Did Ferrari win, or BAR lose?
Could BAR Honda and Jenson Button have scored their first F1 victory at Hockenheim, had they not received that 10 grid place penalty for the valve failure on Friday? Or could Kimi Raikkonen have won for McLaren?
It has been a while since such valid questions could be asked in the wake of yet another Ferrari win, but the indications are that either of the British teams could have posed a serious threat to Michael Schumacher with just a little better fortune.
In the aftermath of the race it was clear that Schumacher believed that Button would have been strong had he started from third place on the grid, especially as the Englishman made a hash of his opening lap and was way down in 12th place while the champion was busy leading. And so too Raikkonens overall fastest lap, three thousandths of a second faster than Schumacher, was further food for thought.
In the end the perfect red machine prevailed as usual but the signs are interesting. While Ferrari moved ever closer to their record sixth consecutive Constructors World Championship, and BAR gabbed another useful haul of points to draw closer to Renault for second place, McLaren had the consolation not just of that fastest lap but also the vindication of the MP4-19s performance. David Coulthard refuelled on the same lap as Schumacher, and Raikkonen a lap later, confirming that their qualifying performances were a true reflection of their race speed, and they showed convincingly just how much progress the silver package has made. The failure of the main plane of the Finns rear wing was worrying, but clearly it was a manufacturing problem rather than a design shortcoming, since Coulthards car was not similarly troubled. Having been criticised in the first half of the season, McLaren have now turned the corner to the point where a victory would no longer be a surprise.
For Renault, Alonsos podium brought another six points in their defence of second place against BAR in the Constructors stakes, but it was not an easy race. Alonso had that mysterious period when his car felt as if it had lost its front wing, before magically regaining its speed. "Something very bizarre occurred", executive director of engineering Pat Symonds confirmed. The aerodynamic balance was pushed backward by eight percent, a huge amount, and he had to contend with a large amount of understeer. It turned out to be a barge board that had caught under the car. The return to form came about when the board became dislodged.
Trulli, too, had undercar debris problems which caused him similar problems, but for longer, until the front wing was changed on lap 28. The problem destroyed his race.
A front-row start was a move in the right direction for BMW Williams, but Montoyas poor stop cost them dearly. The clutch didnt bite soon enough, and then the Colombian had too much wheelspin. Once he had lost places, he was unable to make them up again and going off the road and handing another to Button didnt help. Antonio Pizzonia failed to make much of a fuel-light car in either qualifying or the race, and also had an off-course moment, but then he composed himself with a strong recovery, which saw him catch and pass Sato in the closing stages and set a fastest lap within a tenth of Montoyas.
Jaguar was another team to leave Hockenheim with their tail up, courtesy largely of a great start from Mark Webber and a fighting performance which saw him mix aggression and opportunism in equal measure to produce an excellent sixth place result. Christian Klien also ran strongly, and after Webbers performance there last year the team now head for Hungary full of renewed optimism.
Toyotas day however was disastrous, from the moment that Paniss car stalled on the grid, necessitating an aborted start, to the tyre failure that sent Cristiano da Matta spinning out, culminating in a fourth, precautionary, stop for Panis when the telemetry indicated that his car was suffering a similar loss of tyre pressure to that of his team-mate. All of this served to confuse the issue, and though one should be wary of reading too much into Paniss fourth fastest race lap since it was set with a low fuel load on new tyres after that final stop, there were sufficient signs that the TF104B is a big improvement to carry the team through to Hungary in search of a more fitting result.
By contrast, Sauber Petronas went home with long faces, following disappointing performances in the wake of the big Silverstone breakthrough. The problems began with the usual difficulty in getting the best from the Bridgestone tyres over a single qualifying lap, and when traffic prevented either Giancarlo Fisichella or Felipe Massa from making ground in the opening laps the die was cast. Massa reported that his second set of tyres were horrible, causing his C23 to feel very unstable, while Fisichella had to do his final stint on three new tyres and the same left rear from his middle stint when the left rear wheel stuck on the hub.
Jordan also had an unhappy time, with a punctured left front tyre hampering Giorgio Pantanos strong opening performance as he picked up some of the plentiful debris on the track. Later Nick Heidfeld retired his car after a couple of pit stops to investigate suspected suspension damage, as his EJ14 was behaving increasingly erratically. Minardi ran at the back as usual, with Bruni having a problem with a barge board, but both cars made the finish.
Everyone likes to think that the opposition are catching up with Ferrari, but in Hockenheim there were signs that they genuinely are, with Raikkonen lapping quicker on a similar fuel load and Button keeping Schumacher under pressure. Perhaps Hungary will produce a different winner