Conclusions from the German GP
Sebastian Vettel's rivals lack a convincing claim, Lotus should have kept Raikkonen out, and Mercedes' punishment is retrospectively transformed
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 29/07/13 2:14pm
Bad races have already run out for the chasers
From the perspective of Sebastian Vettel's wavering challengers, there is very little slack left in the World Championship battle. Following his victory at the Nurburgring, the Red Bull driver's lead has assumed ominous dimensions; 34 points over Fernando Alonso, 41 to Kimi Raikkonen and 58 to a distant Lewis Hamilton. The fat lady isn't yet clearing her rotund throat, but she's already lurking in the shadows: even before the halfway stage of the season, Vettel's rivals are already one bad race away from being knocked out of the running altogether.
Even after last week's victory-denying gearbox failure at Silverstone, Vettel still has that luxury up his sleeve. His points advantage, amounting to more than a full race victory over Alonso and two over Hamilton, sounds less intimidating in old money, but the smart money must now be on Vettel securing a fourth successive title long before the sport reaches Brazil.
The pull is that the RB9 appears to be a car for all conditions and all tyres; the push is that his closest rivals do not currently possess a convincing claim or car between them: Hamilton's Mercedes is a tyre-eater, Alonso's Ferrari cannot extract competitive qualifying pace, and Raikkonen's Lotus lacks raw speed everywhere.
Nor, depressingly, is there any valid reason to suppose their flaws are surmountable, at least in the short term: Mercedes will arrive in Budapest even further on the back foot after missing the Young Driver Test, Ferrari's qualifying weakness has reached old age, and Lotus very probably lack the financial clout to keep pace with the behemoths once resources have to divided up for 2014.
Consider it with a wince: the state of play in the title race is even more foreboding for Vettel's increasingly-forlorn rivals than his formidable points advantage.
Lotus forget to play to their strengths
Although it lacks humour, the Lotus E21 is still a funny thing. For all the accolades heaped on the car after Sunday, the fact remains that it never once delivered a lap within four seconds of the time set by Lewis Hamilton when he claimed pole position 24 hours earlier.
The E21 is very much a car of its particular era, short on outright pace but skilled at conserving the Pirellis, tuned to exploit the importance F1 has heaped on its rubber to spice up the racing at the expense of speed.
In sporting terms, the E21 is akin to a snooker player whose speciality is safety play, coming into his own because the authorities have reduced the size of the pockets after the public tired of one-visit frames. The analogy is not meant as a criticism but as a preamble to an acceptance of how far the E21 can take Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. What it boasts as a long-distance runner, it lacks in a sprint to the finish and, as Raikkonen himself admitted after the race, overtaking Vettel would have remained "very difficult" even if he had spent plenty more laps hounding the Red Bull for victory.
The retrospective surprise, therefore, is Lotus' decision to pit Raikkonen with ten laps remaining. Could he have hung on to the finish? "I'm wondering if we should have done it," mused Kimi afterwards, "taken a gamble and try to go to the end because the tyres were pretty OK, my speed was pretty OK."
It's a gamble that was surely worth trying; after all, avoiding a weakness to play to your strengths isn't much of a gamble.
Mercedes are still sick and tyred
Sometimes so much is said with a non-comment. "I have nothing positive to say about these tyres," an angry Lewis Hamilton remarked to telling effect as he reflected on his reversal from pole position to a distant fifth at the chequered flag. What Hamilton could have also legitimately added is that the fuss generated by Mercedes' participation in their private test with Pirelli was overdone: judging by Sunday, whatever advantage Mercedes gained from their three days of extra running was absolutely miniscule.
It's impossible to know and fascinating to speculate upon, but just what sort of punishment would the International Tribunal have meted out had the 'testgate' hearing been held this week rather than mid-way through June? In view of events at Silverstone, the FIA's subsequent restructuring of the test, and Mercedes' complete inability to make sense of the Pirellis this weekend, they would surely have escaped with a hefty fine and a sharp slap on the wrist.
Safety must come first in the pits too
Don't make the mistake of comparing the two unsafe pit releases during Sunday's German GP because, other than their shared description, they were completely different incidents.
Whereas had the Toro Rosso and Force India actually collided the only consequence would have been twisted carbon fibre (and possibly not even that), FOM cameraman Paul Allen was fortunate to escape with 'just' a few broken bones after being hit by an unattached wheel from Mark Webber's Red Bull. A detached wheel, weighing twelve kilos and bouncing free into a crowd of people is one of the sport's absolute worst-case scenarios.
The proposed introduction of head gear for all members of the pitlane will almost certainly become mandatory by Hungary. But the underlying cause of the accident cannot be overlooked either; quick pit-stops have become a disproportionately important aspect of the sport ever since F1 identified fragile tyres and extra stops as a cure for all its ills. Genuinely unsafe releases, as teams strive to make their stops quicker and quicker, are an inevitable consequence.
The Nurburgring stewards have been criticised for the leniency of Red Bull's punishment, but convention dictates that a fine was the correct response. The onus is thus on the teams and the sport to put its own house in order; an agreement that any car released from the pits without its wheels properly attached is black-flagged ought to do the trick.
Felipe back under pressure
The F138's lack of qualifying pace is hurting Felipe Massa almost as much as it is undermining Fernando Alonso's waning title challenge. Since Bahrain, where he lined up fourth to cap a strong start to the season, the Brazilian has lined up 9th, 22nd, 16th, 11th and 7th. This weekend's result was mitigated by his relegation of Alonso into eighth, but it's the headline numbers and not the small print which will be capturing the attention of the Ferrari hierarchy and the paddock rumour mongers - especially after Sunday's embarrassing and unforced spin into race retirement.
The 2013 driver market is currently locked in stasis as the field waits on Kimi Raikkonen to make his mind up. But a decision is predicted by the Belgian GP and once the identity of Mark Webber's successor is determined then Massa will be next in the spotlight. A critical - and potentially defining - race awaits Felipe in Hungary.
Ricciardo is staking a claim to replace Webber
And what's particularly commendable is that instead of shrinking at the opportunity before him, Daniel Ricciardo has been galvanised into the best form of his nascent career. The lad clearly has a head for heights.
The impressive fact that after qualifying a season-best fifth at Silverstone, the Australian lined up sixth this weekend tells only half the story; the other is that while Ricciardo was nose-bleeding, his team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne was only able to take his Toro Rosso as high as 12th and 16th. From Ricciardo's perspective, his results have been made doubly noteworthy.
All that said, it remains doubtful that Ricciardo will be considered for the role of partnering Vettel next season unless Raikkonen first rejects the opportunity. But what he has done in the last week is reduce the short-list to replace Webber by a third; flatlining while his team-mate has been overtaking the car they share, Vergne is out of the running.
Marussia have been stopped in their tracks
Remember Marussia's upsurge at the start of the 2013 when they overtook Caterham at the back of the grid? If you do, then you've a long memory: not since China has a Marussia car qualified ahead of a Caterham.
After Germany, there's a clear pecking order at both ends of the grid.