F1: Round 11 – Hockenheim, Germany – 25 July

The build-up to the German Grand Prix promised much. The unsettled weather had resulted in wet practice sessions and thrills and spills galore, and left qualification as the first proper bit of dry running the drivers had seen. Surely that would affect how well they were able to set up their cars for the race itself?

Then there was the matter of tyres, Bridgestone quite deliberately choosing a prime and soft tyre combination with the maximum difference possible to “shake things up” in the style we saw in the thrilling Montreal race. And to cap it all, we had Ferrari looking like they were back as a force, mixing it right up with Red Bull and McLaren at the front. How could this fail to be a classic race?

Unfortunately, all the thrills proved to be in the build-up, and the race itself was one of the more sober of the season – save for one highly controversial team tactic, and what appears to be another inter-team break out of civil war erupting before our eyes.

On track however the key racing moment came at the very start, when the lights went out and Sebastian Vettel once again got distracted from the need to go into the first turn first, and instead concentrated on sweeping across the track to block Fernando Alonso. It was as successful as his previous attempts: not only did he not fend off Alonso, his move opened up a huge door for Felipe Massa to sail past on the outside line and pass them both. Vettel was stuck sandwiched between them and fell back to third, having no answer to the superior pace that Ferrari now displayed.

Further back, Lewis Hamilton got the better of his team mate Jenson Button into the first turn after Button ran wide and off the track briefly, in which he was not alone. Hamilton then lined up a move on Webber and passed him on lap 2 to take fourth place, but that was about as good as he could hope for this afternoon – the Ferraris and Vettel were way down the track and Lewis had nothing for them.

But Vettel caused a ripple of surprise when he dived into the pits much earlier than expected on lap 13 to change from the soft to hard tyres: Red Bull had seen the opportunity to get him out into a nice bit of clean air, and pulled it off brilliantly. Ferrari, fearful that the fresh rubber would let Vettel make up enough time to jump one or both of their drivers, reacted on the next two laps to bring in Massa and Alonso, and that triggered the other leading teams to follow suit.

Red Bull got sucked into a strategy that they themselves had triggered and brought in Mark Webber, only this time there was no clear bit of track to feed him out into and instead he emerged right in traffic, losing critical seconds. McLaren were more canny, and kept Jenson Button out for as long as his soft tyres held together, and in doing so managed to build up enough of a time advantage to jump Webber when they finally came in. Any thoughts that Webber might be able to fight back were dashed when the team delivered dire warnings on serious oil consumption problems that left him nursing the sick car to the chequered flag well back from the McLarens ahead.

The pit stops had not affected the running order up front, but Felipe Massa was now clearly struggling on the harder compound tyres, repeatedly locking up and struggling to turn into corners. Alonso was right behind him, held up and trying to get past, radioing to the pits “this is ridiculous” as he tried and failed to get past his team mate. With team orders outlawed (and ironically, Alonso himself one of the more vocal critics of “manipulation” in recent races) how would Ferrari manage the situation between their drivers?

After a dozen laps on the harder tyres Massa seemed more comfortable, putting in faster laps while Alonso by contrast seemed to back off, perhaps seeking clean air to cool his brakes and engine – and possibly to cool his hot blood as well. But strangest of all during this period was an oddly portentous communication from Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley, who told his man that he needed to focus, put in even faster laps: “Keep this going, you can still win.” Strange choice of words to someone already leading the race, you’d have thought.

And you’d be right, because the other shoe dropped on lap 48 – Smedley again, speaking very slowly and deliberately, told Massa: “Fernando. Is faster. Than you,” adding “Can you confirm you understood that message?” It didn’t take CIA and MI5 to decode that message and even the most naive listener would assume that it was a code invoking pre-existing team orders and that Massa was being directed to allow Alonso to pass.

Sure enough, next lap through the hairpin Massa was slow out of the corner. Very slow. Deliberately slow. And Alonso sailed past into the lead without a hint of reaction from Massa, who was making it as clear as he could without using words that this wasn’t a mistake he’d just made, that it wasn’t Alonso beating him, but that he was acting under orders. Smedley came on the radio again, sounding as depressed as Felipe must have been feeling: “OK mate, good lad. Stay with him now.” Then, most tellingly and poignantly of all: “Sorry.”

In fairness, Alonso then went on to hammer home the point that he was by far the fastest driver on the track by putting in fastest lap after shattering fastest lap. Massa fell back, demotivated, and looked as though he could come under threat from Vettel, but the Red Bull wasn’t able to make up the distance before the chequered flag fell and the race ended.

What a curious atmosphere, though: a low-key Alonso’s first question to his team on the cool-down lap was “How’s Felipe?” – he sensed the clouds gathering. In parc fermé the two team mates briefly shook hands, but it didn’t take an expert in body language to see how Massa was backing out of the handshake almost before it started, finding it impossible to be in the same space as the race winner.

