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GP Week : Issue 126
down the pit lane locked inside fronts with abandon; LRGP ran both forward- and rearward-exhaust blowers but for the most part found the tests to be inconclusive: tyre temperatures were a far greater divide. The big difference was at McLaren. Historically a team that is ultra-sensitive to cold temperatures, McLaren on this occasion had grip. Credit to the new engine maps. Credit to the aero department at Woking. Woulditrain?WouldMarkWebber finally lead a lap in a 2011 F1 race? And could that be the final lap of the Germany GP? These were the pre-race questions. The answers, surprisingly, were “No. Yes. And no.” It was Lewis who took the lead. Mark’s third pole of the year dissolved into a mess of bogged-down engine revs and first- corner shuffles, from which Mark emerged in second place – just. Fernando was third, Seb fourth – but not for long. Struggling to find temperatures, Fernando ran wide at the start of lap two. Seb was up to third. We’ve seen Seb Vettel in the past recover from a rough Friday – or even a slow Saturday. In Germany, though, there was no such pace: driving hard to stay with Hamilton and Webber, and catching a right- rear edge on an entry kerb, Seb spun wildly a few laps later. From then on he was driving only for points – something he needs in reality about as much as he needs a new mobile phone. Which left the three of them – Lewis, Mark and Fernando – to fight it out. To fight out: tyre wear and conservation; the correct moment to stop for second and third helpings of option tyres; the correct time to stop for Pirelli primes; and any breaks or holes they might encounter. Lewis was almost-perfect in these regards. His first set of options began to fade towards the end of his first stint, which enabled Mark to zap him into the final corner as early as lap 11. Setting the tone for the afternoon, Lewis then refused to sit down, immediately out-braking Mark at the end of the pit straight and re-taking the lead – one he retained until his first stop on lap 16. “Don’t talk to me while I’m racing!” Lewis had shouted into his radio, Nigel Mansell- style, while all this was going on. Still, though, Mark Webber had now actually led a race for the first time this season – albeit for a couple of hundred metres. Mark’s response was to be the first to stop for new (but used) options. He did so on lap 14; Lewis and Fernando did likewise two laps later. And it worked. Mark took the lead, with Fernando now second and Lewis third. This, you mused, was probably how it was going to finish: Mark was due for a win; Ferrari’s recent progress would be rewarded with yet another podium; and both Lewis and McLaren would be happy with third place after where they’d been in recent weeks. A bit like Seb in Canada, though – and in the closing phase of Silverstone – Mark didn’t (or couldn’t) maximise his position. His lap times were conservative – a sure sign that he was driving to protect his tyres after his early-ish stop; and both Fernando and Lewis breathed easily, knowing that they, too, now had chances of keeping things alive. By lap 29, by which time, in the old Red Bull days, an RB7 would have been leading by 10 or 12 seconds, Mark was a bare 0.8 sec ahead of Fernando and Lewis. He had been lapping at Felipe Massa-pace. There was still a motor race out there, alive and well. Andsotheythrewthedice.Inthese circumstances – with everyone trying to make the Pirelli softs last as long as possible, and with a final, inevitable stop for primes looming constantly, like the storm clouds overhead – stopping last was not necessarily going to win you time. Having made it work once, therefore, Mark again stopped first, followed a lap later by Lewis and then a lap after that (lap 32) by Fernando. For Mark, it didn’t work out. The pit lane exit/first corner element of the new Nurburgring is perhaps the circuit’s greatest asset. Cars rejoin in a tough braking area, the track running downhill into a tight but wide hairpin. Mark Webber could see Lewis’s McLaren accelerating down towards that hairpin even as he held his RB7 in seventh gear. They were side-by-side as they left the corner, Lewis on the outside but thus riding on the better line for the long left- hander that followed. Mark stayed with him, pushing, pushing on the outside around Turn 2, but then Lewis ran him out of room, as he was always going to run him out of room, and Mark had to settle back into what he thought would be a still- promising second place. Make that third place... A lap later, Lewis saw Fernando accelerating out of the pit lane exit just as Mark had seen the McLaren. Mark could only watch as Lewis, taking advantage of the Ferrari’s more delicate tyre temperatures, ran around the outside of the Ferrari at that same Turn 2. Now it was Hamilton-Alonso- Webber, with Lewis maximising his position, clear in the knowledge that Fernando would hold up the Red Bull until the Ferrari found real Pirelli tyre temp. Lewis was helped, too, by a Webber mistake a couple of laps later. Following Fernando closely out of Turn 12 and down into the braking area for the chicane, his RBR unable to overtake the Ferrari even with the flap down, Mark lost the rear as he turned in. He instantly bailed out of the first apex, and straight-lined his way back onto the track – but a couple of seconds were lost. Worse, the momentum had gone. Fernando could now relax a little. And Lewis, leading, could focus on edging away from the Ferrari. Five laps later, Fernando’s tyres had come in. He was able to match the McLaren lap for lap. By then, though, Lewis was three seconds in front. The race had changed its face. Fernando remained poised, ready to pounce. Mark, his tyres going away (for they were two laps older than Fernando’s) began to lose a tenth or so a lap – about the margin you earn at the Nurburgring when you minimise lateral acceleration loads with straight-line exits... And so to the last phase – and to the appearance of the dreaded primes. As it happened – and as Vitaly Petrov proved in the Lotus Renault, when he switched to the hard tyres on lap 46 – they turned out to be a pleasant surprise. McLaren made the right response call, bringing Lewis in on lap 51. Fernando stopped on lap 53; but RBR, trying vainly to regain track position, called Mark in as late as lap 56. It was another strategic error: he fell further and further away on the worn options. Barring the unforeseen, it was over: Lewis, Fernando, Mark. Lewis even set fastest race lap on the primes – fuel load light, of course. Seb Vettel recovered well to finish fourth with the help of Kenny Handkammer and the boys, for both he and Felipe had come in for primes with one lap to run, Felipe ahead. It was Seb, though, who left the pit lane first; Adrian Sutil was outstanding in his drive to sixth place for Force India, ahead of the two Mercedes drivers. (His was a strong, two- stop drive from lap one – a classic example of a low-key driver, now that he lives low-key, post-China, maximising a well-run car.) And Kamui Kobayashi again drove from nowhere into the points, reminding us yet again of how worthy he would be of a drive with a front-running team. Lewis was ecstatic in victory – and for a while had Parc Ferme to himself. In what you would call perfect management, Fernando’s Ferrari ran short of fuel on the in-lap. And with what you would call perfect manners, Mark stopped to give Fernando a ride. The photographers went wild. It was that sort of day. Nick Heidfeld was badly done over by Buemi .... F1 germany >> 27