After a short break where I didn’t bring you a review for Germany since I was actually in Germany – though sadly not at the Nurburgring – we pick up this series looking back at last year’s races. We were in quite a similar situation than where we are now when it comes to speculation about Red Bull and Ferrari’s relative performance. Of course we all remember how Ferrari had dominated the German Grand Prix and made a mockery of themselves with the infamous ‘Fernando is faster than you’ team orders, but fact remains Hockenheim was a Ferrari 1-2, and people started seeing chinks in Red Bulls armor.
Then comes along Hungary, and the Red Bulls just blew everyone away, Vettel taking pole a few tenths ahead of Webber but more crucially, a full 1.2 seconds ahead of Alonso in p3! Because of this I’m wary of jumping on the bandwagon of people claiming Red Bull is weakening this year and that Ferrari has caught up to them. Same as last year though, it seems Mclaren are dropping a bit behind. Despite Hamilton’s great win last week, it seemed the Mclaren does not have the ultimate raw pace RBR and Ferrari have. Only a remarkable quali lap and race by Lewis bagged them the win in Germany and dragged that car up to places it really had no business being. Of course it was also in a way all different last year, with Hamilton leading the WDC and Mclaren on top at the WCC before Hungary.
Let’s head onto qualifying: as said, Red Bull were in a league of their own, the Ferrari got 3 and 4 (no surprise as to in what order they lined up), Hamilton on p5 flanked by Rosberg and behind them Petrov with a surprizing p7, outqualifying Kubica for the first time who lined up right behind him. Button messed up yet another quali session to start in p11- sort it out Jenson! – and De La Rosa got a surprising p9 on the grid for Sauber in front of Hulkenberg who also outqualied Rubens for one of the first times in the Williams.
As the lights went out it become clear that the right side of the grid is way more dirty than the pole side, and Vettel gets away cleanly while Webber bogs down and sees Alonso slip ahead into turn one- who even had a look ’round the outside of Vettel in T1 but was then crowded out. Petrov makes a lightning start and bags Lewis and Rosberg for p5, while Button moves backwards down to p15. Schumi and Kobayashi were the best starters, with Kamui up from dead last on the grid to p16 after 2 laps – penalized after failing to show up at a weighing session post quali. Barrichello also slipped ahead to p9 in front of his teammate seeing his hard work in quali undone.
Immediatly Vettel pulls away- something we’ve so gotten used to this year but was still a surprize last year as he streaks ahead by about 1 seconds per lap ahead of Alonso who is holding up Webber badly. Despite his lightning start, Petrov is way too cautious on the brakes and Hamilton takes him around the outside on turn 2, a a crucial move for him as the Renault clearly lacked the pace to keep up with the Red Bulls and Ferraris, but once released Hamilton could not make an impression at all on p4 man Massa.
Early on in the race a huge plume of smoke bellows out of Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso with an engine blowup, who stupidly continues to run for quite a while, putting oil and debris all over the track. tssk tssk Jaime, not cool!. Meanwhile futher behind Rosberg is starting to build a little Trulli train, frustrating Kubica’s progress in particular. It was clear from the get go that the Hungaroring is not a track that promotes overtaking, and it will be a good test again to see if the 2011 tires and rules will improve this here.
The key event of this race happens on lap 15, just as Button had pitted trying to get out of traffic, when Liuzzi loses part of his front wing and it’s lying dangerously on track, prompting a safety car. It’s sad looking back at it how many times SCs determined a race result in 2010, and not actual on track racing. Some people call DRS and Pirellis a lottery, but looking at 2010 it’s just so much better. So everybody and their momma dive into the pits as soon as the safety car is announced and mayhem ensues. Hamilton jumps Massa in the stops, Ferrari being delayed by having to pit both cars on the same lap though crucially the gap was big enough that Felipe didn’t have to queue, but it still took more time than a regular pitstop. The Mercedes crew cracks under pressure and forget to tighten Rosberg’s right rear wheel, which almost immediately goes flying off straight into the pitcrews waiting for their cars, especially Sauber and Williams down the pitlane. As the tire is apprently bodychecked by a Williams crew member and is still bouncing up in the air, Renault stupidly release Kubica right into the path of Sutil who’s pulling into the FI box, resulting in a nasty crash which forces Sutil to retire. The Renault crew manage to push Kubica back into the box and repair the damage, but his race is ruined as he’s now a lap down and will get a drive through for unsafe release – which he won’t even bother to take as he just parks the car in the garage.
Crucially though for this race, Red Bull chose not to queue their cars and only called in Vettel – and a last minute call that was, as we saw Vettel hopping across the kerbs of the final turn to just barely still make it into the pits. Webber hasn’t pitted then of course, and will thus need to build a 20 second gap if he wants to come out ahead after his pitstop, with Vettel in p2, Alonso p3, Hamilton 4 and Massa 5th- poor Felipe again drawing the short stick in pitstops shenanigans. Button profited slightly and got into the points at p10.
