By Dan Chapman
Round 11 of the Formula One World Championship saw the teams and drivers arrive in Hockenheim, Germany. The weekend started with a nostalgic atmosphere, as the Mercedes-Benz team celebrated its 125th anniversary in Motorsport and their 200th Grand Prix. To mark the occasion team personnel donned 1950’s attire, denoting the days when the great Juan Manuel Fangio drove for the marque in the all conquering W196.
Despite the piercing sunshine on Friday morning, there was a cloud over the paddock as the circuit owners and Liberty Media held discussions regarding the future of the German F1 venue. With a deal still not concluded for Hockenheim to host the German GP past 2019, this weekend could mark the last time that the sport will visit the circuit for the foreseeable future. Anyone who watched Sunday’s race would tell you that would be regrettable – in a season often criticised for its lack of competitve action, this German GP was a stunning watch for the neutrals.
For our client Alex Albon, the weekend presented an opportunity to kick-start the middle part of his season, having been unlucky to not score points in the last 4 races. The weekend got off to a tough start for Alex, as the team struggled to find a suitable set-up for his Torro Rosso machine in the blisteringly hot temperatures – with 38c being recorded at the circuit in the second Free Practice session on Friday. As qualifying commenced on Saturday afternoon, there was drama straight from the off. Sebastian Vettle in the Ferrari limped back to the pits on his qualifying out lap, having lost power whilst gearing up for his first timed lap. With a scurry of activity in the Ferrari garage, it quickly became apparent that the problem was terminal, demoting the four times World Champion to the sidelines for the remainder of the session – a terrible disappointment for the German in his home GP. As Q1 drew to a close, it was clear that the hot temperatures were not suiting the Torro Rosso car, with Albon only managing a time good enough for P17 overall. This subsequently became P16 when fellow rookie Lando Norris opted to take a grid penalty for new engine components. There would be work to do therefore on Sunday if the British/Thai driver wanted to challenge for the points paying positions.
Sunday afternoon arrived and the heavens opened. With heavy rain soaking the circuit throughout the morning, the teams were thrown into turmoil regarding tyre selection and strategy. For Alex, having never driven an F1 car in the rain, the start of the race would present a huge learning curve for him. With the rain continuing to fall, the decision was taken by the FIA for the cars to do 3 formation laps behind the safety car. As the cars eventually lined up to take the start, everyone in the garages and stands were on tenterhooks to see who would lead into turn one.
After the first tour Albon crossed the start/finish line P16, which then became P15 on lap 2 when Sergio Perez lost control of his Racing Point car and crashed backwards into the barrier. This brought the safety car out for the first time of the afternoon, and Alex elected to take the opportunity to duck into the pit lane and change onto the intermediate tyres. This would prove to be the right call, as having made a number of good moves to gain positions in the opening 20 laps, Alex was up to the lofty heights of P6 by lap 27, when the safety car re-emerged for the second time of the afternoon. This time it was to retrieve the stricken Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, as the young Monegasque driver had lost control at the last corner and slammed into the barriers. Moments later Lewis Hamilton fell victim at the exact same corner, glancing the barrier and limping his stricken Mercedes back to the pit lane. With the Ferrari out and Hamilton’s Mercedes receiving repairs in the pit lane, Albon seized the opportunity to jump up to a remarkable P4.
On lap 48 Albon pitted again for fresh rubber in changing conditions, re-emerging from the pit lane behind a long queue of cars. If his early race pit strategy had been spot on, hindsight would suggest that this time around Toro Rosso made a slightly late call – those cars who pitted a lap earlier (including team-mate Kvyat) made substantial gains.
There was however more drama to follow, as Valterri Bottas lost control of his Mercedes-Benz at over 180mph at turn one. This resulted in hard contact with the barrier for the flying Finn, inflicting heavy damage to his silver arrow and – coupled with more excellent moves – promoting Alex back up to P6 – which is where he remained until the chequered flag was shown on lap 64. A brilliant result for the F1 rookie and his best scoring position in F1 to date. Alex admitted post race that his delight at this achievement was slightly tempered by the realism that – but for a little more luck with his final pit-stop – he was almost certainly going to be standing on the podium at the end of the race.
Alex’s incredible drive in such tough conditions – that the likes of Bottas, Leclerc and Hamilton all struggled to master – did not go unnoticed, though, with the BBC declaring him their Driver of the Day.
With a little over 5 days until Free Practice One starts in Budapest for the Hungarian GP, it will be a quick turnaround for the teams and drivers. Hopefully Alex can build on his momentum from this weekend to finish the European leg of his first Formula 1 season in style – a little more rain would perhaps not go amiss!
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The spearhead and Senior Partner of Full Contact, Dan is an experienced solicitor and advocate, with a specialist background in employment law and sports.
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