Lewis on a roll, Ferrari’s title hopes unravel
As if the world needed any further reminding of his status as a champion-in-waiting, Lewis Hamilton took the long way around the Hockenheimring to victory on Sunday, but still managed to crush the opposition without breaking a sweat, staking his claim on the drivers’ title in the process.
It was almost as if boredom sunk in on the McLaren pit wall. Not content with seeing their man canter to his fourth win of the season and the eighth of his career, the team ended up unintentionally spicing things up for their man during a decisive safety car period.
When the pace car emerged on Lap 37 in response to a horrific crash involving Toyota’s Timo Glock, McLaren figured that Hamilton had the necessary speed and fuel to build up enough of a cushion to stop later in the race and rejoin in the lead. It went against Hamilton’s intuitions and a delayed restart meant it wasn’t to be, though a searing assault on 4.574km circuit meant it very nearly was.
“The deployment of the Safety Car presented us with a difficult decision: should we or should we not bring Lewis in for a pitstop?” explained McLaren Team Principal Ron Dennis. “We decided that, since he still had quite a lot of fuel on board, we would leave him out until lap 50.
“We’d expected the track to be cleared of debris a little faster than it was, which would have allowed the Safety Car to come in a bit earlier. As a result, Lewis was unable to rejoin the race in the lead.”
No matter. What followed was a stark reminder of Hamilton’s searing aggression behind the wheel of his MP4-23, a performance which caused Ron Dennis, a man normally conservative with his lexicon, to hail the on-track response as “majestic”.
Within only a few laps he was right up onto the gearbox of Felipe Massa, who led the assault for Ferrari in the effective absence of Kimi Raikkonen – the Finn was off the pace all weekend and trailed home in sixth place.
Massa, in a Ferrari let’s not forget – the same car that has won half of the races this year and took Massa to within two tenths of a second of Hamilton in qualifying, in spite of the Brazilian carrying more fuel – was a sitting duck. Hamilton carved him up at the hairpin and left the Ferrari driver with nowhere to go but the grass. Game over.
Massa tried to come back at Hamilton at the end of the following straight but it was a more a move to save face than any serious attempt to re-pass the Briton.
That just left Renault’s Nelson Piquet, the chief benefactor of the safety car, who Hamilton promptly despatched with seven laps to spare.
“I nailed it this afternoon,” said Hamilton, “when the team told me I had to build a 23-second gap in just seven laps, I knew I had to drive over the limit – and I did.”
“But I knew we had the best car this weekend and felt comfortable pushing hard to make up the gap. In the final stint, I had to work for today’s win – when the Safety Car came out, I questioned whether I should pit but I trusted the team to make the best decision on strategy.”
“It didn’t quite work out – but I knew we had the pace in the car to keep pushing and want to say a big thank-you to Heikki, who realised I was quicker. I was able to slipstream past Felipe and then thought my work was done; then I had to do it all again to get past Nelson.”
Where were Ferrari?
The result will leave a lot of head-scratching going on the Ferrari camp. At first sight, things weren’t looking to shabby for the Italian outfit. Felipe Massa’s second place in qualifying was looking solid when Hamilton peeled off into the pits before the Brazilian.
But the colossal margin that Hamilton was able to build up over the Ferrari driver, not to mention the speed and ease with which he did it, will cause alarm bells to ring.
“It was a difficult race,” reflected Massa. “Right from the beginning, Hamilton’s pace seemed unbeatable and I understood that it would be very hard to beat him.”
“They have definitely improved, but I think this was more a case of us having taken a step backwards. However, we are still confident: we have the ability to get out of this situation, right from the next race.”
Of more concern for Ferrari should be the total absence of Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn was never at the races this weekend and struggled with the handling of his F2008 through all of the sessions. He will no doubt bounce back, but with McLaren circuits looming, he needs to pull something out of the bag to prevent Lewis building a points cushion.
“This is definitely not a crisis,” said the Finn doing his best to diffuse the situation, “but we have to study carefully the handling of the car to understand if we have taken the right road in terms of development.”
A somewhat bemused Ferrari squad left the German track with little in the way of explanation for their lacklustre performance.
“This was not a good day and there’s no point denying it,” said Team Principal Stefano Domenicali. “Our rivals were stronger than us and we have to work out why, without however getting caught up in nebulous and superficial analysis.”
“For the first time this season in a race, we did not have the pace we had expected to run at, with both Kimi and Felipe. We suffered constantly from a lack of grip and, in the final stages, Felipe’s brakes were also overheating which complicated still further the management of his car.”
Much of the talk coming out of the Ferrari camp centres on an explanation for some unknown problem. But it could just be that McLaren have been able to seize the initiative in the arms race and develop their car quicker than their Italian rivals. Certainly, the MP4-23 has seemed to be enjoying both the high-speed and low-downforce elements of tracks such as Hockenheim as much as the low-speed corners.
Whatever Ferrari’s problems, things are looking as though they will get worse before they get better. Three of the next four tracks, Hungary, Valencia and Monza, should suit McLaren better, and that leaves little time for the Scuderia to get on top of things. Good news of Lewis, bad news for Kimi, terrible news for Massa.