“Good lad. Felipe is back in business. It was a great result,” Rob Smedley encouraged his driver on the cooldown lap. “You were very magnanimous. And you won’t have any idea what that word means, so I’ll explain it to you later,” possibly being the F1 quote of the year, before the Ferrari spin machine went into high speed and Smedley was wheeled out to face the journalists, looking uncomfortable denying that team orders had been deployed. Massa asserted afterwards that it had been his decision to let Alonso pass, adding that, if not exactly a number two driver, he was now “no longer the team’s focus for the championship.”

And so the podium celebrations were strained, Massa leaving as soon as the formalities were over and even Alonso looking miserable in victory as the journalists lobbed increasingly hostile questions at the duo, while the pundits argued amongst themselves as to what had happened and whether it was right or not. Interestingly the drivers (people like David Coulthard and Anthony Davison) were pragmatic, pointing out that team orders had always existed and always would, that any rule to the contrary was wrong in a team sport and unenforceable in any case; while others like Eddie Jordan not holding back from calling it blatant cheating and calling for sanctions. The press reception was bad tempered, the whole weight of Ferrari’s recent history on team orders coming to bear on this storm. As a PR exercise, then, it was close to being an unmitigated disaster for the team – not the first time, and not even the first time over the vexed question of team orders. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, indeed.

This overshadowed the rest of the race, although in truth there wasn’t much happening of note out on track in the points positions. Overall, the weather – which was dry but overcast and cool – meant that tyre wear was never the problem that it might have been, nor were there any showers to throw in a little race excitement when it was needed. There were some nice battles further down between de la Rosa and the two Williams drivers who had dropped back at the start; and between Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi, which provided some mild distraction from the politics at Ferrari. It was a bad start for Toro Rosso, whose drivers fell over each other into the hairpin on lap 1, Jaime Alguersuari running into the back of Sebastien Buemi. Alguersuari pitted for a new front wing, but Buemi’s rear wing assembly was wrecked and he was the first retirement of the day. It was also a bad day Force India, whose cars both started well down the grid and were hence prime candidates for running into trouble in the early jostling and encountering debris from the Toro Rosso collision that saw them both have to make multiple pit stops. And it was also a day to forget for Lotus, which saw Jarno Trulli retire with mechanical problems just four laps in, and then Heikki Kovalainen exit late in the race after careless collision with Pedro de la Rosa as the Sauber lapped him.

Instead, the race was summed up by the extraordinarily low-key, awkward post-race “celebrations” and strained atmosphere. Ferrari should have been on top of the world but instead were defensive and having to managing an impending driver civil war; the sport as a whole was suddenly looking at a flagrant rule breach but with no realistic way of addressing it without causing uproar.

A strangely unsatisfying end to the weekend that promised so much, then. But on the plus side it does put Ferrari right back into contention, which should stir up the championship battle; and it’s only a week till the next race, in Hungary, which should allow us to put this one behind us.

Race result

Pos  Driver       Team                  Time
 1.  Alonso       Ferrari               1:28:38.866
 2.  Massa        Ferrari               +     4.196
 3.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      +     5.121
 4.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      +    26.896
 5.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      +    29.482
 6.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      +    43.606
 7.  Kubica       Renault               +     1 lap
 8.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +     1 lap
 9.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +     1 lap
10.  Petrov       Renault               +     1 lap
11.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        +     1 lap
12.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     +     1 lap
13.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth     +     1 lap
14.  De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari        +     1 lap
15.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
16.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  +    2 laps
17.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  +    2 laps
18.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       +    3 laps
19.  Senna        HRT-Cosworth          +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:15.824

Not classified/retirements:

Driver      Team                On lap
Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth      58
Di Grassi   Virgin-Cosworth     51
Yamamoto    HRT-Cosworth        20
Trulli      Lotus-Cosworth      4
Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari  2

World Championship standings after round 11

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1. Hamilton     157   1. McLaren-Mercedes      300
 2. Button       143   2. Red Bull-Renault      272
 3. Vettel       136   3. Ferrari               208
 4. Webber       136   4. Mercedes              132
 5. Alonso       123   5. Renault                96
 6. Rosberg       94   6. Force India-Mercedes   47
 7. Kubica        89   7. Williams-Cosworth      31
 8. Massa         85   8. Sauber-Ferrari         15
 9. Schumacher    38   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     10
10. Sutil         35   
11. Barrichello   29   
12. Kobayashi     15   
13. Liuzzi        12   
14. Petrov         7   
15. Buemi          7   
16. Alguersuari    3   
17. Hulkenberg     2   
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