As the safety car is brought in, Vettel is caught napping and leaves a huge gap to Webber, way more than the maximum 10 car lengths prescribed in the rules. Post race he admitted to have been napping and hampered by a radio failure which meant he couldn’t hear his engineer Rocky’s instructions but during the race he was fuming in the cockpit as he dived into the pitlane to serve a drive through, wildly gesticulating. Luckily for Vettel, it took quite a while for the stewards to serve him with the penalty, so he managed to build up a big enough gap to Massa, allowing him to get p3 as he exited the pits again, on the hunt for Alonso. Meanwhile Webber is pulling off some stunning series of quali laps to build himself a 20 sec gap to Alonso, and as usual the Bridgestone softs are holding up very well as he only pits on lap 44 of 70, retaining his lead. Before that, on lap 24 Hamilton suddenly pulls over with a mechanical failure, later said to be a gearbox/transmission issue, putting Massa in p4 again and the start of a miserable streak of bad luck and silly driving errors from Hamilton which saw him ruin his WDC chances.
As everything settled down Vettel caught up to Alonso very fast but then got stuck behind the invisible wall of turbulent air. Despite being about a second per lap faster, once he got within the 1 second zone there was no way for Vettel to pass Alonso unless the latter makes a mistake, which is unlikely from a driver of Nando’s caliber. That said, perhaps another driver might have done it, as I’m one of the many starting to doubt Vettel’s overtaking abilities after his poor performances vs Hamilton in Silverstone and Massa in Germany this year. That leaves the procession to cruise home to the finish, but two drivers will still serve up some drama: old teammates Rubinho and Schumi, clearly no love lost between them! Rubens, like Webber did not pit under the SC but he had started on the primes and pits only on lap 56, dropping him down to p11 behind Schumacher in a fight to the death – sadly that becomes almost literally- for the final WDC point to be earned. On the fresh softs, Barichello was catching schumi by 1.5 seconds per lap, and soon enough was right under his gearbox. Rubens starts to complain to the team that Schumi is slamming the door on him too late when already under braking but little did he know what he had in store for him next! Schumi makes a tiny error in the final corner which allows Rubens right under his gearbox on the pitstraight. He breaks out of the slipstream on the right when all of a sudden Schumi starts squeezing him into the pitwall. It was a truly scandalous move by Michael, and Rubens was right to call for a black flag on the team radio, fuming in his cockpit. All credit to Rubinho, he showed some major cojones keeping his foot in all along the way, even when he was millimeters from having a horrid crash into the pitwall. Nonetheless, Rubens gets through and nabs the final point. Schumacher did eventually get penalized with a grid penalty for the next race, but that kind of move was so outrageous I wouldn’t have minded a stronger penalty.
That leaves us with the end result: Webber taking the win and the lead in the WDC from Hamilton, Alonso holding Vettel at bay for p3, Massa 4th, and Petrov with his best result of the year in a flawless drive to p5. The Hulk bags some good points for p6, as do the Saubers of De La Rosa and Kobayashi in p7 and 9, with a disappointing Button in p8.
Does this learn us anything for next year? The circuit obviously suits the Red Bulls well, as it was one of their most dominating performances and would have been a walk in the park 1-2 had it not been for the SC and Seb’s penalty so Red Bull will surely be strong here again in 2011. However, in Silverstone the RBs dominated as well in 2010, and this year the Ferraris were already much closer to them there so I don’t think the gap will be as large as last year, but Red Bull will still have an edge. The sequence of high and medium speed corners are absolute Newey territory. If Red Bull does not dominate this year, then I believe we can really start getting exited about Ferrari and Mclaren bringing the fight to them on equal terms. To save the WDC from Vettel dominating even further we need a strong Webber and for Alonso and Hamilton to put Vettel into the pack behind them on the grid. It’s his biggest weakness and they should pounce on it if they even get a sniff at the opportunity in quali.
I’m thinking Webber will finally convert a pole into a win- it’s long overdue- and it’s clear he has finally gotten on top of how the pirellis work. A stunning quali lap by Alonso will put him p2 ahead of Vettel who’ll be flanked by Hamilton. Massa and Button complete the next row, with the Mercs behind, Schumi outqualifying Rosberg.
Race result I don’t believe much will change at the sharp end with Webber and Alonso staying put, it will still be very hard to overtake despite DRS, and I don’t see it being too effective. The DRS zone is similar to Melbourne with a tricky, long final corner where a following car is really hurt by turbulent air, and I don’t think they’ll be able to get close enough to try a move under braking for turn one when on equal tires. That said, caught back in the pack, Massa and Vettel will get embroiled in some kind of drama taking Massa out while Vettel can continue but only to finish 6th. Hamilton will be the laughing 3rd to take the final podium spot ahead of Button. Merc will finally bring some good performance with Schumi in 5th and Rosberg 7th. Heidfeld will be doing his last race for Renault if Senna performs halfway decent on the friday practice session he’s been given.
do share your predictions!