Friday, 22 July 2011

Nurburgring Preview: As we originally anticipated?

It seems like a long time ago now, but at the outset of the F1 season learned opinion was that this year's championship would be a nip and tuck battle between Red Bull and Ferrari. That's what pre-season testing form pointed towards strongly.

It didn't turn out that way of course, as Ferrari's promised pace evaporated in the first practice session in round one (eventually revealing a wind tunnel correlation problem) and Red Bull cleaning up. But, half a season too late, we may well be getting the promised tight Red Bull/Ferrari contest.

Fernando Alonso - seeking to maintain his Silverstone advantage
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
The extent that Ferrari, and more to the point Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, can maintain their Silverstone predominance is the big question to be answered this weekend. On one hand, Ferrari were almost on Red Bull pace even before Silverstone's one weekend only diffuser regulations, and they arrived at Silverstone with a major technical upgrade that effectively amounted to a b-spec car. Their advantage on race day was such that it could have been a very boring afternoon had it not been for the early rain. And all this at a track that was supposed to be a Red Bull stick-on. So they argue that their advantage couldn't have all been down to the peculiar diffuser regs. But the paddock consensus is that Ferrari's disproportionately benefited from the said regs at Silverstone, and it may have also been the case that Red Bull suffered particularly from rear tyre wear on Silverstone's long corners, which won't be repeated this weekend (or in many other weekends). But the evidence of today's practicing at the Nurburgring is that Ferrari just might still be up there.

Alonso kept the Bulls honest in both sessions, topping the first and splitting them to finish runner up, a tenth and a half down on Mark Webber, in the second. And that Felipe Massa has been clinging to the top three's coat tails suggests that the Ferrari is a fundamentally good racing car these days. And Alonso has continued to promise he'll be in 'maximum attack' (to coin a Mika Hakkinen-ism) for the rest of the season.

However there are a couple of bum notes in there. One is that Alonso had a strangely haphazard time of it in the second practice session today, with one trip through the gravel and a few other lairy moments under braking (as Peter Windsor recently pointed out, if Alonso has an weakness it's that he can be a bit over forceful on the pedal in heavy braking zones). This may reflect that he was driving the wheels off more than the Bull pilots were, and all season it seems the Red Bulls have 'found something' for the qualifying session. It remains to be seen if that will again be the case tomorrow.

Mark Webber - will he be leading or chasing on Sunday?
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Another big question for this weekend is the battle of the Bulls. Webber, having called a team orders truce with his boss Christian Horner, has looked on it at the Nurburgring, just as he was in practice at Silverstone, and has headed his team mate in both sessions. His record at the Nurburgring is a good one, he claimed his first ever F1 win here two years ago (winning at a canter and even taking in a drive through penalty as he did so) and finished third in middling machinery the time before that. Webber's long runs also look stronger than those of his team mate, and his form has been creeping upwards in recent races.

So this may be the weekend that Webber finally gets one up on team mate Sebastian Vettel. But the problem is that I'm sure we've said that before, and it's getting on for a year since he last did it. No one's got rich in 2011 by betting against Seb, so don't write him off yet (interestingly, if Vettel was to claim the win on Sunday he would be the first home victor in F1 since Felipe Massa won the Brazilian Grand Prix in late 2008!).

With the McLarens it's as you were: not really being there on the qualifying simulations (Lewis has already written off pole), being better on the long runs and doing a rain dance at other times. It was cool and grey (if dry) today and rain is forecast for various points of the weekend (apparently it's more likely for qualifying than the race) which may bring them into the picture, just as it did at Silverstone.

Practice times
Free Practice One highlights, courtesy of the BBC (UK users only)
Free Practice Two highlights, courtesy of the BBC (UK users only)

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