Vettel only fourth as Red Bulls show signs of strain
Lewis Hamilton drove a flawless race against extremely stiff competition to take victory at the German Grand Prix. The McLaren driver was given no quarter by his pursuers, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, crossing the line after 60 laps just 3.9 seconds ahead of Alonso. The championship leader, Sebastian Vettel, struggled throughout and could manage only fourth.
Hamilton had started alongside Webber on the front row of the grid and overtook the Red Bull into turn one, when the Australian managed only a sluggish start. All the drivers had started on the option (soft) slick tyres, despite spots of rain as the grid formed up, but despite the cold temperature, grip did not seem to be an issue.
From a clean start Vettel lost third place to Alonso but was to regain the spot within a circuit. By lap eight, however, the Ferrari’s tyres had warmed up, as had the track by several degrees – vital for a car that does not perform well at low temperatures – and Alonso was all over Vettel. He made the move stick on turn one, retaking third.
Jenson Button also struggled from the off and was relegated from seventh to 10th by the end of the first lap – it left him stuck behind Vitaly Petrov and losing touch with the leaders but it was not to be his day. Having begun to make progress through the field he had to retire with hydraulic failure on lap 36.
Hamilton had tried to open a gap but the front three were separated by only one second when, although there was a constant threat of rain, Red Bull opted to take the first of their stops early, bringing in Webber on lap 15. The option tyres were estimated to be between one and two seconds quicker than the medium (prime) and these early stops suggested the leaders would be three-stopping to minimise the time spent on the slower tyres at the end of the race.
The early stop worked perfectly, on fresh rubber with some quick times Webber gained the undercut and was ahead of Hamilton and Alonso when they exited the pits two laps later. It was the first time the Australian has led a race this season and must have given him confidence that he could go on and win.
Just behind these first stops and similarly to Alonso, Felipe Massa was finding his Ferrari’s performance coming to him and overtook Vettel to take fourth just before the German pitted. He made it stick through the stop but was to be chased by the world champion to the final lap.
The leaders could still not be separated however, and Webber again opted for new boots first on lap 30 but this time it was not quite enough. Hamilton pitted two laps later and came out head-to-head with the Australian in turn one, they touched at turn two as Hamilton squeezed Webber wide and held the place for several nail-biting moments.
Just as the crowd began to breathe again a lap later, Alonso exited his stop just ahead of Hamilton and it was wheel-to-wheel again through the opening complex. Hamilton took advantage of his warmer tyres and, with huge commitment, retook the lead around the outside of turn two. The order thus remained Hamilton, Alonso, Webber through to the final stages, with Hamilton trying to extend his lead but unable to shake off the Ferrari, and Webber dropping several seconds back in third.
Only the final pit-stops remained, by which time Alonso was still within three seconds of the leader and appeared to be managing his tyres better. Hamilton pitted on lap 50 while Alonso’s crew told him to take advantage over the team radio.
Alonso stayed out for two laps longer but did not have the pace in his tyres and Hamilton’s new, harder, rubber was not as detrimental as had been expected on a track that had remained dry throughout and was now fully rubbered-in. It was just enough. Alonso exited still in second and a gamble by Red Bull to leave Webber out longer on the softs did not work – he remained in third and an ecstatic Hamilton took the victory ahead of them both.
Behind them, in a final moment of drama, Massa and Vettel pitted together as they began the final lap. By now Massa had been defending stoically, under great pressure, for the whole race and deserved fourth place, but Red Bull are imperious in their stops and inevitably Vettel exited ahead of the Brazilian.
After a difficult two weeks since the British Grand Prix for McLaren this was just the result they needed: “Great job, that was amazing, oh wow!” Hamilton said from his cockpit. “Thank you so much for pushing so hard. The car was so nice to drive.”
Vettel grabbing fourth means it has not made a huge difference to the drivers’ championship. His lead remains more than healthy on 216 points to Webber’s 139, Hamilton’s 134; Alonso’s 130 and Button’s 109. But it will be a huge boost to McLaren and Ferrari to know that they have the race pace to take on and defeat the Red Bulls and provided further evidence that the world champion is not so dominant when starting from behind the front row.