German Grand Prix 2010 - 26/07/10

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) - Getty Images

You would be forgiven for believing that Ferrari and Fernando Alonso had reached rock bottom at Silverstone in regards to their 2010 championship campaign, but the events of Hockenheim have shown that Ferrari can snatch acrimony from the jaws of glory all by themselves and without the help of a safety car, the weather or the stewards. It appears that alongside the championship momentum they have inherited from Red Bull, they have also inherited the controversy. Ferrari’s decision to move Felipe Massa over for Fernando Alonso for victory at the German GP may on the one hand be completely understandable, but their execution of the aforementioned swap has landed them in deep water with the fans, media and the authorities. What should have been just cause for celebration amongst the Maranello squad has degraded into a fervent defence of their tactics.

Alonso had been the pacesetter for the most part in practice and qualifying all weekend, confirming the recent and strong return to form by Ferrari. Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel only pipped Alonso to pole by 0.002s, with Felipe Massa starting 3rd on the grid albeit half a second behind Alonso. This was a superb result for Ferrari who had targeted this point of the season for a turnaround and their big push towards the championship titles. It was the best qualifying result for the team since the first race in Bahrain back in March. Mark Webber ruined his final qualifying run with a mistake at turn 1, and neither of the McLarens were able to challenge either of the Red Bulls or Ferraris, with Jenson Button just pipping Lewis Hamilton to 5th. Both Williams drivers made the top 10, as did Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica, but Michael Schumacher was unable to reward the home fans with a place in Q3, missing out to teammate Rosberg for 10th place in Q2 by a microscopic amount, his failure to make Q3 more a function of the car’s lack of pace than his own driving.

The start of the race saw Vettel get away poorly and move over in his now customary fashion to discourage Alonso’s Ferrari from taking the inside line at turn 1, but Fernando made it through. Their combined compromised entry into turn 1 allowed Felipe Massa to sweep around the outside and take the lead from 3rd on the grid, with the aid of some turn 1 runoff. Regardless of Vettel and Alonso’s squeeze through the first corner, Massa’s start was excellent. Jenson Button also had a good getaway but as Vettel had to lift to make turn 1 after giving up the optimum line in favour of an attempted block, Button also had to lift considerably not to make contact with Vettel’s rear. This allowed Webber and Hamilton to dive past, thus giving us Massa in the lead, Alonso in 2nd, followed by Vettel, Webber, Hamilton and Button. Schumacher also made a fantastic start, passing both Williams cars and teammate Rosberg. Hamilton made use of the McLaren’s low-downforce set up to get inside Webber on lap 1 into the turn 6 hairpin, hanging him out to dry on the exit where Webber ran wide and succumbed to Lewis.

As Massa held his lead with consistently good laps on the soft tyres throughout the first stint, Alonso stuck with him trading fastest laps, and Vettel stayed reasonably close in 3rd. Vettel was the first of the three to pit on lap 13, and Ferrari brought in Alonso one lap later to cover off the threat. Massa was the last to pit of the 3 and came out on lap 15 just in front of Alonso. As Felipe struggled with the harder tyres, Alonso piled on the pressure as Massa continued to lock up and slide around in corners. On lap 21 as Massa encountered traffic in turn 2, Alonso got a great run down to the hairpin, even using the extra slipstream of a lapped Hispania to inch ahead as they entered the braking zone. The problem was that Massa had the all-important inside line and Alonso had to relent, his half-move at the high speed turn 7 right-hander being the last opportunity for a number of laps. Massa then put the hammer down and pulled out a lead of nearly 4 seconds over Alonso, who appeared to be saving fuel and tyres for a later run at the lead. Sure enough, he upped his pace and began closing in on his teammate, with the gap down to less than a second again by lap 47. Vettel was also drawing closer to the leading pair.

Cue controversy. On lap 48 Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley made little effort to hide what was an instruction for Felipe to make way for the faster Alonso “OK, so, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?”. On lap 50 while exiting the turn 6 hairpin, Massa stayed on partial throttle and allowed Alonso to pass before turn 7. Subsequent radio messages and post-race ‘celebrations’ did absolutely nothing to corroborate the Ferrari story that it was Felipe’s own decision, and not a single fan or media representative believed it. Fans of Ferrari will find it hard to justify quite why it had to be done in such an obvious and seemingly amateur fashion. The presence of team orders in F1 is not a shock, there were probably more instances of it at the Turkish GP than at Hockenheim, but Ferrari’s handling of it has brought this upon them.

