his home grand prix.
That he did so by putting one over the driver who is tipped to become his team mate next year can only have increased his satisfaction.
Red Bull seize the initiative
The performance of the Mercedes was a major talking point heading into the weekend. Questions persisted over what they might have got out of their covert test for Pirelli. Lewis Hamilton gave the W04 its sixth pole position of the season. Could he reproduce the form shown in those opening laps at Silverstone before his puncture?
The answer came within seconds of the red lights going out: No, he couldn’t. From second and third on the grid the two Red Bulls pounced. Mark Webber actually made the best getaway from the third row, but heading to turn one on the outside he had to yield to Vettel.
The Lotuses held fourth and fifth with Felipe Massa behind them until he made a surprising exit, stage left, at turn one as lap four began.
“Unfortunately he locked up the rear wheels under braking and spun, possibly because of the lack of grip,” explained Ferrari’s technical director Pat Fry. Massa had been the highest-running driver to have started on the medium tyres. Following his demise Fernando Alonso’s F138 was now the first car on the harder tyres, holding seventh behind Daniel Ricciardo.
Ferrari gamble doesn’t pay off
During qualifying Ferrari reasoned they were unlikely to challenge the Mercedes and Red Bulls for the first two rows, and so qualified on the harder tyres. This would spare them the trouble of having to drop into the midfield pack early on in the race after starting on soft tyres.
But faces must have fallen at the Scuderia when the tyres blankets came off their rivals’ cars before the race to reveal just four other drivers were using medium tyres. What’s more, many of those who started behind them on softs pitted within the first six laps, relieving the pressure on Red Bull and Lotus.
By lap six Alonso was already ten seconds behind Vettel. Hamilton then peeled off into the pits, releasing the Lotus pair. Vettel came in on the next lap to cover Hamilton, then Raikkonen followed suit the lap after. The Lotus came out behind the Mercedes who was in turn following team mate Nico Rosberg.
Webber’s pit stop on lap eight was a disaster. He was sent from the pits before the right-rear wheel was correctly attached. The wheel worked loose and bounced down the pit lane, striking a cameraman who was hospitalised. Webber spent two minutes having a replacement wheel fitted, by which time he’d been lapped and was last.
Grosjean gives chase
That promoted Grosjean into the lead. The Lotus driver, who’d complained earlier in the race that Raikkonen was holding him up, found his soft tyres were still in good shape. With Raikkonen bottled up behind the Mercedes pair and lapping a second and a half slower, Grosjean brought himself into contention.
He eventually took on medium tyres on lap 13 and after taking Jenson Button on his out-lap had only Vettel in front of him. The McLaren driver had started on mediums and was yet to pit, as was fourth-placed Nico Hulkenberg.
Behind them Rosberg was told to let Hamilton through and despite his best efforts Raikkonen got by as well. It soon transpired Hamilton was no happier on mediums than he has been on softs and four laps later Raikkonen passed him too.
By lap 21 Button and Hulkenberg had pitted which promoted Raikkonen to third, albeit over ten seconds behind his team mate. Grosjean, his tyres six laps fresher than Vettel’s, had halved the Red Bull driver’s lead from over four seconds to less than two.
Grosjean’s impressive early stint had seen him emerge as an unlikely contender for victory with both the speed and the strategic edge to take the fight to Vettel. But the appearance of the Safety Car wrecked the latter advantage – and the reason for its arrival was wholly bizarre.
Unmanned Marussia causes trouble
Heading towards the Veedol chicane on lap 22 Jules Bianchi’s engine let go with a cloud of smoke and a burst of flame. Race engineer Paul Davison urged him to deploy the fire extinguisher and sprint to safety.
This he did, and the fire was quickly put out, but it left the problem of an unmanned car sat on an incline. Gravity had the inevitable effect and moments later the MR02 was freewheeling back down the hill and – alarmingly – across the track just as the leaders arrived.
The Safety Car was swiftly deployed but not before the Marussia had found its way to a rather safer position than it had been in to start with, its progress halted by an advertising board.
Most of the cars which still had drivers in them now headed for the pits. At a stroke Grosjean lost both his tactical advantage over Vettel and his time advantage over his team mate. Alonso was fourth ahead of Button and Hulkenberg.
Hamilton, who’d already made a second pit stop before the Safety Car came out, regained some of his lost time. The interruption was an even greater gift for Webber, who was allowed to rejoin the lead lap. With the benefit of a fresh set of tyres he went into the second half of the race knowing a points finish was possible.
KERS drama for Vettel
The leaders held position at the restart but on lap 34 Vettel hit trouble: his KERS had stopped working. The Lotuses drew close, the pair within 1.4 seconds of the tail of the Red Bull and both using DRS in the two zones in an attempt to make a move.
Vettel weathered the storm, adjusting his brake balance when KERS stopped working, then pressing on again when it came back. Grosjean remained close enough to use DRS but by lap 38 Raikkonen was out of range of his team mate.
