Red Bull and Verstappen grab their chance
Red Bull played a masterstroke by compromising Verstappen’s qualifying to leave him starting the race on the hard tyre. Without any obvious wear issues, he was able to hound Bottas and Hamilton in the early stages after predictably getting the better of fellow second row starter Nico Hülkenberg from the lights. A 26-lap first stint compared to pretty much half that from his Mercedes rivals gave him a surprise advantage. He rejoined from his first stop just behind Bottas after switching to mediums, but was back ahead by the end of the Wellington straight and after just six laps on the yellow-rimmed tyres, returned to the pits for the hard compound once more, with Bottas following him in. The Finn, having started from a hard-earned pole position, was now a beaten man.
Hamilton gave Red Bull pause for thought on his long middle stint on hard tyres. Despite very obvious and severe blistering on his rears, it looked for a while that Mercedes might call on the six-time world champion’s revered tenderness with fragile rubber and make him go the end. Verstappen was ordered to chase down the gap just in case, but when Hamilton pitted on lap 41 Max was in the clear and his ninth grand prix victory secure.
No wonder his boss Christian Horner described it as an “amazing performance”. Early on Verstappen was warned about tyre wear and advised to back off from his chase of the Mercedes, but fired back an amusing message about preferring not to drive “like grandma”. His aggressive instincts were bang on and he wasn’t about to waste a rare chance to beat the best cars on the grid. As for Bottas, his frustration in describing his team as “sleeping” on strategy was perfectly understandable, while Hamilton was also bemused by the switch in form caused by the heat. His late charge on fresh rubber and a strategy that proved superior to his team-mate’s took him past first Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari for third, and then Bottas without any trouble. But Vertstappen was long gone. Hamilton’s extra point for fastest lap leaves him 34 ahead of Bottas in the title race, but impressively Verstappen now sits between them. All we need is a series of boiling summer races and similarly soft Pirelli tyres to give Max the most unlikely of long-shots… The title is still Hamilton’s to lose, but thank the Lord for Verstappen and Red Bull for at least keeping it interesting.