Under rule changes as capricious as the British weather, Formula One returned to its first-ever venue. Silverstone may be new in layout, but it is also very old, and you still need only three words to describe it: fast, fast, fast. Warning: spoilers.
Placing Silverstone right after Valencia on the calendar is the perfect contrast between tracks old and new. Valencia is a TV spectacle of the Mediterranean and Spanish women with a terrible layout and dreary racing, while Silverstone is nothing but gently undulating British countryside, driving rain, people in raincoats, and racing that’s like racing on drugs. It’s surreal how fast anything at Silverstone looks. The view from inside Mark Webber’s car as he weaved down Maggots, Becketts and Chapel corners in fifth, sixth and seventh gear on his way to pipping Sebastian Vettel to pole by 0.032 seconds? I had to make sure the broadcast wasn’t running at 2× speed.
So Silverstone is magnificent, even in its new layout, but the diffusor row that’s come to a head during the weekend was anything but. The issue? Over the past 18 months, teams have gotten completely baroque with using exhaust gases to power their diffusers. The best setups, including the one on the dominating Red Bull RB7, have the engine running while the driver is off the throttle in the corners, to generate a constant amount of downforce in the rear. Like most interesting, avant-garde pieces of engineering, this practice was to be banned for 2012, on the argument that an engine used not to power the car but drive the diffuser is a movable aerodynamic device. Then the FIA decided to ban it immediately. But a mid-season ban for non-safety reasons is just wrong, because exhaust-blown diffusers are integral elements of this year’s cars. Remove them and you’ll upset the balance of the cars. And to restrict their use minutes before a qualifying session—which, incredibly, is what happened on Saturday—is just plain dangerous.
The exhaust-blown diffuser is one of the bits of magic in the Red Bull RB7, but it didn’t really slow them down in qualifying. While both Webber and Vettel were running a bit jittery, they locked out the front row yet again. Hot on their heels, barely a tenth of a second down, was Fernando Alonso in the #5 Ferrari, followed by his teammate Felipe Massa, Jenson Button, the incredible Paul di Resta up in sixth, Pastor Maldonado, Kamui Kobayashi, Nico Rosberg, with a terribly frustrated Lewis Hamilton rounding out the top of the grid.
The weather at the start was a parody of British conditions. One half of the circuit was basically underwater, while the other was completely dry. Quite a tire call. All of the top runners picked intermediates, which, contrary to the name, are not designed for conditions
like this, but were still better than either slicks or full wets. Rain would not fall during the race, and tire strategy developed into a game of picking the first possible moment for slicks.
Start (right) was on the dry side of the circuit and Sebastian Vettel got off the line like a dream, sailing past Mark Webber on pole. Behind him, Fernando Alonso attacked Webber for second, but had to settle for third, while Jenson Button got himself up to fourth. The track looked entirely weird. Cars were kicking up spray in some of the corners, and driving on bone-dry tarmac a few corners later. Like Bernie’s sprinklers is what it was.
Paul di Resta was passed by a charging Lewis Hamilton for sixth, but the Scottish rookie did a very respectable job among the top runners, until his pit crew made one of the afternoon’s terrible pit crew mistakes. He was called in for new tires, only to find his teammate’s tires waiting for him. While the team fetched the correct set from the garage, he dropped down the field to 16th, then collided with Sébastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso on his outlap, finishing the race a disappointing 15th.
Up front, Michael Schumacher showed his old rainmaster side as he picked off the field from 13th on the grid. Until he slid into Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber. He had to drive around the circuit for a new front wing, then was penalized—overpenalized, actually—with a stop-and-go (a drive into the pits, then 10 seconds standing still) for causing the accident. He rejoined the race 17th. Undeterred, he made his way up the field yet again, and managed to finish in the points at 9th.
Schumacher was the first to pit for slicks, and the McLarens quickly followed. Both drivers then attacked the Ferraris ahead of them, pulling off spectacular passes. First, it was Button against Massa on lap 14 into Club corner, with Jenson holding his McLaren neck and neck against the Ferrari, running onto the wet part of the track in the process, until he made the pass stick. A lap later, Hamilton outran Alonso down the old start-finish straight into Copse corner, and passed him on the inside, on wet tarmac, braking ludicrously late into the corner, evoking someone else in a yellow helmet who used to race like that.
The McLaren boys may have made excellent passes, but it was not to be their day. First, Lewis Hamilton was told to back off the throttle to conserve fuel: apparently, the amount loaded into his car was miscalculated. All he could do was watch a perfectly reasonable expectation of a podium slip away as he was re-passed by Alonso, and finished the race 4th. It wasn’t a trivial fourth: he had to fight with Felipe Massa all the way into the last corner, and he beat him by all of 0.024 seconds. His teammate had it much worse: on lap 39, Button’s car was let go from the pits before the mechanics could attach his right front wheel, which came off the car, forcing Button to stop at the end of the pitlane and retire.
Up front, it was Sebastian Vettel, as usual. Until he too fell victim to a flawed pitstop. Coming in for his second set of soft tires after comfortably leading the race for 27 laps, it took the mechanics ages to attach his left rear wheel. Alonso, right behind him in the pits, passed Vettel on the way back to the circuit and proceeded to show the much improved pace of the
Ferrari. He pulled fastest lap after fastest lap, built a gap second after flying second in the clean air up front, and Vettel, nursing a Kers problem yet again, never looked like he would catch him. He didn’t. Alonso crossed the line a comfortable 16.5 seconds ahead, completing a win that showed how one can pounce on the little errors of others.
There was trouble behind him. In the waning laps of the race, Mark Webber closed the gap to his teammate and was on the attack until he was told on the radio to “maintain the gap”. He did, barely, finishing third for the third time in a row, four tenths behind Vettel. He was clearly frustrated after the race, and it was yet another episode in the slow deterioration of team spirit at Red Bull, as Christian Horner revealed his dark, calculating, Ferrari-esque side and made clear that Mark Webber is, in fact, the team’s number two driver, in spite of the occasional high rhetoric about their two drivers being equal. They aren’t, it’s Vettel’s team, but
it must certainly be very frustrating for Webber, who admitted after the race that he ignored the orders on the radio to back off. Not the most straightforward way to keep one’s job in modern Formula One.
It was full-on British sunshine by the time of the podium ceremony, the Spanish and the Italian anthems played for the first time this year, the BBC’s Jake Humphrey progressing from a black Barbour coat at the start to rolled-up shirtsleeves over the 52 laps. Ferrari really is picking up steam here: Alonso’s maiden 2011 victory was preceded by two second places in the past three races. But it’s most likely too late for the championship. Even with regulations against them and a flawed pitstop, Red Bull’s drivers finished second and third, and Sebastian Vettel has actually increased his lead in the championship. Lewis Hamilton finished fourth, Massa fifth, Rosberg sixth, Sergio Pérez a wonderful seventh, Nick Heidfeld eighth, Michael Schumacher ninth, and Jaime Alguersuari
has probably saved his job with his third consecutive points finish, at tenth.
Vettel leads the championship with 204 points, followed by Webber with 124, Alonso with 112, and Hamilton and Button with 109 each. Alonso’s win, the 27th of his career, has put him up there with Sir Jackie Stewart for total wins: only Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher have more. And had Vettel won, he would have overtaken Sir Stirling Moss for tenth in percentage of Grand Prix wins. Heady company indeed.
Next up is the Nürburgring on July 24.
Photography by Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images, Ker Robertson/Getty Images and Paul Gilham/Getty Images. Illustration by Peter Orosz.