Make no mistake we are now in a championship dogfight between Red Bull and Mercedes. In the blue (and purple!) corner we have triple world champion Sebastian Vettel. In the silver corner we have Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
The Mercedes drivers may only be fourth and sixth in the championship but armed with the fastest car on the grid and a much greater understanding of Pirelli tyres the Brackley based squad will be best placed to take advantage of the tyre construction changes from this weekend’s German Grand Prix.
The Italian manufacturer will bring the same tyre compounds to Germany as has been used throughout the season but they will reintroduce the Kevlar belt which should play a role in improving the tyre temperature problems that have plagued teams in 2013. As opposed to previous years driving style has done little to help manage the temperature of the tyres. In most cases once the tyres have reached their maximum operating temperature it is impossible to bring them back to a more controllable temperature.
This has meant that we have seen drivers forced to drive below the limit in an attempt to skirt the maximum tyre temperature range without overstepping that mark. Once the mark was reached it was all but impossible to get it back under the threshold. Pirelli have issued teams instructions for cambers and pressures and it is expected that these will be monitored throughout the weekend.
The German Grand Prix
With lots of low speed corners in the opening sector of the lap the Nurburgring has a low average speed for the first half of the lap before the track starts to open up as drivers tackle a series of medium speed corners in the middle of the lap.
The lap opens with drivers heading down the pit straight at just under 300 kmp/h with a roller coaster on one side and the pit wall on the other. The first corner is the best overtaking opportunity of the lap with a first gear hairpin that requires a wide sweeping line for the best apex speed. It leaves you vulnerable to attack from rivals however so it is important to defend well here during the race; particularly once your rival has their DRS enabled. The next series of corners are second gear corners that force drivers to snake towards turn 5 and the more open sections of the lap.
The middle sector is dominated by faster corners with turn 5, 8, 9 and 11 all taken in fourth gear. Turn 11 is arguably the most important of the lap. A driver’s exit speed from this corner determines whether they will be in a position to make an overtaking move before the end of the lap at the penultimate corner.
The track evolves heavily over the course of the weekend as rubber gets put down and usually on Saturday morning the drivers suddenly experience a much grippier track surface and times start to tumble. Unfortunately, however, the weather conditions are extremely fickle at the track.
Nestled within the Eifel Mountains at an elevation of over 600m there is a micro climate at the Nurburgring. Rain comes from nowhere; famously at the 2006 race the Spyker of Markus Winkelhock led his only Grand Prix when numerous drivers were caught out by a sudden downpour.
“The Nurburgring is a track that seems to encourage close racing and plenty of overtaking,” said the McLaren driver. “The combination of low- and medium-speed corners tend to allow cars to run quite closely, and there are a couple of big braking zones, where it’s quite easy to get alongside and steal the inside line. However, it’s got some nicely designed sections, which mean – equally – that you can lose out on the entry and yet still regain position if you have better traction and track position on the exit.”
Rémi Taffin, Head of Track Operations for Renault, explained the challenges of the Nurburgring from an engine manufacturer’s perspective:
“The Nürburgring is a medium speed track with an average of around 190kph,” said the Frenchman. “The four long straights are balanced out by a mix of low speed corners, such as turns 1 and 7 where the cars will run between 75 and 95kph.
“As a result the engine has to be drivable through the lower revs but also offer responsiveness and top end power. In particular Renault Sport F1 will work carefully on the selection of the top gear ratios since seventh gear will be engaged four times a lap, a higher than average usage. The high altitude of the track means the atmospheric pressure is lower so the demands on the engine are less severe, so we will tend to use an engine on the third race of its life.”
Championships hinge on next two races
After being lapped in Barcelona, having dominated qualifying, it seems hard to believe that Mercedes are now in a position to start any Grand Prix weekend as the hot favourite but the Silver Arrows will be the pace setters again this weekend. The team has struggled for much of their latest reincarnation but in 2013 they have developed a car that in terms of raw pace is a step ahead of the field.
Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton have outscored every other driver pairing since Barcelona and they look primed for another successful weekend in Germany. Having endured so much misery over the last four years the team are reaping the rewards of downsizing in 2010 and streamlining their resources.
While Mercedes have found performance of late, whether from their much debated tyre test or not is irrelevant, one thing has been clear in recent races; Ferrari and Lotus are in danger of falling out of championship contention.
“We are not delivering what we are supposed to delivery with the new parts,” said the double world champion. “Some of them are not working and we are losing some pace compared to the top teams. But it’s hard to imagine that we have lost so much. Two months ago we were only two tenths off the fastest cars now we are one second.
“At this moment it is the way that we are performing is not working. At the beginning of the year we were usually on the front two rows of the grid and here we are unfortunately fighting for Q3 just like last year. We are tenth so we need to come back to the form of the start of the year immediately.”
Even though Alonso clawed back 15 points to Sebastian Vettel in the championship chase, courtesy of the German’s Red Bull expiring in the closing stages at Silverstone, it is clear that time is running out for Alonso.
The same can be said of Lotus where Kimi Raikkonen has also been struggling in recent races. The Lotus started the season strongly and Raikkonen is a consistent points scorer but he needs to add to his Melbourne victory if he is to hope to stay in contention for the championship.
Force India look to capitalise on McLaren
McLaren admitted at Silverstone that they are shifting their focus to 2014 with Martin Whitmarsh saying that the team has to “be realistic about what is achievable.” Given that the team is currently lagging behind Force India in the Constructors’ Championship they will face an uphill task to hold off their new found rivals.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s race Force India Team Principal, Vijay Mallya, said:
“We are now 22 points ahead of McLaren: they are on 37, and we have 59,” said the Indian. “It’s all very well to say we are widening the gap, but McLaren is such a formidable team, with such a fantastic track record, they can wipe out that entire gap by winning just one race. I would not take it for granted that we will hang on to fifth, but we will make every attempt.”
At Silverstone Paul di Resta had one of the best performances of his career in qualifying fifth but having been found to be underweight in qualifying he was forced to start at the back of the grid but moving through the field to finish in the points was highly impressive.
The Scot spoke about his home race and while it was clear that it was a disappointment for him but a double points finish for the team showed how much improvement has been made:
“The important thing is that we came away with more points, which is always positive,” said di Resta. “It was a good recovery given where we started and keeps up our momentum in the championship as it’s my seventh points finish of the season. You always think about how things might have been different, but we’ve come away feeling relatively satisfied with the outcome.”
McLaren look likely to struggle again this weekend. There are numerous sections of the track with lots of bumps and with their car struggling to ride kerbs and bumps it is clear that this has the potential to be a tough weekend.
“I’ve already put the disappointment of Silverstone behind me,” commented the Mexican. “In fact, I was more encouraged by the positives: I demonstrated strong pace all weekend was having a good race and looked set to finish in the points, until my tyre failure in the closing laps. Naturally, these setbacks happen in motor racing, so it’ll be good to get back in the car just a few days after Silverstone and get back to business.
“I started my single-seater career in Germany, so it’s a place with lots of positive memories for me. I enjoy racing at the Nurburgring, it’s a place where you need to attack to get the best from the lap, so I think it’s well suited to my style. Of course, I’d have loved to have raced on the old track, the Nordschleife, that must have been an incredible place for a grand prix, but I’ll be happy with a positive result on the new circuit.”
Rookies look ahead to Germany
The 2013 class of rookies travel to Germany with different levels of expectation. Esteban Gutierrez has shown some promising form recently. The Mexican finished outside of the points again at Silverstone but with Sauber struggling at the moment he has at least shown signs of progress.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s race the rookie commented on the challenges, and benefits, of back to back races:
“I used the days between the races in Silverstone and the Nürburgring to relax and do some good fitness training in order to recharge before the German GP,” said the Mexican.” Back to-back races there is less time to analyse the previous weekend and the focus changes pretty quickly, so you take the momentum and move on. On the other hand, back-to-back races are really nice, because you only have a couple of days until you are back in the car again.
