Formula 1: German Grand Prix Thoughts and Predictions

Neil JamesFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2012

Formula 1: German Grand Prix Thoughts and Predictions

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    Sunday's German Grand Prix will be the tenth round of the 2012 Formula 1 World Championship.

    Ferrari's Fernando Alonso leads the drivers' championship, with Red Bull duo Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel not far behind. McLaren man Lewis Hamilton, in fourth place, is perhaps the last driver with even an outside chance of claiming the title at the end of the year.

    Michael Schumacher has won this race four times, while Alonso and Hamilton have two victories each and Webber has one.

    There will be five German drivers on the grid, and two German cars. The fans here haven't seen a home win since 2006—but their wait may be ended this year.

Pre-Race Thought: Is 2012 Becoming Predictable?

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    The early part of the season was as unpredictable as it was exciting. As the development of the season continues, the front of the field is starting to settle down a little.

    Red Bull appear to have opened up a small lead over the competition, with Ferrari relying heavily on Fernando Alonso's individual brilliance to keep in touch. Lotus remain quick but don't qualify well, while McLaren have slipped back in a spectacular fashion.

    Mercedes appear unable to challenge the front-runners on pure pace alone, while Sauber and Williams are still the "best of the rest." A repeat of Pastor Maldonado's victory in Spain looks highly unlikely.

    Going into Germany, the list of (realistic) potential winners rolling around in my head is smaller than it has been at any point during the year. It appears that the massive shocks are a thing of the past—and making predictions is becoming easier.

Pole Position

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    Red Bull have had five pole positions from nine races, and have become the team to beat on Saturdays.

    At the last race, a wet qualifying session saw Mark Webber outqualify Sebastian Vettel for the fifth time in 2012. Only a very brave (or very stupid) man would have predicted that could happen after Vettel's dominant 2011 season.

    The weather forecast for Saturday remains uncertain, but rain is a very real possibility.

    If it does arrive, we'll have another one of those great sessions in which anything could happen. In the wet, I'll say Michael Schumacher for pole. He qualified third at Silverstone and while few would argue he isn't past his best, he still has more than enough skill to claim his 69th career pole.

    If it stays dry, the Red Bull will probably be too strong. The only question in my mind is which of the two drivers will start first.

    And I have to say Vettel. While Webber leads the qualifying battle 5-4, no one has more poles in 2012 than his younger teammate.

    Maybe the car doesn't suit his style quite as much as it did last year, but Vettel can still produce magical single-lap performances.

    With a home crowd cheering him on, he's my pick for pole.

Will McLaren's Woes Continue?

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    At the start of the season, the McLaren was just about the best overall car. It didn't stand out as a "best car" usually does, but it could qualify well and race well—something few rivals appeared capable of doing.

    But lately everything has fallen apart.

    At some stage in the upgrading process the team changed something, and now Jenson Button can't drive the car quickly at all. Even Lewis Hamilton, who's better at driving around an issue than his teammate, has been a fair way off the pace of the quickest cars at the last two rounds.

    Whether a matter of set-up or a more fundamental issue, the McLaren isn't a contender for race wins anymore.

    The team have several updates for Hockenheim, including a modified exhaust configuration and minor changes to the diffuser. After a rain-hit Friday practice, the general noise coming out of the team was positive.

    It's a step forward, but it's unlikely even a top team could turn around such a speed deficit in just two weeks. The lack of dry running on Friday will have affected their on-track testing of the upgrades, and they may be unable to get the full advantage this weekend.

    In the little dry running they did get on Friday, Button looked strong. He'll be hoping to at least qualify in the top 10 after starting his home race in 18th. But his issues with the car may take more than a few new parts to fix.

    Hamilton will most likely be strong in qualifying and could well fight for the front row. A podium here is essential if he wants to remain in the title hunt, and he has a good chance of getting that—but the race win will probably be beyond him.

The Pastor Maldonado Saga

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    Pastor Maldonado has scored 29 points in 2012. Of those, 25 came from his victory in Spain. The other four were for eighth place in China.

    He's proven he's fast, and the Williams is a more than capable car, but driver errors have cost him dearly in five of the nine races so far. Fifteen drivers have scored points on more occasions than Maldonado.

    Sergio Perez was furious after colliding with the Venezuelan in Silverstone, and his words were surprisingly harsh for a man involved in such a professional, self-conscious sport. Following the incident, the Sauber driver said:

    I don't understand the way he's driving, I really hope the stewards can make something because the last three or four races he has done something to someone. And it's not the first time he damaged my weekend.

    He did the same with Lewis [Hamilton] in Valencia and they just give him a drive-through, which I think is not enough. This guy will never learn anything if they don't do something. It's dangerous, he's a very dangerous driver and it can hurt someone.

    Everybody has concerns about him. He's a driver that has no respect, doesn't know that we are risking our lives and has no respect at all.

    Maldonado seems to have an issue with backing off.

    Had he waited in Valencia, he'd have passed Lewis Hamilton on the next straight and stood on the podium. Had he let Perez go in Britain, he'd probably have gone on to score points.

    Instead, he scored zero and zero.

    Rather than attempt to place him among the pack, it seems prudent to simply do a yes/no prediction on whether or not he'll see the chequered flag with all the pieces still attached to his car.

    And I think he's due a finish this weekend.

Race Winner

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    Two men have won two races so far in 2012. One started the season in a car which was by all accounts dreadful, and the other is supposed to be the number two driver at Red Bull.

    Funny old world.

    Fernando Alonso will certainly be fast here, and Lotus will be good once qualifying and the first few laps are out of the way. McLaren have an outside chance, but I think the Red Bull battle will dominate the weekend.

    Their car will be noticeably quicker than the rest.

    Sebastian Vettel absolutely needs to finish ahead of Mark Webber to stay close in the title race, and with a home crowd behind him he'll push like never before.

    Trouble is, he never quite seems comfortable when he's under pressure.

    Mark Webber doesn't have the absolute pace of his younger teammate, but he's nothing if not solid and reliable. He likes the 2012 car a lot more than he did last year's, and as long as the car doesn't break he'll score some valuable points.

    Vettel should get pole, and if he can lead into the first corner it could be game over. He's at his best with the race taking place behind him, and as we saw in Valencia he can build a comfortable gap very quickly.

    So, despite some reservations about his pressure-handling, I'll pick Vettel for the race win.