The 34th lap of the German Grand Prix on Sunday was the exact midpoint of the season – and it perfectly summarised the racing thus far.
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg was waltzing comfortably towards his fourth victory of the season with barely a moment of worry, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton was driving the wheels off his car playing yet another game of catch-up in the face of adversity.
On his home ground, Rosberg topped off a period in which everything had gone right for him since the disappointment of retirement in the British Grand Prix a fortnight ago. He had married his longtime girlfriend, Vivian Sibold, in Monaco. He had signed a new multi-year contract with Mercedes. And he delighted in Germany’s victory in the World Cup even if football’s governing body Fifa refused to let him use a picture of the trophy on his new helmet. After 67 laps of racing yesterday, he had extended his points lead in the championship again.
They say that sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you; well, F1’s ursine brethren seem to prefer the flavour of Hamilton to that of Rosberg.
In the end, the Briton finished 22.5 seconds adrift of the German and 0.7sec behind second-placed Valtteri Bottas in a Williams. Rosberg and Bottas both finished where they had started – first and second on the grid – but only made two stops.
F1 German Grand Prix - In pictures
F1 German Grand Prix - In pictures
1/17 Grand Prix
Nico Rosberg celebrates his home win
2/17 Grand Prix
Rosberg drives to victory
3/17 Grand Prix
Fernando Alonso takes powers forward
4/17 Grand Prix
Felipe Massa crashes out early on
5/17 Grand Prix
People in historic dresses perform prior to the race in Hockenheim
Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes is taken away on the back of a lorry after crashing out of Q1
Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes is dragged out of the barrier at the Sachs hairpin
Lewis Hamilton crashes out of Q1 for the Germand Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton hits the barrier at the Sachs hairpin in Hockenheim
10/17 Third practice
A Red Bull mechanic awaits Daniel Ricciardo to come to pit lane
11/17 Third practice
Sebastian Vettel has his car wheeled into the garage by his Red Bull mechanics
12/17 Second practice
Nico Rosberg topped the timesheets once again at the end of second practice
13/17 Second practice
Williams test driver Susie Wolff was in action on Friday for the second Grand Prix weekend running
14/17 Second practice
Actor and Le Mans driver Patrick Dempsey is a guest driver in the supporting Porsche Supercup race at Hockenheim this weekend
15/17 First practice
Daniel Ricciardo against the Hockenheim forest backdrop
16/17 First practice
Fernando Alonso sweeps through turns two and three at Hockenheim
17/17 First practice
Nico Rosberg topped the timesheets after first practice
Hamilton, meanwhile, had made one more, which would roughly account for the 22.5sec deficit to Rosberg by the finish, but in achieving that he had climbed from 20th place on the grid to third.
As Rosberg made a perfect start and Bottas kept hold of second, there was drama when fourth fastest qualifier Kevin Magnussen inadvertently tipped Bottas’s partner Felipe Massa upside down in the first corner.
The Brazilian was unharmed and unhappy, but like everything else dramatic in this tremendous race, it happened behind Rosberg and Bottas, who cleared off quickly and made it home with just those two pit stops.
But it was a fist fight for the final podium position as all of their rivals were forced to stop three times.
Always out of kilter with the others because he started on the soft rubber where they had to start on the supersofts on which they had qualified, Hamilton’s afternoon was all about catching up and damage limitation. Which meant being forceful, yet also canny.
You might not have thought of the latter when a brilliantly opportunistic bit of overtaking saw him rub Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari as he dived past both the red car and Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull going into the Spitzkehre hairpin on the 13th lap. Or at the same place on the 30th when a clash with Jenson Button’s McLaren left him with a damaged front wing endplate which severely compromised his car’s downforce.
He waved an apology to his old team-mate when he did finally overtake moments later.
At that stage Hamilton seemed unlikely to make the podium, as his second set of the more durable soft tyres had only lasted 16 laps, and when he made the mandatory switch to a set of supersofts on the 42nd lap he faced a Herculean task to make them last 23. But then Adrian Sutil spun and stalled his Sauber exiting the final corner on the 50th lap.
If ever there was a need for the safety car that seemed to be it, but the deployment never happened and it was an unacceptable three minutes before marshals finally moved it to heave the stricken vehicle out of the way.
Mercedes called Hamilton into the pits for the third time to switch to a second set of supersofts that now only had to make 16 laps.
That was a crucial call that dropped him from third to fourth behind Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari, but the Spaniard’s attempt to make it on two stops was similarly doomed, and once Hamilton had disposed of him he set fastest laps clawing his way up to Bottas. But by the time he caught the Finn those tyres were finished and he could not muster the speed going on to the straights to challenge the Williams.
“I had great fun,” Hamilton said, though he did not look as if he really had. “It was very hard to get through the pack safely. I had a little bit of a collision with Jenson. I honestly thought he was opening the door to let me past, so my bad on judgement there.
“But it was very hard to overtake at the end; Valtteri was just so fast on the straights,” he added. “But I’m very happy I got some points today.”
Not as happy as Rosberg, of course, who was beaming afterwards. “Getting married was definitely the best thing that’s happened for me recently, the best feeling,” he said. “But of course everything has been special.
“I’ve been really fortunate, so many positive things happening in the last week and a half. It’s been really enjoyable, and also this weekend with pole and the win. Just awesome. It’s been a very, very special day today.”
And not as happy as the spectators, who were treated to some more fabulous wheel-to-wheel place-swapping between Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, and later between Alonso and Ricciardo. Real mano a mano stuff that was clean and represented everything that is grand about grand prix racing.
It was just a shame at a time when Germany has a four-time world champion and another countryman leading the title chase in a car created by a national company, that such a meagre crowd turned out to enjoy the spectacle.