In mid-May, Lewis Hamilton was 19 points adrift of his Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg, the gap was even up to 43 points not soon after; but after his fourth consecutive win, Hamilton has roared back to take a 19 point advantage of his own at the top of the Drivers’ Championship.
In a flawless drive from lights to flag, Hamilton eased away after pouncing on Rosberg’s sluggish start to take victory from the Red Bull pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who earned the Austrian team’s first double podium finish of the season. After a tumultuous race, that included another penalty for a misdemeanour, Rosberg finished in fourth.
After a year out, the German Grand Prix returned, again at Hockenheim – with an increase in fans compared to the damp 2014 edition – and the German Rosberg seized the initiative early in the weekend, topping the time sheets in all three Free Practice sessions. Rosberg won here in 2014, and continued his Friday/Saturday morning form into Qualifying, taking pole by just over a tenth from Hamilton, with the two Red Bulls in close proximity.
Hamilton admitted that he didn’t get the job done on Saturday, saying that he had to “swallow that, and just move on.” He did just that, easily capturing the lead after Rosberg lit up his rear tyres when shifting up into third gear. Not only did that make him lose position to Hamilton, but it also made him easy prey for both Ricciardo and Verstappen. The Australian went into Turn 1 ahead, but after a ballsy move around the outside, the popular teenager came out on top, using all the track and a bit more, but it was deemed to be fair.
Hamilton soon stretched his legs, quickly building a two second gap to the charging Red Bulls, conserving his tyres whilst trying to create a comfortable buffer in order to save his Power Unit in the closing stages. However, for most of the field, the main problem was not engine wear, but tyre wear – with several drivers, including Verstappen, Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel complaining about a lack of traction as the Pirelli rear tyres depleted, leading to a change in strategy for many. It became a three-stop affair, opposed to a a two-stop race, Mercedes, who had planned to only pit both Hamilton and Rosberg twice, had to shuffle accordingly in order to be on the quickest option.
One man who was not concerned about how many stops he would have was Felipe Massa; who lost speed, time and places hand over fist after being clouted in the rear by Jolyon Palmer at Turn 2 on the first lap. Massa ended up retiring on lap 38 to complete a miserable weekend for the struggling Brazilian, his recent Hockenheim form doesn’t look to be improving anytime soon. It may even be his last visit to the Rhine valley in a Formula 1 car.
With little going on at the sharp end immediately after the first round of pitstops, the best action could be seen in the midfield, with Kevin Magnussen battling hard with the Haas of Esteban Gutierrez, the Dane having to find his way past three times over the course of the 67 laps, but the Mexican eventually held his own against the Renault after the last stop.
The race’s flashpoint again involved Rosberg, and took a similar tinge to his Austria controversy. This time, it was not against Hamilton, but Verstappen. Rosberg pushed hard after his second stop, and caught Verstappen after the Dutchman’s tyre change the proceeding lap. Going into the hairpin at Turn 6, Rosberg used the power of his Mercedes Power Unit and the DRS to pull alongside Verstappen, who went on the defensive under braking. Rosberg dived down the inside and waited until the very last moment to turn into the corner, forcing Verstappen off onto the tarmac runoff. It incurred the wrath of he stewards, who deemed the move to be a little more aggressive than usual, handing the Mercedes driver a five second time penalty, that he served at his third stop. He lost even more time due to a malfunctioning stopwatch, meaning he was stationary for eight seconds before his crew touched the car. The German tried to plead his innocence, telling his race engineer Tony Ross that he was at “full lock“. The TV cameras told a different story however. He stated his perplexity over the penalty post race, explaining to Sky Sports “I thought it was a good battle…and I was very surprised that I got penalised, I didn’t expect that at all.”
It removed Rosberg from the podium picture, and made him vulnerable to the Ferrari of Vettel, who had another frustrating race. He took issue with the Ferrari pit wall over strategy, after he was told to pit in order to get the undercut on Verstappen. The German said that he couldn’t see him, and rejected the pit order, as he was also happy with the state of his rubber boots.
There were no such problems for Hamilton out in front though, who maintained his six second gap to Ricciardo for the last 20 laps, and had the luxury of being able to turn the power down. It remains to be seen what his engine change strategy is for Spa in four weeks time.
His relief was clear to see and hear, after learning that he had amassed a 19 point gap going into the summer break, the Brit exclaimed “Wow! Is it that? Holy crap, I hadn’t even realised. Awesome, awesome.”
The reigning champion was also pleasantly surprised at his pace advantage, but recognised that the start was the key to his success, saying that he and his start engineer had been talking about and working on his starts extensively. The work seems to be paying off, after claiming the lead from the start in both Hungary and Germany.
He can go into the summer break in the lead and somewhat relaxed, especially after the troubles and pressure of his early season. In stark contrast, Rosberg cuts a more tense and downtrodden figure, but failed to admit defeat just yet. “Nineteen points is not tough at all, tough is losing the race the way I did today..” he said. “That’s gonna [sic] take some time to digest now in the next few days.”
But, something has to happen over the next month in order to stop Hamilton from building an unassailable lead as the European season draws to a close. Next stop, Spa Francorchamps, a track that has served Hamilton well over the years.
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