Formula 1’s return to the Nurburgring promises to be a fittingly erratic affair. The modern circuit is, of course, no match for the legendary Nordschleife. But the Eifel region’s unpredictable weather and a good track layout with cambered corners always had the potential to mix things up. So the first grand prix there for seven years seems set to do the same again.
Temperatures of less than 10 degrees over the weekend will wreak havoc on tyre preparation and management. Intermittent rain will pose headaches over which tyres to be on and when. Steady rain will guarantee full wet sessions at some point, if not all weekend.
It will be cold and it will be rain. F1 has had cold races before. It’s had wet races before. I can’t quite remember a time when it had such a guaranteed cold, wet weekend. And that’s brilliant because it’s a recipe for an interesting grand prix.
We might have to be patient on Friday. Poor conditions – there’s been a steady drizzle all morning and low-lying mist as well – will probably mean reduced running. That’s bad news for Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilott as the two Formula 2 title contenders will have wanted things to be nice and simple for their respective FP1 debuts at Alfa Romeo and Haas.
But teams will probably not be able to back off in the wet as much as they might normally do on Friday. Preserving tyres is important but with seven years away there’s not the residual knowledge of the circuit to fall back on. And while Saturday’s forecast now looks better there’s still a risk of showers on Sunday. So getting some track time today, even if it’s wet, is probably more valuable than normal.
Even if Friday’s a washout, that still sets F1 up for a good weekend. F1 teams are so well prepared now that a good amount of practice running validates their massive simulation work away from the track, and qualifying and the race can be run almost robotically to the numbers. But take away their track time and things become less predictable. Less predictable = more variable. That’s the enemy of F1 teams but it’s perfect for those of us watching.
It doesn’t mean Mercedes will suddenly be scrambling for performance. Who knows, maybe the dual-axis steering (DAS) system will be more valuable than ever in the cold conditions of the Nurburgring, giving Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas a crucial edge in getting the tyres up to temperature in qualifying, at the race start, and during safety car periods.
But it does throw a curveball at teams that were already unsure about this weekend, because they don’t have much relevant data to fall back on.
How they handle one challenge will also affect another. If they can’t do much running, how can they judge their set-up? And if they can’t judge their set-up, how can they try to combat the likely tyre warm-up issue that will plague them in qualifying? If they can’t get the tyres operating in the right window, are they going to suffer painful ‘graining’ in the race, as the tyres slide around and strip rubber that immediately stick back on the surface of the tyre?
That’s also separate to which teams have done their homework the best and prepared for this new challenge well. It seems unlikely to launch Red Bull into Mercedes’ stratosphere, but it could mix up the order below.
And as we’ve seen in other rain-hit or chaotic races, even the Mercedes juggernaut is not immune to the wonders of unpredictability.