Lewis Hamilton drove to a sensational victory at the German Grand Prix here yesterday – but we can all thank Timo Glock for injecting desperately needed excitement into what at one stage threatened to be a McLaren-Mercedes walkover.
The German did so involuntarily when the right rear suspension of his Toyota sheared as he negotiated the last corner to complete the 35th lap, and for the second time this year he found himself experiencing an uncomfortably heavy impact as his car smashed into the pit wall.
Thus was the scene set for another race which could have been regarded as Hamilton's greatest. Certainly, the very irresistibility of his recovery charge from a bit of McLaren brinkmanship on refuelling strategy was reminiscent of Nigel Mansell at his finest. This day, there was simply no denying him.
The Englishman led easily from the start and built an 11sec lead before McLaren brought him in early for his first refuelling stop on the 18th lap, "to avoid possible safety-car problems." He regained the lead on the 22nd lap after his closest rival, Ferrari's Felipe Massa, and his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, made their stops, and had opened up a similar margin when Glock's accident occurred. But when the pit lane officially opened, after the safety car had been deployed as the shards of debris were cleared up, McLaren decided to keep their man out as the world and his wife made their second stops. Now Hamilton was stuck behind the safety car, and all of his major rivals were refuelled and ready to roll. It was a risky strategy that could have cost McLaren the victory.
Hamilton admitted that he was slightly bemused.
"They just said that they were comfortable with where we were," he said. "I was going slowly enough to see the big TV screens and I saw the pit stops, and that Heikki and one of the Ferraris were in. I asked had they pitted, and are you sure we shouldn't have been pitting? But they said the others would be very heavy [with fuel] and running in a bit of traffic."
But his crew also told him that he needed to open up a gap of 23sec before his next refuelling stop, and that was going to be a very tall order notwithstanding the circumstances of his rivals.
"It was a case of surprise, surprise when the safety car came out," Hamilton said ironically. "But, of course, it was no surprise at all because I had a feeling something like that would happen. Coming in early on our first stop was a good call but then we got caught on the second, which made it a lot harder.
"Probably I should have come in, but at the end of the day I don't understand exactly what is going on behind me so I have to have full confidence in what the team decide. We were easily the quickest, but it just made my job a little bit harder. But I just told Ron [Dennis, McLaren's team principal] 'That's what you hired me for, that's what I'm here for.' I kinda knew I wasn't going to make the 23sec I needed unless I was three seconds a lap faster... I did the best job I could and nailed it, pushing even more than I had in the first stint. I had a nice clear space with no one to cause me any trouble, but I wasn't able to do it. I just missed it."
By the 50th lap he had opened a lead of 15.7sec over Massa in fourth place, but as he finally refuelled he fell to fifth place, behind Nick Heidfeld, Nelson Piquet Jnr, Massa and Kovalainen.
The Finn succumbed on lap 52. Then Heidfeld stopped to refuel on lap 53. So now it was Piquet leading, as fortune had turned him suddenly from a backmarker in the first half into a contender, with Hamilton charging after Massa. Down came the gap, from just under four seconds to virtually nothing, and on the 57th lap the Brazilian, struggling with the brakes on his Ferrari, fell prey to the Englishman as they went into the hairpin. He fought back valiantly two corners later, but Hamilton was in no mood to be denied. Now only Piquet stood between him and victory.
"Actually," Hamilton admitted, "I thought my work was done when I passed Felipe, then they said I had got to get past Nelson. I thought, 'OK, I just worked my backside off, but I'll do it ...'"
Quickly he hunted down his old GP2 adversary, until the inevitable happened, again at the hairpin, as he overtook the Renault driver. By the flag he was 5.5sec clear, and thus moved four points clear of a resigned Massa in the title stakes: 58 to 54. Piquet held on to second in a remarkable boost to a flagging career, and Massa fended off Heidfeld in the closing stages to take the final podium position.
Kovalainen was fifth ahead of his fellow Finn Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, whose subdued sixth place earned him three points, after he had overtaken the Sauber-BMW driver Robert Kubica, and left him third overall on 51 points. Kubica has 48.
Thus what had seemed so terminally dull eventually developed into one of the best races of the season, and suggested that the tide has turned in McLaren's favour as the championship moves past its midpoint.
"We are really on top of our game," Hamilton said. "If we can continue the momentum we have got now we've got to be looking very good. Hungary [the next race] is usually good for us."
Results from Hockenheim
1 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 31min 20.874sec
2 Nelson Piquet Jnr (Br) Renault +5.586sec
3 Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari +9.339
4 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-BMW +9.825
5 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren +12.411
6 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari +14.483
7 Robert Kubica (Pol) Sauber-BMW +22.603
8 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +33.282
9 Jarno Trulli (It) Toyota +37.199
10 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota +37.658
11 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault +38.625
12 Sebastien Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +39.111
13 David Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Renault +54.971
14 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari +59.093
15 Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota +1min 00.003sec
16 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari +1:09.488
17 Jenson Button (GB) Honda 1 lap.
retired: Rubens Barrichello (Br) Honda 17 laps; Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 27; Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota 35; Fastest Lap: Nick Heidfeld (1:15.987, lap 52).
1 Ferrari 105 points
2 Sauber-BMW 89
3 McLaren-Mercedes 86
4 Toyota 25
5 Red Bull-Renault 24
6 Renault 23
7 Williams-Toyota 16
8 Honda 14
9 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 8
10 Force India-Ferrari 0
11 Super Aguri-Honda 0 (withdrew from championship after round four)