By Chris Medland
Motor Sport Magazine
Just when Formula 1 is feeling really predictable, it serves up a reminder that nothing is a certainty in this sport.
Max Verstappen reminded his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase to drink during the British Grand Prix, because he was in the middle of a lonely drive to third place. Even with a tyre compound difference for this weekend’s Silverstone round, he predicted the same would happen again.
“Did you do it? Did you hydrate during the race? You must have some sweaty hands as well so don’t forget to sanitise,” came this week’s radio message.
Was that because Verstappen was lonely? Perhaps, but this time he was all alone out front.
It was a win that was set up on Saturday, when Red Bull opted to qualify on the hard tyre and start the race on that compound, compared to mediums for the rest of the top ten. The way Verstappen has been performing in race trim this season, the worst case scenario was he was again a distant third. Best case, he could disrupt the Mercedes pair ahead.
There was the small matter of Nico Hülkenberg starting third on the grid, but Verstappen dispatched the Racing Point off the line and set about putting the pressure on Mercedes instantly.
Valtteri Bottas held off Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap and quickly the front three were running a few seconds apart. Verstappen closed up to the back of Hamilton by lap 10, only to be warned by his race engineer that he should drop back to preserve his tyre advantage.
“Mate this is the only chance to be this close to the Mercedes, I’m not just going to sit behind like a Grandma!” came the reply.
Verstappen would be proven wrong. But his confidence in sticking to Hamilton’s gearbox showed how comfortable he was with his car on the hard tyre. The same could not be said when the two Mercedes’ stopped to join him.
Bottas came in first on lap 13, and Verstappen looked to be sizing Hamilton up when he pitted a lap later. Then in clear air he simply pulled away and Mercedes – on new hard tyres so now with an advantage in theory – had no answer.
“I was trying, if there was a chance, to keep up with Max,” Bottas said. “But as soon as I started to push, towards the end, the tyres just fell apart. There was a lot of blistering on the tyres for us today and it seems like Red Bull had none, so they clearly have an edge over there.”
Verstappen came in at the end of lap 26 and switched to mediums, emerging just behind Bottas. But it took him just four corners to regain the lead and pull a gap that left him in complete control.
“I didn’t expect that,” Verstappen said. “I had a good start first of all so I was straight away into P3 and that of course helps. Then I knew the first few laps maybe it would be a bit more difficult to follow, but I could see both cars in front of me were having trouble with the tyres which is quite normal when the tyres are so soft. So I closed the gap a bit and once they pitted I could pick up my pace and do my own laps and basically until I pitted it just felt really good, I never really had any struggles and I could extend that first stint which I think was key.
“Our stop was not great, I think one wheel was a bit slow so I came out behind Valtteri, but I had the softer compound and a lot more grip so I got past Valtteri and then basically the gap stayed the same – between 2.5-3sec.”
Red Bull were even able to pit on the same lap as Bottas made his second stop, even though it came just six laps into Verstappen’s medium tyre stint, in order to cover off any threat of an undercut. From there it was plain sailing, even if there was an outside chance of Hamilton running to the end that prompted an increase of pace just to force Mercedes’ hand.
“We pitted together for that final stint and then it was a question mark of who is going to be first to the line? But straight away the car felt good on those tyres again and I never really had any trouble with the tyre and I think that was key today.”
Hamilton wasn’t seen as a threat until just before his final stop, when Red Bull questioned whether an ambitious attempt to reach the finish on one stop was on the cards.
“I was trying to go for a one-stop at the end but there was a lot of vibration with the tyres that we had and I didn’t know if the tyre was going to last to be honest,” Hamilton said. “Not just with the rubber but a rear tyre blowout through a corner was too big a risk to take. That would have been the end of the race, so I think it was a good decision by the team.
“I was trying to keep going but there was a lot of laps to go. Max I think was doing 1min 29s and I couldn’t do that on the old tyre, so congratulations to him, he did a fantastic job. It was an exciting race even for me with the struggles that we had, keeping the car on track and not losing my cool, brining it home and getting the points.”
Behind the top three, fourth place for Charles Leclerc was just as unexpected as his third place from the weekend before. Ferrari looked less competitive on Friday and Saturday than seven days ago, but Leclerc showed stunning pace during a long second stint on hard tyres to make a one-stop work.
Strategically it was an excellent call, but the fight behind him saw questions asked from a strategy point of view. Nico Hülkenberg was fifth and comfortable in terms of pace, but a late stop for used soft tyres with fewer than ten laps remaining dropped him to seventh behind Alex Albon and Lance Stroll as the Red Bull took advantage with three laps to go.
“We were forced to pit off the prime set,” Hülkenberg explained. “I got a couple of nice big blisters on both rear tyres and the vibration just got so quickly out of hand that within two or three laps it just skyrocketed. I don’t think the tyre would have survived to the end.”
It was still a highly impressive performance from the substitute, taking adding six points to the Racing Point total and finishing ahead of Esteban Ocon – one-stopping like Leclerc – Lando Norris and Daniil Kvyat.
While the two one-stoppers were delighted with their work, their team-mates were victims of their own errors. Sebastian Vettel spun at Abbey at the start and somehow didn’t collect Carlos Sainz, before Daniel Ricciardo later also swapped ends at Village, again trying to negotiate a right-hander on the inside of the Spaniard.
Sainz ended up outside the points himself after a slow pit stop, but will be hoping for a better time at Ferrari than Vettel is currently experiencing, after another radio message that betrayed the atmosphere within the team.
“This is the gap that we didn’t like, we spoke about it this morning,” Vettel said when running in traffic after his first stop. “I’ll hang in there, but you know you’ve messed up.”
At least the picture is a lot brighter at his former team after its fourth win in partnership with Honda and the first for anyone other than Mercedes this season. It sees Verstappen overtake Bottas for second place in the drivers’ championship, although Hamilton’s lead remains 30 points after setting the fastest lap.
The advantage Mercedes has in qualifying is not replicated to anywhere near the same degree in race trim, and Verstappen is driving superbly. He already has a DNF from the first race of the season that took him out of a podium position, and today’s win just raises the question of how close Verstappen can push Hamilton.
With more high temperatures in Barcelona expecting next weekend, maybe that march to a seventh world championship won’t prove quite so predictable after all.
2020 F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix results
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||25|
|5||Alex Albon||Red Bull||10|
|6||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||8|
|7||Nico Hülkenberg||Racing Point||6|
|15||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo|
|17||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo|
*Additional point for fastest lap