What Caused Sebastian Vettel’s Crash at Hockenheim?

A driver’s perspective on Seb’s corner entry misjudgment, and heartbreaking exit of the 2018 German Grand Prix.

Very uncharacteristically, Sebastian Vettel snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during the 2018 German Grand Prix with a self-induced error on lap 52 of 67.

Vettel vented his frustrations on his $50,000 steering wheel while Ferrari Tifosi the world over groaned, or, as in the case of the young Tifosi member in my household, stormed out of the room while cursing both Seb and all things F1. (Reasonable enough.)

If you didn’t see the Grand Prix, rain was taunting the drivers in the closing stages of the race. First, the showers were isolated in the turn 6 hairpin, then many laps later moved into Hockenheim’s stadium section and turn 13 (Sachs curve), the site of Vettel’s crash. Conditions around the track were wildly inconsistent – either bone dry or wet enough for intermediate tires, possibly even full wets in select corners.

Given the mixed conditions and rain that never fully arrived, the right move (in hindsight) was to stay out and carefully manage the conditions on standard race slicks. That was Seb’s strategy, but it didn’t work out.

So what happened to Vettel as he powerlessly skittered through the Sachs curve and terminated his race? Was it a simple case of hydroplaning with worn motorsport tires, or something else?

It’s not every day that one gets to identify and empathize with an F1 driver’s on-track experience, but this author committed a very similar blunder less than a week ago during a track event. In my case, the available grip in a damp brake zone was overestimated, too much speed was carried in, and I went helplessly through the brake zone and off track. (On the bright side, my off-track excursion didn’t disappoint millions of fans and swing the F1 World Championship. Also, my front splitter took care of some overgrown grass.)

If you’ve never driven on a wet race track, then what you need to know is it’s really not your standard wet road driving experience. Uniquely, race tracks get “rubbered in,” meaning there’s a layer of dense rubber that forms on the racing line. In ideal dry track conditions, this phenomenon contributes to the available traction and improves lap times. (Rubber grips rubber.) But when it rains, yeah, not so much. A layer of precipitation on the rubber creates –   no exaggeration – an ice-like driving experience.

This is why motorsport commentators talk about the “racing line” and the “wet line” as two separate routes around the track. When conditions are wet, the racing line is avoided (typically by 1-2 car widths) because of the rubber surfacing. There’s more grip and better lap times to be had “off line.”

On a fully, consistently wet race track, the driver can get a sense of the available grip, however limited, and adjust his or her driving pace and style accordingly. Also, drivers (especially F1 drivers) can learn as they go and “sniff out” areas of higher grip around the track.

Unfortunately for Seb, he didn’t have that privilege during the German Grand Prix. Because of the mixed and evolving conditions, he was approaching each corner with ample guesswork, and no useful reference point. To complicate and make matters even more challenging, he was the leader of the race and therefore the guinea pig. There was no car immediately ahead that could be used as a benchmark for brake points, corner entry, or apex speeds.

Vettel was too optimistic with his speed between corners 12 and 13, then encountered what’s effectively black ice as he attempted to slow and get the nose of the car turned in. He tried to make the corner but instead understeered into the gravel all the way to the tire wall. The damage was done and fate sealed because the traction he forecasted would be available in the brake zone and at corner entry, was not. At that point, he was purely a passenger.

If ever there were track conditions that could trip up a 4-time F1 World Champion they were at the 2018 German Grand Prix. It will go down as an unforced error on Seb’s part, but one that’s easily understandable for anyone who has negotiated a mixed condition, or freshly wet race track.

Now if I could just get the young Tifosi member in my household to see it the same way.

 

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