GRR

Five talking points from a dramatic F1 British GP

03rd August 2020
Damien Smith

“****, that was close,” said Lewis Hamilton after three-wheeling to his record-extending seventh British Grand Prix win on Sunday. The home hero hadn’t broken a sweat at a ‘ghost town’ Silverstone lacking its usual partisan crowd all weekend, but that all changed on a dramatic last lap when the wheels – or more specifically just one of them – nearly came off his latest day of dominance. Hamilton’s 87th career victory swiftly turned from one of his most straightforward into one of his most unforgettable in the space of the race’s final minute.

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Punctures and pitstops

The twists in the 2020 British GP’s tale began on lap 50, just two from the end, when Valtteri Bottas suffered a catastrophic left-front Pirelli tyre failure as he passed the pits. The Finn was forced into limp mode for a whole lap that stripped him of a comfortable second place. Even worse, he then lacked the time to make a meaningful comeback once he’d pitted, finishing an agonising and pointless 11th, hot on the heels of Sebastian Vettel’s lacklustre Ferrari.

Max Verstappen thus took a step up the podium, but at the same time his team played him out of the victory. As Bottas struggled in his crippled Mercedes, Red Bull stuck to its ploy of pitting Verstappen for fresh tyres in a bid to claim the fastest lap. Which he managed – at the cost of winning the race.

Hindsight, as ever, is a wonderful thing, but still this seemed an odd call from the usually sharp Red Bull pit wall. The Bottas tyre failure had confirmed that vocal concerns from both Mercedes drivers over the state of their rubber were all too real. The resumption of action on lap 19, after a safety car following Daniil Kvyat’s crash, forced the majority to stretch the hard-compound tyres to 33 laps at full race pace. Whatever the cause, be it over-use or debris, Red Bull knew there was every chance Hamilton would suffer the same fate as his team-mate, and indeed his engineer Peter Bonnington had warned him to back off, in the interests of simply bringing the car home. Red Bull boss Christian Horner defended the decision to pit by pointing out Verstappen’s own rubber wasn’t in the best shape either – but in the circumstances, throwing the dice and leaving him out there in the hope of a second gift seemed the more characteristic call from a team usually known for its creative strategic aggression.

Likewise, Mercedes also dropped the ball, almost calamitously, by not calling Hamilton in for fresh tyres on the last lap in the wake of Verstappen’s stop. There was now plenty of time in hand, the team knew Hamilton’s front-left was also highly suspect, and yet conversely they chose to leave him out. So both Red Bull and Mercedes made the wrong calls in the heat of the moment – one to pit, the other not to – as Hamilton’s left front failed on his way down to Brooklands on that final lap. This remains, despite its technology, a very human sport.

Hamilton did a great job to balance the right amount of speed without losing the tyre’s carcass completely as Bonnington counted down the reducing gap to Verstappen, and he hobbled across the line just 5.8sec to the good. That he even managed to complete the full warm-down lap was, in a way, an odd testament to the Pirelli’s fortitude, even in failure.

The upshot was a podium trio made up of a deeply relieved Hamilton, a surprisingly sanguine Verstappen who had still gained more from this race than he’d expected, and a lowkey Charles Leclerc who had made the best of his Ferrari, but knew how lucky he’d been to finish third. As for Bottas, he could only contemplate a suddenly yawning 30-point deficit to his team-mate in their personal race for the world title. In a season condensed by the coronavirus, is the championship already over, after just four races? It might have swung on these tyre failures and their contrasting outcomes.

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Also a dead rubber for Sainz

Hamilton and Bottas weren’t alone in their late-race tyre failures, as Carlos Sainz Jr. lost a much deserved fourth place when his left-front punctured on the last lap too. The Spaniard had qualified two places down on his McLaren team-mate Lando Norris, but had passed the young Brit on the opening lap to gain back the racing edge. Without the time buffer Hamilton enjoyed, Sainz plummeted to an undeserved 13th at the flag.

As for Norris, he had passed Daniel Ricciardo at Luffield after the Kvyat safety car interruption, but the Australian got his own back late on to steal fourth place – equalling his personal best finish in yellow – and deliver a much-needed boost to a somewhat beleaguered Renault team. Esteban Ocon added more points in sixth.

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Racing Point’s home-race nightmare

In contrast, Racing Point – whom Renault continues to protest because of the pink car’s resemblance to last year’s Mercedes – endured a day to forget at the circuit just across the road from its factory.

The team had already faced the late scramble of replacing Sergio Pérez, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday. Nico Hülkenberg was the perfect stand-in, given the experience in his armoury from 177 previous grand prix starts, many of which had been for this very team in its former guise as Force India. Yet the German would be cruelly robbed of adding to his tally when the Mercedes engine in his car failed to fire in the pits because of a clutch bolt failure. As Hülkenberg ruefully admitted, his fortunes reflected a fitting end to a topsy-turvy four days.

As for Lance Stroll, it said much about Racing Point’s recent form that sixth on the grid was something of a disappointment at Silverstone, and then the Canadian faded badly in the race. Ninth was his only reward, and only after both Bottas and Sainz had suffered their misfortunes. A ‘pink Mercedes’ is clearly no guarantee of big points in Formula 1’s tightly bunched midfield pack.

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Kvyat’s double smack at Maggotts

Daniil Kvyat apologised to his AlphaTauri team after a violent accident at the fast Maggotts bend. But another Pirelli tyre failure, this time to the right rear, might have been the cause of Kvyat’s car rapidly switching ends. Footage seemed to suggest the tyre had deflated before the Russian lost control. Having smacked the wall, Kvyat then offered the same treatment to a TV camera lens poking in his direction as he walked away from the scene.

In contrast, team-mate Pierre Gasly enjoyed a great day at Silverstone, rising from 11th on the grid to finish a strong seventh, behind Ocon’s Renault but ahead of Alex Albon, the man who replaced him last August at the senior Red Bull team. For the Frenchman, these points must have tasted extra sweet.

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Grosjean’s twitchy cameo

Albon was forced into an extra stop following his first-lap collision at Club Corner with Kevin Magnussen, whose crash brought an early safety car intervention. The Red Bull driver should consider himself hard done-by to have copped a five-second penalty for an incident that could have been judged a 50-50. It summed up a tricky day for the Thai, who at least salvaged eighth place after a decent comeback drive.

Magnussen’s team-mate Romain Grosjean played an eventful cameo after Kvyat’s accident on lap 13. Like it had in Hungary, the Haas team threw the strategic dice at Silverstone on the basis it had little to lose, as Grosjean was the only driver not to pit under the second safety car period. That lifted him to fifth and he put in a sterling shift to stay in the points, only to stray across the line of acceptable defensive tactics. The current chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association twice twitched off his line while under attack, first from an unimpressed Sainz and then from Ricciardo, who succinctly described Grosjean’s actions as “sketchy”. The 34-year-old was given a warning, but faded back out of the picture anyway when he eventually stopped for fresh tyres on lap 36.

P16 at the flag, Grosjean’s cameo had at least enlivened what looked set to be a forgettable British GP – until Pirelli’s tyres made sure this Silverstone encounter would instead be one we’ll always remember. They do it all again next Sunday, as the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix completes a historic Silverstone double-header

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