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) - Getty Images

In case it wasn’t obvious enough, Alonso went on to win the German GP, continuously setting fastest laps in order to justify later that he was quick enough to be allowed past by Massa, who himself was banging in fast ones to stay ahead of a flying Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton remained ahead of Button for 4th and 5th respectively, with Webber nursing home an oil-guzzling Red Bull in 6th. Button was able to get ahead of Webber by spending more time on the softer tyres before his first stop. Kubica managed more healthy points behind the big boys in 7th and Rosberg beat Schumacher to 8th by dint of running much longer on his soft tyres during the first stint, much as Button did.

A great deal has been said about the injustice meted out to Felipe Massa by his beloved Ferrari team. Considering the fact that the German GP was basically the 1 year anniversary of his near-fatal accident last year at the Hungaroring, that Massa was planning to dedicate any result to the recent passing of a family member, and that he has been off the pace for most of the season, the team’s decision may for some contradict Ferrari’s usual emotional policy of rewarding loyal drivers like Luca Badoer. However, it is completely in keeping with their prioritisation of the better performing, better placed driver who has the most realistic chance of winning the championship.

Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso - Getty Images

As I mentioned in the British GP review last week, Massa and Alonso have found themselves on the same piece of track a few times this year and they were on the way to having a situation to deal with. Alonso’s barge-pass into the Chinese GP pits or his pass of Massa at Silverstone which resulted in a puncture for Felipe will not have been forgotten. All of these incidents were put down to racing between competitive drivers, no further action was taken, no driver complaint aired. So it is not surprising that many question the way in which Ferrari managed the German GP result. It should not be forgotten that in 2007 Felipe Massa was allowed to gift Kimi Raikkonen the win at the end of season Brazilian GP, thus handing Kimi the championship by 1 point ahead of Lewis Hamilton. There are other such occasions that have not created such outrage, incidents far removed from the ridicule of Austria 2002. Those that view Ferrari’s decision at Hockenheim to be more in the league of A1 Ring 2002 rather than Brazil 2007 may be blowing it out of proportion.

Massa leads Alonso in Australia 2010 - Getty Images

You could argue that Fernando Alonso has earned his place as the prioritised driver for 2010 by way of demonstrating his speed over Felipe Massa at just about every event this year, even if Massa has finished ahead of him at Australia, China, Malaysia and Turkey. You could argue that while the championship is still mathematically possible for both drivers, Massa should be given a chance just as Raikkonen was in 2008. However in 2008 Massa and Raikkonen were a lot closer than Alonso and Massa have been this year, and while Felipe has shown much improvement at Hockenheim, Ferrari are under no doubts as to who will provide them with the better opportunity even at this stage. Felipe has himself benefitted from that kind of Ferrari prioritisation in the past, Ferrari loyalty is clearly earned by points.

Regardless of those historic details, Ferrari have been fined $100,000 for breaking the sporting rules regarding team orders and have been referred to the World Motorsports Council for bringing the sport into disrepute. Regardless of F1 reality, everyone will still feel robbed of a last gasp battle for the lead between two high quality F1 drivers, and that Ferrari’s decision went against the purest principles of racing. Christian Horner at Red Bull is taking every opportunity to shift recent negative attention away from his own team’s issues and onto Ferrari, and he will be hoping that the WMSC see fit to dock Ferrari the points gained at Hockenheim, thus rewarding Vettel the victory. If that is indeed the outcome, Ferrari and Stefano Domenicali will be forced to reconsider if an extra 7 points for Alonso were worth all that followed. Alonso may well have been able to find his way past Massa, but we will never know and that is probably the biggest shame of all.

Returning to the championship, and where everyone now stands, the most important things are the facts. It is a fact that Lewis Hamilton and McLaren still lead the drivers’ and constructors’ championship. It is a fact that despite not having the fastest car, both McLaren drivers have gained a good haul of points, possibly more depending on the WMSC outcome. It is a fact that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are once again tied on points. It is a fact that Ferrari are now very much back up to winning speed with a car that worked extremely well in all conditions at Hockenheim, and for the time being Fernando Alonso has re-entered the championship battle proper. Finally, it is a fact that Felipe Massa emphatically demonstrated a strong return to form with undoubtedly his performance of the season. A race-winning performance. Not bad for a number 2 driver.


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