Lewis Hamilton produced his finest form to take his second victory of the year, the 16th of his career and his first at the fabled Nürburgring as the German Grand Prix brought a thrilling 2011 World Championship season to its halfway mark on Sunday.
Hamilton used his outstanding qualifying effort to the full by converting a front row spot into the race win, heading home Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber in the Red Bull Renault.
The three big names dominated the 60-lap race but in the final stint it was Hamilton, 26, who found the pace to keep the other two at bay. He was the first to dart into the pits for the mandatory switch to the softer, less efficient option tyre with just seven laps remaining and his speed was enough to negate Webber’s bold decision to stay out until the last possible moment.
Alonso covered Hamilton’s late move and also had enough in hand to lead Webber home. But the Australian had the minor consolation of leading a race for the first time in 2011 as he headed to his fourth consecutive third-place result and his sixth podium of the season.
“One of the best races, I think, I’ve ever done,” beamed Hamilton, who is now third in the Drivers’ Championship behind the two Red Bull runners. “This is a massive step forward.”
Not as massive as McLaren might have hoped: for the second race running Jenson Button failed to make it to the end, the former World Champion retiring just past half-distance with worries over the car’s hydraulic system.
Alonso, winner last time out, was quick to hail what he called “a fantastic Sunday again” after a typically aggressive and opportunistic drive. For the first time this season runaway Championship leader Sebastian Vettel did not start from the front row; for the first time this season the man who drives the #1 Red Bull was not on the podium.
Vettel, overshadowed by Webber all weekend, paid for an early mistake that slipped him to fifth then fought a stirring battle with Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari in the closing laps.
Both men delayed their final pit stop until the last lap; when a stray wheel nut delayed the Brazilian, Vettel roared out to claim an unlikely fourth place which meant he gave back only three points of his massive Championship lead to Webber.
“Another good result,” said a clearly disappointed Webber, who started from his third pole position of the season. “We couldn’t get the tyre range to get the undercut on the second stop. I drove on the limit, but we were not quick enough and that was it.”
Vettel now has 216 points while Webber on 139 has Hamilton and Alonso breathing down his neck on 134 and 130 respectively, On a day when Germany’s current favourite son failed to deliver, Adrian Sutil rescued national pride with one of his best drives to claim sixth place for Force India and was the last of the 20 classified finishers not to be lapped.
German drivers also filled seventh and eighth places, with Nico Rosberg again edging out Mercedes teammate Michael Schumacher, who might have been higher up the order but for a mid-race half-spin as he fought with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov.
The Russian driver finished 10th as the effervescent Kamui Kobayashi produced another superb result in ninth place for Sauber, his seventh top 10 finish of the year.
The ugliest incident of the race saw Nick Heidfeld’s Renault eliminated as the German tried to pass Sébastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso. As the Swiss driver legitimately blocked the left-hand side, Heidfeld switched to the right and was squeezed out when Buemi moved over, ending up in a gravel trap.
Race stewards took a dim view of Buemi’s action and have penalised him five grid places for the next round.
India’s Karun Chandhok, possibly rehearsing for his country’s inaugural Grand Prix in October, was 20th as he re placed Jarno Trulli at Team Lotus.
The other non-finishers were Rubens Barrichello in the Williams with an engine problem and HRT’s Tonio Liuzzi. The Italian’s Australian teammate Daniel Ricciardo brought his car home a creditable 19th again in only his second race outing for the team.
The next round, in just a week’s time, takes them to another circuit where Webber has tasted victory, the Hungaroring, before the teams and drivers enjoy a four-week mid-season break.”We’re a strong unit,” said a defiant Webber, “a good team and we’ll push on. We know what we need to do.”
1. Vettel 216 points
2. Webber 139
3. Hamilton 134
4. Alonso 130
5. Button 109
6. Massa 62
1. Red Bull Racing 355 points
2. McLaren-Mercedes 243
3. Ferrari 192