July 22nd, 2012 (F1plus / Grahan Keilloh).- No doubt a lot of the headlines, and the legacy, of today's German Grand Prix will centre on Red Bull, and the team's courting of controversy on and off the track.
Before the race the air was full of rumours of the Red Bulls being moved to the back of the grid, or worse, because of engine mapping that maybe wasn't quite kosher (and it seems the matter isn't over yet). Then after the race much of the chatter was of Sebastian Vettel's late pass of Jenson Button for second place in which he left the track, and which eventually got him a 20 second penalty which dropped him to fifth. But it would be quite wrong for any of this to be the story of today's proceedings. The real story was yet another immaculate win by Fernando Alonso against the odds, his third triumph of the season. We really are running out of superlatives for that man in 2012.
Rather like a more heroic version of the Vicar of Bray, in the Hockenheim race Fernando Alonso stayed resolute in first place all the way through, no matter what was going on around him.
For all of the 67 laps today he was under pressure, and there seemed a never-ending supply of cars behind which looked quicker than the Ferrari. And yet Alonso was never usurped, nor did he in hindsight ever look particularly like he was going to be usurped.
We've seen this many times before from the Spaniard, and when the day comes that he does drop it when out in front in a motor race (as that is the way in F1) we'll no doubt all have to rub our eyes disbelievingly, not quite sure of what we've just seen.
Further, today's result means that Alonso's drivers' championship lead extends yet more, to 34 points (assisted by Mark Webber having an oddly subdued run to eighth place). This means that whatever awaits in Hungary Alonso will be leading the way all the way through to the end of the summer break in early September.
It all seems several stratospheres away from season-opening Melbourne, where Ferrari rolled in concerned that its car wasn't even good enough for points let alone wins. Don't let anyone tell you that F1 is predictable.
The race boiled down to a tense three-way battle between Alonso, Vettel and Button. The first two ran in close company throughout, with Vettel possibly the quicker all being equal but with Alonso always ahead. And Jenson Button, starting sixth, smoothly moved up to join them come the second stint. Indeed, Jenson managed to pick Seb's pocket at the second and final round of stops (helped by what McLaren claimed was a world record 2.31 second service) and immediately set about attacking Alonso, and for many laps it looked most likely that the race would be Jenson's. But, contrary to most expectations including of those on the McLaren pitwall it was Alonso's tyres which held on the longest, meaning he could canter to a win in the final handful of laps, not under pressure for the first time that afternoon. This left Jenson to fall into Seb's clutches, and on the penultimate tour Seb completed his controversial pass on Jenson (which is where we came in). It eventually earned Seb a 20 second penalty and subsequent demotion to fifth place as he in the stewards' words 'left the track and gained an advantage when he rejoined'.
It's beyond doubt that Seb did entirely leave the circuit on the outside of the corner during the pass, but of course that in itself isn't sufficient for a penalty. If it was, then Lewis Hamilton would have been penalised for his pass on Nico Rosberg in Bahrain (and no one, aside from Nico himself and perhaps his mum, thought that should have happened). What was crucial is whether Seb would have gained the momentum to pass Jenson without taking the wide arc running off the track, or whether he'd done virtually all of his turning and only went off to give Jenson space. To me, on that basis, it was very marginal. And had it been up to me I might have just been inclined to let Seb off with it. Still, as we always say the stewards have access to much more information than we do (indeed, Mika Salo claimed recently that it's impossible for the stewards to make a wrong decision because of this!) so we need to have some level of faith in what they conclude.
But even if you accept all of this you could argue that with a championship fight on his hands Seb should have played a percentage game and ceded the place, which still would have given him a chance to have another go on the final tour. All very easy to say where I'm sitting of course.
It's all a bit traumatic for Seb as with the lost points he's now close to two clear race wins behind Alonso in the table, and with Alonso not predicted to be giving anything away any time soon Seb's second half of the year must begin to be redolent of scaling a cliff face.
It was an encouraging weekend for McLaren however, who as mentioned looked possibly the quickest cars out there, and without the topsy-turvey grid from the wet qualifying session probably one of them would have won. I said that it was crucial for the team's season to be on the pace come the summer break, and it has done just that. However, it finishes the weekend even further behind on points, as Lewis Hamilton didn't finish, and didn't look good for troubling the scorers from the point that he had the ill fortune to be the one to pick up a puncture when shards of carbon fibre covered turn one following Felipe Massa losing his front wing at the start on the back of Kimi Raikkonen. It all means that McLaren's pace setter on points (Hamilton) is 62 points off the table top. If Seb's challenge for the year's remainder looks a cliff face, McLaren's looks rather like scaling Everest.
McLaren will gain comfort from Button's long-awaited return to form today though. It was arguably his first convincing performance since Bahrain all the way back in April. The reasons for his trough remain shrouded in mystery (to be honest I suspect that not even he fully understood it). But on the evidence of today, post-upgrades, it's all now in the past.
Lotus's season continues to resemble Waiting for Godot, with us being promised repeatedly that its prodigious race-winning pace won't be able to come today but is sure to come tomorrow. Given Kimi Raikkonnen's stellar qualifying run in the dry, and tyre wear as usual thought to be a big concern (especially at Hockenheim, and with the track green) we again thought Lotus would be one to watch, but again it never quite happened. Kimi trailed in fourth, which became third post-hoc, but he rarely looked able to catch, or even quite to match, the leading three, though in some mitigation he was put on a sub-optimum tyre strategy. No one can doubt that Kimi has been consistent this year as well as been effective in bringing the car home (indeed, he's now fourth in the drivers' table). But set against what many believe the E20's race potential to be Lotus's season is beginning to look a little meagre. Romain Grosjean was strangely off the boil this weekend, and not for the first time in 2012 managed to make contact with a competitor early on, requiring a pit stop. Perhaps he does need lessons from Jackie Stewart after all.
And the Saubers were next up, finishing fifth and sixth with Kamui Kobayashi ahead, and indeed Kobayashi was bumped up to fourth by Vettel's penalty. Like the Lotus, there are few cars better than the Sauber C31 on race day, and both Kobayashi and Sergio Perez did well to move up from 12th and 17th respectively on the starting grid. But given this, and without wishing to disrespect either Sauber driver, you do wonder what an Alonso or Hamilton would do with access to that machine. I'm told that many in the Swiss team concurs with this point of view, and indeed there are rumours that Sauber is minded to replace Kobayashi for next year. Today's result, his best ever, is therefore well timed.
But Sauber isn't the only team on the grid that wouldn't say no to having Alonso on its payroll. What he is achieving this year, and consistently, is nothing short of astonishing. And the odds on it all being rewarded with his third world title at the season's end are ever-shortening.