Formula Spy's Thomas Maher looks ahead to an intriguing German Grand Prix
It may be just a handful of days since the Hungarian Grand Prix, but so much has changed in terms of this year's championship and even some of the implications for next season.
Momentum in the World Championship title stakes has swung back in Lewis Hamilton's favour with another win in Budapest, taking him six points clear of Rosberg at the front with five wins out of the most recent six races. Heading into the last race before the summer break, it's home ground time for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes and time to step up to the plate as Ferrari and Red Bull's challenge appears to be weakening.
Ferrari head to Germany with troubles on their mind. Hungary, a track that played to their strengths so well in 2015, didn't quite work out this year. While Vettel and Raikkonen both showed great pace compared to Red Bull, Mercedes' step forward in terms of chassis and aero appears to have put them out of reach even at tracks that aren't as engine power reliant as others.
Added to this, Ferrari have lost their formidable technical boss James Allison. Having worked alongside Ross Brawn on the dominant Schumacher Ferraris, Allison was the main man behind the successful Lotus cars that allowed Kimi Raikkonen to make such an impact on his return to the sport in 2012 and 2013. Moving to Ferrari again, the team climbed back up the totem pole but appear to have stalled at their current level.
With 2017 work fully underway with sweeping technical changes coming through, Allison's departure will come as a huge blow for the team. Ferrari stalwart Mattio Binotto takes over in the role for now. With the Scuderia since 1995 in various positions, Binotto represents a competent hand, but not the talismanic leadership that names like Adrian Newey, Aldo Costa and Allison command.
There have been suggestions in recent weeks that Ferrari are attempting to coax the brilliant Ross Brawn away from his life of flyfishing but, even if this unlikely event did happen, his years away from the cut and thrust would mean time spent shaking off rustiness. It's also too late to make an impact on guiding the team through the fledgling years of the upcoming regulation changes.
Wider, lower cars with fatter tyres are on the way, with a greater emphasis on mechanical grip. It's a major philosophy change from recent years. The last three seasons have been particularly engine dominated, with Mercedes power dominating almost regardless of chassis early on, although Ferrari and Renault have caught up in that department. With the 'token' system also abandoned and engine development opened up, F1's equivalent of a free-for-all is on the table and Ferrari lack a proven name at the helm.
Much has been made of Allison's departure - his wife died suddenly in March of meningitis, and this tragic event understandably caused disruption to his professional career. There have been suggestions that he fell out with Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne, that he was disillusioned with the team itself. The official line is that he wants to return to the UK to be with family, having lived in Italy since 2013. After a suitable gardening leave period (he remains under contract with Ferrari until the end of 2017), it wouldn't be surprising to see him rejoin his old Lotus team now that their future is secure with Renault.
A Ferrari with the new Halo system. Picture by: David Davies / PA Wire/Press Association Images
Having been trialled in pre-season testing and in practice sessions recently, the 'Halo' cockpit protection system has been abandoned. The FIA had intended on introducing it, mandatorily, next season in the wake of fatal accidents such as the ones that befell Jules Bianchi and Indycar racer Justin Wilson. However, disagreement about it has meant F1's Strategy Group has decided against rushing it through and will re-evaluate other systems over the coming year, including Red Bull's proposal of an 'Aeroscreen'.
While some of these rule changes are some ways off yet before introduction, there has been one change that will take place immediately and in effect from this weekend's race in Germany. The radio rules, having been decried by fans after recent, petty arguments about what can and can't be said over the radio, have been completely relaxed. Jenson Button was given a penalty in Hungary, while running in last place. He'd suffered a hydraulic failure and was told to change a setting on his steering wheel. For that, he was given a drive through penalty, leading him to vent his frustration over team radio.
Nico Rosberg also lost his P2 in Silverstone, relegated to P3 after being told to shift past 7th gear over the radio as a problem set in. These won't happen any more and radio use is now fully open, with the exception of the formation lap when the engineers cannot relay start instructions to the driver.
Having been a weak point at the start of the year, Lewis Hamilton appears to have gotten on top of his starting problems. Starting from P2 last Sunday, the reigning Champion led the field after Turn 1 having outbraked Rosberg and the challenging Daniel Ricciardo as they ran three abreast into the opening corner. From there, he rarely looked troubled despite never being far ahead of Rosberg. The Hungaroring rivals Monaco for being difficult to overtake, as evidenced by the seemingly race-long duel between Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen which saw neither driver pass the other on track at any point. This allowed Hamilton to control the pace, including time for some game playing that saw Mercedes intervene.
Radioing in to say he was "struggling for pace", Hamilton's lead over Rosberg was just outside the DRS range consistently, and slow enough to allow Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo to close up and threaten. With the possibility of an early pit-stop from Red Bull that could have allowed Ricciardo to jump past one or both Mercs, Hamilton was told to speed up or Rosberg would be allowed to pit first to cover the Ricciardo threat. Having failed to speed up before this, Hamilton somehow managed to up his pace by around a second a lap and that particular threat immediately faded. Asked about this threat after the race, Mercedes man Niki Lauda explained with a wry grin "Maybe Lewis was a bit tired, and then decided to wake up".
Passing the halfway point of the season, there's just ten races remaining in which Mercedes definitely remain the package to beat. There's a lot of unknowns for 2017, which means that Mercedes domination could come to an end. If it does, then Nico Rosberg could be looking at this being his last chance at becoming a World Champion alongside Lewis Hamilton. Ferrari, Red Bull, even McLaren could be the team to beat next year.
While Hamilton has his three World Championships already rubberstamping his F1 credentials, Rosberg still lacks them despite his successes. Even if he won one further down the line against another teammate, his defeats to Hamilton would discredit him. The pressure from Hamilton, and the pressure on his shoulders, is ramping up again after a relatively easy start to the season. If Nico can stem Hamilton's momentum by taking a second home victory in Germany this weekend, that would be a massive psychological boost heading into the summer shutdown.