The homecoming for Germany’s new world champion, joined by five other Germans in the splendid freezing German summer at the Nürburgring, against a depressed and disillusioned McLaren. What could possibly have gone wrong for Red Bull at the season’s halfway point? Then again, motor racing has a way of being about as capricious as the weather in the Eifel Mountains. Warning: spoilers.
The 2010 Italian Grand Prix on September 12 was the last race Sebastian Vettel did not start from the front row. Strange and distant times, those. Monza was all about a resurgent Ferrari taking the fight to Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton. Vettel, hampered by his inconsistency, was a distant fourth in the championship.
Times have certainly changed. In the five races that followed, Vettel beat his terrific rivals and won the world championship, then hit the ground running in 2011 with a nine-race streak during which he finished or qualified no worse than second. How strange and distant his surreal early season dominance seemed on Saturday afternoon, when qualifying was a fight between Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton for pole, with Webber coming out 0.055 seconds ahead, relegating Vettel to third. Hamilton was positively buoyant.
The Formula One season is genuinely interesting again. It’s no longer a case of Red Bull being in an entirely different league, like Brawn in the first half of 2009. The giant machines of
Ferrari and McLaren have caught up and, as if to prove the point, Lewis Hamilton raced Mark Webber off his pole position with such ferocity that he was leading the race by the second corner.
And Vettel was making mistakes! The most remarkable aspect of his performance this year so far was its tranquil perfection, very strange from a 23-year-old, his haphazard 2010 self seemingly gone. At the Nürburgring, he was an unhappy top-midfielder, never in contention for the podium, running wide, spinning out, and racing in a generally clumsy and very un-Vettel way.
This was Lewis Hamilton’s race, and Lewis Hamilton ran a beautiful race. The 2011 German Grand Prix will never be a classic, it was a heavy tactical grind, but Hamilton’s driving was of sizzling, spectacular beauty in the frigid German summer. When, on lap 34, he passed Fernando Alonso (left)—this time for the lead, instead of for third place—it was done in such a dominant manner that he left little doubt about who’d win.
It was now the second race in a row peppered with amazing Hamilton passes, and it left a big question: what can Sebastian Vettel do when stuck in traffic? He was stuck behind Felipe Massa’s Ferrari for the last 20 laps of the race and he couldn’t make a pass stick, the same
way he couldn’t pass Lewis Hamilton in Silverstone. It took the speed of his Red Bull crew during a synchronized last-lap pit stop with Massa to finally pass the Ferrari and finish fourth. The contrast with Hamilton was striking.
That said, it’s probably not a bad thing for Vettel’s evolution as a driver to experience a few races between cars as opposed to running a minute ahead of everyone else. Lewis Hamilton’s early years come to mind. How, after two years in the best car, he suddenly found himself down the field in the McLaren MP4/24, and how he blamed everyone and everything before he got his act together and fought his way through dozens of races. He is a much better racing driver as a result.
Joining Lewis Hamilton on the podium for his 16th victory were Fernando Alonso, completing a strong run of three races, and Mark Webber, who could never really threaten to retake his lead—but who gave Alonso a lift back to the pits after his Ferrari ran out of fuel on the parade lap (top). They were followed by Vettel, Massa, Adrian Sutil in a Force India, the twin Mercedeses of Rosberg and Schumacher, Kobayashi and Petrov in the points. Jenson Button retired with hydraulic failure.
While it’s basically impossible for Red Bull to lose the championship at this point—witness Brawn in 2009, who ran out of money to develop the car by June and still managed to win after a similar start to the season—the remaining nine races look very promising. The next one, in Budapest, is coming right up this weekend, before Formula One retires for a four-week summer break.
Photography by Julian Finney/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images and Clive Mason/Getty Images. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Illustration by Peter Orosz.