Sebastian Vettel fended off a late charge from Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen to claim his first home grand prix victory at the sixth time of asking.
Going into this weekend’s race at the Nürburgring, Vettel’s best finish had been second place in 2009, his second full F1 campaign and first season with Red Bull. Since then the defending champion had slid sequentially backwards, last year’s fifth place coming after he was penalised for overtaking Jenson Button off circuit.
This year though, Vettel made no such error. Starting second, he passed pole winner Lewis Hamilton into turn one, the Mercedes driver having gotten away sluggishly. The Briton was also passed by third-on-the grid Mark Webber.
That battling start set up the Red Bull pair for a strong race but while Vettel’s first stop on lap seven went smoothly, Webber’s stop on the following lap was anything but straightforward.
The pit crew had a problem with the Australian’s rear right wheel and amid the confusion Webber was released into pit lane. The new wheel immediately worked loose and bounced down pit lane, striking a television cameraman, who was treated at the circuit medical centre and then helicoptered to hospital in Koblenz.
The incident put paid to Webber’s chances of major points. After being told to switch off his engine, he was rolled back to his pit box and by the time his car had been fitted with new tyres and released he was in last place, a lap down. Red Bull Racing were later fined €30,000 by the stewards for the unsafe release.
At the front, Hamilton was going backwards. “We really struggled with the second set of tyres which then compromised the rest of my race,” he said. “We've clearly got a good car but for some reason, it doesn't work in these hot conditions. The positive is that we were able to recover to fifth place with a good strategy and great pit stops, and we're still second in the Constructors' table.”
Lotus’ Romain Grosjean, though, was a man on the move. The Frenchman ran a long 13-lap first stint on the soft Pirelli tyres, more than anyone else, and that vaulted him to second place behind Vettel.
Then on lap 24, the engine of Jules Bianchi’s Marussia blew up, forcing the French driver to pull over, the rear of his car on fire.
He exited the stricken Marussia but with no driver onboard and the recovery vehicle trundling towards the incident, Bianchi’s car rolled back across the track.
The incident brought out the safety car and the gaps disappeared. It was a bonus for Webber. The Red Bull driver was permitted to unlap himself and to close up on the rear of the field. After the re-start he passed four cars in a single lap and then powered through the order to eventually finish seventh, overtaking Sergio Perez on the final lap.
“In the end I did what I can do,” said Webber. “It makes the result worse when I knew that I was with [the top three] at the first round of pit stops, looking very good. I spent the rest of the race pushing as hard as possible, watching a bit of the big screen to see who is doing what and that's it, I couldn't do any more.”
The safety car also boosted Raikkonen’s chances. Twelve seconds down before Bianchi’s accident, he joined Vettel and Grosjean in stopping for tyres during the lull and then chased down the front pair with the gap erased.
After Vettel and Grosjean had stopped for medium tyres around lap 40, Raikkonen took another eight tours before taking on quicker soft tyres, in order to make a final charge for the front.
He was joined in that tactic by Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard had put in another doggedly determined drive from eighth to fourth and in the final laps pushed hard to close down and pass Grosjean.
The gambit failed however as their opponents fought hard to hold position. Raikkonen closed to within a second of Vettel and Alonso charged to within half a second of Grosjean but neither could mount a significant attack and the order remained static until the chequered flag.
Vettel began the season missing victory at four of this year’s race venues but with wins in Canada and now Germany, the champion now just lacks top-step finishes in Hungary and the US to complete the set.
“I’m very, very happy, an unbelievable race,” said Vettel. “Kimi was pushing very, very hard in the end and obviously they tried to do something different with different compound tyres. I think we had a very solid, very controlled race but I was pushing, I think, every single lap, except the laps behind the Safety Car. Very happy with the result and incredible to finally win in Germany.”
Raikkonen admitted that he had contemplated trying to race to the end on his final set of fading medium tyres but a radio issue made the decision impossible.
“We had a think about it but we had a massive problem with the radio,” he said. “I could hear them but they could only hear me between two corners. So I’m wondering if we should have done it, taken a gamble and tried to go to the end because the tyres were pretty OK, my speed was pretty OK so it was hard to know what happens in the next ten laps. We did a good race and got both cars on the podium, so as a team we’re happy but obviously I lost some more points to Seb in the championship.”
With Alonso fourth, Hamilton took fifth place. A clever, controlled drive gave Jenson Button sixth and with Webber seventh the final points places went to Sergio Perez, Nico Rosberg and Nico Hulkenberg.
Vettel’s win means he stretches his lead over Alonso at the top of the Drivers’ Championship standings. The German now has 157 points to the Spaniard’s 123, with Raikkonen third on 116 points. In the Constructors’ Championship, Red Bull Racing lead comfortably with 250 points with Mercedes second with 183. Ferrari are third with 180 points and Lotus fourth with 157.
2013 German Grand Prix result
1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 25pts
2 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus +1.0 18pts
3 Romain Grosjean Lotus +5.8 15pts
4 Fernando Alonso Ferrari +7.7 12pts
5 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +26.9 10pts
6 Jenson Button McLaren +27.9 8pts
7 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing +37.5 6pts
8 Sergio Pérez McLaren +38.3 4pts
9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes +46.8 2pts
10 Nico Hülkenberg Sauber +49.8 1pt
11 Paul di Resta Force India +53.7
12 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso +56.9
13 Adrian Sutil Force India +57.7
14 Esteban Gutiérrez Sauber +60.1
15 Pastor Maldonado Williams +61.9
16 Valtteri Bottas Williams +1 Lap
17 Charles Pic Caterham +1 Lap
18 Giedo van der Garde Caterham +1 Lap
19 Max Chilton Marussia +1 Lap
Ret Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso +38 Laps
Ret Jules Bianchi Marussia +39 Laps
Ret Felipe Massa Ferrari +57 Laps