F1: Round 9 – Nurburgring, Germany – 12 July

There was a sense of destiny – or perhaps of downright Aussie stubborn determination – that said right form the start that this was going to be Mark Webber’s day at long last. Even if he had to pull the Red Bull around the track with his teeth, Webber seemed hell-bent on snatching his maiden F1 chequered flag.

And to be honest, that was almost his undoing: he slightly overevved at the start, allowing Rubens Barrichello to get alongside him down the straight; and then Webber made a quick swerve to the right to give Barrichello a warning bump. Ironically the contact lost him ground, and he ended up going into the first turn behind the Brawn, but the real damage was done when he was handed a drive-thru penalty for causing an avoidable accident. Was Webber’s day over nd done?

One driver who was definitely out for the count was Lewis Hamilton. Aided by the KERS device and rejuvenated by the improved McLaren and high grid position of 5th, Lewis staged a flying start and swerved through the field in a banzai move reminiscent of his début appearances in F1 two and a half years ago. Unfortunately it proved rash: he out-braked himself and ran off at turn 1 after getting knocked form the rear, and along the way had his rear right tyre sliced by the front wing of Webber’s Red Bull. Once Hamilton recovered to the track, he had to limp around with a puncture to get a new tyre and was effectively a lap down right from the start, and with extensive underfloor damage meaning that he never had the raw pace to try a comeback.

At the end of the first lap, then, Barrichello led Webber ahead of Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button, with Webber’s team mate Sebastian Vettel having had a sluggish start and fallen to 6th, stuck for lap after lap between the heavily fuel-laden Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.

However the Brawns of Barrichello and Button were on light fuel loads and three-stopping, so the game was far from over. Barrichello had to pit for fuel on lap 15, the same lap Webber served his penalty, but the Red Bull was on a two-stop strategy and Webber was now able to put in high speed lap after high speed lap. He was aided by Barrichello getting hung up behind the Ferrari of Massa which was still running long, and by the time Barrichello came in again for his second stop on lap 34 his gap over the Red Bull had entirely evaporated and he was only a second ahead of his main rival. For once, the famed Brawn strategy supremacy had let the team down.

After that it was all about damage limitation for the Brawn cars, not helped by a problem with Rubens’ fuel rig that lost him vital seconds and saw him end up running only just on front of his team mate despite Jenson Button having had a much more lacklustre afternoon mired in traffic for the most part. To rub salt into the Brazilian’s wounds, Button was clearly faster in the third quarter of the race on the harder tyres and was desperate to pass Barrichello: but Rubens was having none of it and was fuming, in no mood for team orders. So instead, Button got past him in the pits with a cracking in and out lap, leaving Rubens stuck behind him and having to fend off Fernando Alonso closing up behind them as both Brawns started to suffer severe graining on their rear tyres.

The astonishing fact emerging was just how dominant Mark Webber started to get after mid-distance. Despite the drive-thru penalty that would normally wreck any driver’s afternoon, for Webber it looked almost part of the race day strategy. In the second half of the race there was simply no competition, Webber so far in front that he could toy with closing or extending the lap at whim. Short of blowing up there was simply no stopping him, and when he crossed the finish line the calm, laid-back Aussie was jubilant.

To emphasise Red Bull’s form here, Sebastian Vettel came in second despite a quiet afternoon and getting stuck behind slow traffic, but still possessing the raw pace to muscle his way back to the runners-up spot. And Ferrari will be buoyed up by taking the remaining podium position, although the retirement of Kimi Raikkonen with an engine problem on lap 35 will be a rude reminder that all is still not well in the state of Maranello.

The surprise of the afternoon in many ways was the appearance of Nico Rosburg in 4th place ahead of the Brawns. Little glimpsed during the race, Rosburg had kept running behind the slower, heavier runners and then gained a lot of ground with his own long first stint followed by a series of quick laps just when they were needed. It was a great drive by Nico, and a real demonstration of how the talent and intelligence of driver and team can make up for any hardware deficiencies.

By contrast, a short first stint followed by a long middle stint did not work at all well for McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen, dropping him from third place early in the race to eighth at the finish. he only just kept Timo Glock out of the points, after the Toyota driver staged a stunning recovery from a pit lane start with the aid of a 37 lap opening stint on a brimming tank of fuel. Glock’s team mate Jarno Trulli, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction after being forced to pit for repairs at the end of a a physical first lap that saw a lot of close combat and even closer calls.

Despite that, the only other retirement in the race other than Raikkonen was Sebastien Bourdais, who took a trip off the road down the hill towards the NGK Chicane and then limped back to the pits to retire in what might be his final appearance in an F1 Grand Prix.

And spare a thought for Adrian Sutil, who was doing incredibly well and running in second place by the midpoint in the Force India on a one-stop strategy. But when he emerged from his pit stop, he encountered Kimi Raikkonen turning in on him at the first corner and there was a sudden shower of carbon fibre. The damage to Sutil’s front wing required him to pit and as a result he slumped to 15th place, behind his team mate Giancarlo Fisichella who – while not deserving to beat Sutil up to that point – had also been incredibly feisty and competitive in the grey and relatively cool conditions of the Nurburgring.

But with Mark Webber celebrating in the Red Bull – and more importantly making it clear that he won’t accept second driver/wingman status to Vettel’s championship bid just yet – there were storm clouds developing further down the grid. Specifically, over Rubens Barrichello’s head.

He was livid, and bitterly attacked the pit crew and strategy to a BBC camera crew: “A good show from the team how to lose the race today … I wish I could get back on the plane and go home right now. I don’t want to speak to anyone in the team.” That suggests a deteriorating and possibly terminal state of affairs in the relationship between team and driver.

The situation even seemed to be getting to Button, who was staring at the performance gap between himself and the Brawns – not to mention the improving Ferraris, McLarens and Williams drivers – and seeing the world championship start to recede. He acknowledged that they would have to beat or at least push the Red Bulls hard next time out at the hot and dusty Hungaroring, or else the title might be out of their grasp.

Watch this space.

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        1h36:43.310
 2.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        +     9.252
 3.  Massa         Ferrari                 +    15.906
 4.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    21.099
 5.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes          +    23.609
 6.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes          +    24.468
 7.  Alonso        Renault                 +    24.888
 8.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +    58.692
 9.  Glock         Toyota                  +  1:01.457
10.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +  1:01.925
11.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +  1:02.327
12.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +  1:02.876
13.  Piquet        Renault                 +  1:08.328
14.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +  1:09.555
15.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +  1:11.941
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +  1:30.225
17.  Trulli        Toyota                  +  1:30.970
18.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:33.365

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Raikkonen     Ferrari                   35
Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari        19

World Championship standings after round 9

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        68        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        112
 2.  Vettel        47        2.  Red Bull-Renault       92.5
 3.  Webber        45.5      3.  Toyota                 34.5
 4.  Barrichello   44        4.  Ferrari                32
 5.  Massa         22        5.  Williams-Toyota        20.5
 6.  Trulli        21.5      6.  McLaren-Mercedes       14
 7.  Rosberg       20.5      7.  Renault                13
 8.  Glock         13        8.  BMW Sauber              8
 9.  Alonso        13        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
10.  Raikkonen     10       
11.  Hamilton       9       
12.  Heidfeld       6       
13.  Kovalainen     5       
14.  Buemi          3       
15.  Kubica         2       
16.  Bourdais       2       
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