Having been unable to capitalise on an opportunity to pass Vettel on the track, Lotus sprang a two-pronged strategic attack. Their best bet was always going to be to use one of their drivers to ‘undercut’ Vettel by pitting first and performing a quick out-lap. Grosjean was duly summoned in on lap 40.
This was his quickest pit stop of the race (Raikkonen had two that were fractionally quicker). But Vettel was in and out 0.4 seconds quicker when Red Bull responded on the next lap, and held his lead. At his race engineer’s urging Vettel kept his foot down as he had to ensure Raikkonen didn’t get far enough ahead to make his pit stop and come out ahead.
This was easier said than done as Vettel now had to pass other cars for position, the first of which was Hamilton. Mercedes were anxious not to compromise their own strategy by trying to race a car they couldn’t beat and warned Hamilton accordingly. “Did you say to let him past?” he asked. “Just don’t lose time holding him up,” his race engineer replied.
Hamilton didn’t make life easy for Vettel, forcing the Red Bull driver the long way around in the opening sector. But nor did he try to force this issue and Vettel made it past having lost just four-tenths of a second to Raikkonen.
Raikkonen falls short
Lotus didn’t need to bring Raikkonen into the pits and considered leaving him out. Problems with the radio frustrated their efforts to make the call, but they were able to hear Raikkonen telling them he felt happy with the tyres. Nonetheless he was brought in on lap 49. “We could see the tyre performance dropping,” explained trackside operations director Alan Permane.
Alonso came in on the same lap, the Ferrari driver finally making his mandatory switch to the soft tyres. He revelled in them at first, setting the fastest lap of the race as he rejoined the track, 0.7 seconds quicker than Raikkonen.
Raikkonen rejoined the track within four seconds of Vettel, the pair separated by Grosjean. The trio also had to negotiate a knot of backmarkers: the battling Caterhams and Max Chilton. Once that was done, Grosjean conceded to messages from his team pointing out that Raikkonen was on a different strategy – for the second race in a row he had to let his team mate past.
The soft tyres had been up to 1.5 seconds quicker than the mediums during qualifying. During a race stint some of that gain is sacrificed for longevity, but even so Lotus were disappointed to discover Raikkonen wasn’t catching Vettel as quickly as planned. “We expected slightly more performance from his final set of soft tyres,” admitted Permane.
It took until the final lap for Raikkonen to get close enough to jab his DRS button on the straight leading towards the Veedol chicane. But this was to be no repeat of Canada ’11 – Vettel held his nerve and accelerated out of the final turn to win his home race for the first time.
McLaren lose out on last lap
Grosjean was under pressure from Alonso as the final lap began, the pair separated by just seven-tenths of a second. But the Ferrari driver dropped back and immediately after taking the chequered flag brought his car to a stop. Ferrari said they had been concerned about having sufficient fuel in the car to give a sample – despite having had the opportunity to save fuel during the Safety Car period.
Button lost fifth place to Hamilton on the final lap and fumed at the lapped Caterham drivers. “When you?óÔé¼Ôäóre fighting for position, you expect the backmarkers to move over, even if they?óÔé¼Ôäóre fighting for position themselves,” he said having lost around one-and-a-half seconds getting past them. It was a double blow for McLaren on the last lap as Sergio Perez lost seventh place to the recovering Webber.
Paul di Resta did not pit after the Safety Car came in and struggled at the end. The Force India driver dropped out of the top ten in the final three laps, elevating Rosberg and Hulkenberg to the final points places.
After starting a promising sixth Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t find any performance on the medium tyres and never challenged for points. He was 12th while team mate Jean-Eric Vergne retired with hydraulic failure.
Pastor Maldonado had been running seventh until his final pit stop. This turned out to be one of three which went badly wrong for Williams due to sticking wheels. He finished 15th, the last driver on the lead lap, behind Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez.
The other Williams of Valtteri Bottas had two such dramas and was lapped. Charles Pic passed his team mate for 17th with two laps to go while Button fumed behind them. Chilton was the last driver running.
Red Bull the constant
It still seems the RB9 is not the dominant force its predecessors have been, nor is it as reliable as rival cars. But the combination of pin-sharp strategy and Vettel’s cool-headedness more than made up for that on a day when their closest rivals reckoned they should have won.
They are in the fortunate position of having a different rival closest to them every time: In Germany, Lotus came within a second of beating them; In Britain, Mercedes pushed them hard; In Canada, Ferrari gave chase. But it’s a fine balance and the change in tyres planned for the next race may tip it in favour of a different team.
But for now Vettel was content to revel in the delight of scoring his first home win, which he called a “great relief”.
“To race in Germany I think is a privilege – to have the ability to have a home grand prix,” he said. “I think it take some little while to sink in but yeah, just incredibly proud today.”
2013 German Grand Prix
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Images ?é?® Pirelli/LAT, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Red Bull/Getty, McLaren/Hoch Zwei, Lotus/LAT, Marussia