“I have great memories of the Nürburgring. In 2009, I raced there for the first time in Formula 3, and had a podium with my former team mates Jules Bianchi and Valtteri Bottas. It’s a traditional Track with a as the GP circuit is part of the famous Nordschleife and I enjoy it a lot. It’s interesting to drive there with the fast corners, and the weather can be a challenge too. It’s exciting to come to Germany and feel the racing atmosphere. There is not that much to do around the area, so it’s all about pure racing.”
At Caterham Giedo van der Garde has shown that he is a solid driver thus far in his rookie campaign but with Heikki Kovalainen linked with a race seat the Dutchman will be feeling the pressure to perform in upcoming races:
“Germany is going to be a great race, partly because the track is relatively near home for me so there will be a lot of Dutch support there, and because it’s a track I’ve always gone well at,” said the Dutchman. “Throughout my career I’ve won races there in all categories – I know that’s not going to happen this year but, as a rookie, when you go to a track you know really well it means you’re on it right from the first lap and that helps us maximise the time we have in every session, as long as the weather stays dry which it looks like it should!
“It’ll be the first time for me around the Nurburgring in an F1 car but I last raced there in a GP2 car back in 2011 so I know quite a lot of what to expect. Like Spa the weather can change very quickly so we have to pay very close attention to the forecasts and, even though the track is used a lot outside F1 weekends, the grip levels still improve quite a bit over the weekend so the long run work we’ll do on Friday will be very important for the race. The track itself is mostly made up of low to medium speed corners – apart from T5 there’s not a lot of really high speed stuff but despite that it’s still a very good track to drive on. You can build up a good rhythm and that’s one of the keys to a good lap.”
Williams have struggled in 2013 and it has made it difficult to judge the ability of Valtteri Bottas but the team has been very impressed with the Finn. He has experience of the track and he’s looking forward to the challenge:
“The Nürburgring is a very challenging track as it has a broad mixture of corners which makes car set-up difficult,” said the Finn. “I really like the hi-speed sections in particular, especially the fast left and right corners leading to the back straight. The weather is often changeable so we will be preparing for the possibility of a wet weekend. I’ve always enjoyed driving in tricky conditions though and our car is currently performing better in the wet/damp conditions so I will be hoping that we do see some showers.
With tyre management being so important, and teams not having raced here last season, we will be trying to get as much data from the practice sessions as possible to make sure that we are racing on Sunday with the optimum strategy. The team will be continuing our 600th race celebrations in Germany and we will be looking to score some points to give the people back at the factory an extra boost.”
At Marussia Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton have had contrasting seasons. Bianchi has enhanced his reputation whereas Chilton has made progress but has struggled to challenge his more experienced teammate.
For Bianchi the season has flown so far:
“It’s hard to believe that we are almost at the middle of the season,” said the Frenchman. “The races are really starting to come quickly, so it is especially important that we stay focused now, as in Silverstone we didn’t achieve our objective of staying ahead of the Caterham and we have to turn that situation around again.
“We need to give ourselves a better chance for the race by having a stronger preparation on Friday and Saturday, to leave us in the best position. I have raced at the Nürburgring on a few occasions previously in the junior formulae – the last time in 2011. I’m looking forward to returning there.”
“With just a few days between races, I’ve spent those training before heading out on Wednesday,” said Chilton. “I’ve also caught up with my engineers on what we learned from the race and we’ll continue that process over the next couple of days as we need to give ourselves the best possible run-up to the weekend. Qualifying is an area we particularly need to improve on, so that’s the first objective. I’m very pleased with my record of finishes – eight in eight races – so naturally I’m keen to keep that going.”
Setup challenges facing the teams
The Nurburgring is a lap of two halves. The opening half of the lap is filled with slow speed corners that place a premium on ride quality over the bumps and slow speed traction for corner exits. The second half of the lap is more open and flowing and places a more importance on having sufficient downforce for fourth gear corners.
