How McLaren found their form

Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber on the podium after the German Grand Prix

McLaren bounced back resoundingly for Lewis Hamilton to win the German Grand Prix after two relatively uncompetitive races. The question is, how?

At the Nurburging, the MP4-26 reverted to the sort of form it had displayed at Barcelona, Monaco and Montreal, when it was arguably the fastest Sunday car of all. The difference in Germany was that Hamilton transcended its natural level in qualifying, usually the car's weakness.

The difficult races that followed Montreal - Valencia and Silverstone - resulted in a dip in form by McLaren but there are specific reasons for each of those.

The ebb and flow during the season of the relative competitiveness between the top three cars - Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari - is largely down to the differing way each of those cars uses its tyres, and the implications of that on specific circuit layouts and track temperatures.

Very high track temperatures on a traction track hurt McLaren at Valencia but had relatively little to do with the poor form at Silverstone; that was all about how adversely affected the car was by the one-off limitation on the use of exhaust gases to generate downforce there.

From Germany, Formula 1 reverted back to pre-Silverstone regulations, the track temperatures were very cool and suddenly the McLaren was right back to where it had been before. It is not quite as black and white as that but that is the essential underlying picture.

The other contributory factors were: Hamilton's stupendous personal performance, particularly in qualifying; the way the very low track temperatures hurt the Ferrari; and the way the long, high-speed curves of the middle sector - combined with the Red Bull's big downforce - seemed to overwork its rear tyres, leaving it strategically vulnerable towards the end of the stints.

And one more thing: McLaren's perfect tactical calls on a day when that was a very difficult thing to do.

The Ferrari remains the easiest of the three cars on its tyres - and that was the main reason why it was struggling in qualifying and in the early parts of a stint.

Felipe Massa tends to struggle with tyre temperature even more than Fernando Alonso but on Saturday even Alonso's tyres were found to be about 15C below their optimum level. They would get into the correct window eventually but only after several laps.

The Ferrari is much improved in this respect since its Silverstone aerodynamic upgrade but the basic trait is still there and the low track temperatures of an unseasonably cool Nurburgring just brought that out quite acutely.

This characteristic paid back late in the stints - as Alonso showed with an in-lap for the second stops that was 0.7 seconds faster than either Hamilton's or Mark Webber's - but it meant it was invariably playing catch-up.

Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton & Mark Webber

The Red Bull is the hardest on the tyres and were this still a tyre war formula, with teams able to choose and develop specific tyres to suit their cars, it is likely the Red Bull would be untouchable on both Saturday and Sunday rather than only in qualifying.

But with the current Pirelli control tyres, Red Bull's downforce advantage tends to overwork the rears if the corners are long and fast. There was a similar pattern on race day at Barcelona and Silverstone.

At the Nurburgring, the car seemed to be on the cusp of accessing a sweet spot in that regard, showing race-dominating potential with Webber on Friday afternoon race-simulation runs but that was not to be repeated in the race.

Webber has usually been harder on the tyre than Sebastian Vettel and, with the German having a rare off weekend, perhaps that just made the combination of pace with tyre preservation all the more difficult for the team.

The ideal car at the Nurburgring on Sunday - a track with a middle sector of long-duration fast corners but with very low track temperatures - was something that was quick to warm up its tyres but did not then overuse them. Something with good but not overwhelming downforce: a McLaren in other words.

But the weakness of McLaren's DRS overtaking aid rear wing - which does not shed as much downforce as it does on other cars - always tends to leave the team struggling on Saturday when that feature can be used freely.

Hamilton's fantastic performance then - gained in the two major braking areas into Turn One and the Turn 13/14 chicane - overcame that, laying the foundation for a great victory.

However, Hamilton is concerned about Hungary: a traction track likely to be very hot - a little like Valencia, except the corners are longer duration, putting the tyres under even more strain.

That sounds like perfect Ferrari territory. Except for one thing: current forecasts say it is going to be wet...

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