Sauber’s Tom McCullough commented on the difficulties of racing at the Nurburgring:
“The Nürburgring is one of the most technically challenging circuits for the drivers and engineers. There is a good mix of low, medium and high-speed corners with the added challenge of several sections requiring many set-up and driver compromises. There are also some off camber corners, which always make it harder to get the ideal set-up.
“Pirelli has selected the medium and soft compounds for our return to the Nürburgring. Located within the Eifel mountain range there is often a chance of poor weather which can often add another element to the mix. We take encouragement from our race pace in Silverstone, but it is clear we still have some work to do in order to qualify stronger. As we did in Silverstone our aim will be to add to our points tally.”
It would be great for the sport if Williams enjoyed their 600th Grand Prix this weekend…but it is far more likely that the Grove squad will endure another difficult weekend. Having not scored points this season it has been exceptionally disappointing for the team that seemed to have turned a corner last year.
Their Spanish Grand Prix victory from last year seems to have been an age ago and as Mike Coughlan, the team’s Technical Director, comments it is clear that the unique challenges of this weekend will make it difficult for engineers to find the perfect setup:
“Nürburgring is quite a technical track with lots of challenging corner sequences and camber changes,” said the Englishman. “There can also be variable weather which adds another element into the mix, although we don’t see many safety cars, with only two being deployed in the last ten races. It is a slower speed circuit with a below average top speed and the average corner speed is similar to what we see in Barcelona. The circuit is about 600 metres above sea level so engine power is low and downforce is reduced. We’ll reach our 600th race as a team at the German Grand Prix and we will be looking to mark this milestone with a strong finish this weekend.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
Silverstone saw Formula 1 hit its nadir in terms of tyre management. Pirelli have done a fantastic job of producing exciting races over the last three years but the Italian manufacturer has clearly pushed the boundaries too far in 2013. Silverstone saw four failures during the race and numerous close calls and it is clear that changes need to be made.
Pirelli will revert to a Kevlar belt in their tyre this weekend which should help control the tyre temperature problems that have caused so much controversy of late. The teams have been issued instructions for tyre pressures, minimum acceptable pressure of 20psi, and other instructions.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director, has been unfairly under fire throughout the year so far but the Englishman seems resolute ahead of this weekend’s race:
“We’re bringing the medium and soft tyres to the Nurburgring, which is a circuit that we’re racing on for the first time since 2011 of course,” said Hembery. “This is actually the same nomination as we had in 2011, but of course the compounds are now a lot softer and faster, so in theory we should see a quicker race with slightly more pit stops.
“Germany is the third of a series of races, following Canada and Great Britain, where the weather is traditionally uncertain. So ambient temperature will have a noticeable effect on wear and degradation. However, the Nurburgring is generally a smooth and flowing track where tyre life tends to be quite extensive. We are not expecting a massive performance gap between the two compounds either. From past information, this also seems to be a race where it’s going to be reasonably likely to see the Cinturato Green intermediate and Cinturato Blue full wet in action at some point over the weekend. If this is the case, it will obviously have a profound effect on race strategy.”
“Surprisingly, the Nurburgring is one of the circuits that we have the least experience of, having only raced there once before in Formula 1, but we’re certain that we have chosen the correct compromise between performance and durability by bringing the medium and soft compounds.
“The Nurburgring is not on the whole an especially demanding circuit for tyres but there are still some distinctive aspects to look out for when it comes to tyre management, such as the kerbing on the chicanes. We are expecting a performance gap of 0.8-1.0 second between the two nominated compounds, which should make the strategy options versatile.”
Speaking about the change to Kevlar belts Hembery said:
“For this race only, we will bring Kevlar-belted rear tyres, following the incidents at the British Grand Prix. Even though the 2013 high-performance steel-belted version is completely safe when used correctly, the Kevlar-belted version is easier to manage and as long as there is no system in place which allows us to enforce tyre related specifications, like tyre pressures or camber, the incorrect use of which were contributing factors of the tyre failures in Silverstone, we prefer to bring a less sophisticated tyre. From the Hungarian Grand Prix onwards there will be a completely new range of tyres, combining the characteristics of our 2012 tyres with the increased performance of the 2013 specification.”