It all came right on lap number 43 for car number 44.
By his own admission, Lewis Hamilton hasn’t always made the right calls on whether to pit in those critical occasions when the rain is falling and the temptation to abandon slick tyres and grab a set of intermediates is great. The memory of his race-losing pit stop in Monaco – which Hamilton played an active role in triggering – is still fresh.
But with the Silverstone skies darkening and his championship rival slashing up to two seconds per lap out of his lead, Hamilton’s judgement that now was the time to head for the pits wasn’t just sound, it was inspired. His reward was a third home grand prix win.
Williams stun Mercedes
Well before the rain arrived, the British Grand Prix had already served up some of the choicest moments of action so far this season. It began with the Williams pair making an inspired start from the second row of the grid which briefly put both of the Mercedes behind them.
“With this medium tyres I always start very well,” Felipe Massa explained afterwards. “When I just released the clutch I saw the Mercedes having a little bit of wheelspin, I just control my foot not to go to the wheelspin, and the car just started to move, and I just passed them in a fantastic way.”
Massa shot from third on the grid into the lead and Valtteri Bottas almost followed him. But despite having nosed ahead of Hamilton, Bottas was perhaps a little too reluctant to edge the Mercedes wide at Village corner. The championship contender was always likely to back down in that scenario, but by leaving the door open at The Loop Bottas allowed Hamilton to reclaim second place.
It didn’t last long, however. Behind them five cars had collided and the Safety Car was despatched so the wreckage, including both the Lotuses, could be cleared away. Come the restart, Hamilton was all over the back of Massa, who hadn’t led the field at a restart for several years – and it showed.
Massa obliged Hamilton to take the outside line at Club but the Mercedes driver snagged a brake and cut across the corner. Bottas pounced and was through into second place while Hamilton busied himself keeping Rosberg in his mirrors.
Having briefly pulled the precious second clear of his team mate, Massa suddenly had Bottas back within DRS range as the drivers started lap seven. Bottas was pressing his team mate hard, and from the flurry of radio messages which followed it was clear he was initially told not to try to pass Massa, then the decision was reversed. By then, however, Bottas felt he’d passed up his best chance to get ahead. He stayed within range of his team mate until the end of the first stint, however, leaving Williams to wonder if they could have left the Mercedes further behind at this stage.
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Hamilton jumps into the lead
The inevitable pit stops were always going to present the best chance for Mercedes to flex their muscles and leap ahead of the two Williams drivers. Even so, at one point they sent their crew into the pit lane apparently hoping to dupe Williams into making an early pit stop.
On lap 19 Hamilton appeared on the pits, shortly after notifying the team he’d got closer to the cars ahead than at any point so far. A quick turnaround had him on his way, and by pitting first Hamilton was always going to have a strong chance to pass at least one of the two cars ahead of him.
In fact he got them both. Massa and Rosberg appeared in the pits together the next time by, and the Williams driver lost a second while debris was removed from his rear wing. He left the pits side-by-side with Rosberg, and though clung to that advantage he was powerless to stop Hamilton getting ahead. Bottas had to wait another lap for his service, but his stop was quick enough for him to emerge between his team mate and Rosberg, though he had to fight to keep the Mercedes back.
This was the worst possible outcome for Rosberg. At no stage in the opening stint had Hamilton come close to passing Bottas – the Williams, powered by the same Mercedes engine, has excellent straight line speed, and to begin with Bottas had the advantage of DRS again, although on this set of tyres he soon dropped back from Massa. Nonetheless as long as it stayed dry Rosberg’s hopes of passing Bottas seemed remote.
His team alerted him that they were switching to ‘Plan B’, which likely meant an extra pit stop at the end of the race to try to attack the Williams cars with fresher tyres. But it never came to that, because it didn’t stay dry.
The drivers were received their first warnings of incoming rain when Carlos Sainz Jnr’s Toro Rosso broke down, leaving him stranded at Club, and causing Formula One’s first proper Virtual Safety Car period. The interruption took far less time than deploying the real Safety Car, lasting for only a lap and a half, and the gaps between the cars were preserved. In many respects this was a significant improvement on the real Safety Car, as it has also proved in sports car racing where the concept originated.
Raikkonen gambles and stumbles
Kimi Raikkonen reported the first drops of rain on lap 35, but it took a long time for the precipitation to build. By lap 38 the surface had become treacherous, especially at the northern end of the track where: Vettel got crossed up at Luffield, Rosberg took to the run-off at Woodcote and Hamilton did the same at Copse.
Having been passed by team mate Vettel at Stowe, Raikkonen decided not to postpone his switch to intermediates any longer. “When it rains it’s the driver who has the final call to the pits,” said team principal Maurizio Arrivabene. “In the case of Kimi, whose strategy was identical to Seb’s, he thought it better to come in.”
But Raikkonen had been too hasty, and the decision undid a solid weekend’s work in which he had started ahead of his team mate. “If it had rained harder, maybe he could have won the race,” Arrivabene reflected. Instead the track began to dry, so much so that even by the time the rain returned, Raikkonen’s tyres were shot. He compounded another bad day at the office with a spin on the pit straight.
He wasn’t the only driver in trouble with his tyres. Hamilton was struggling as well: his front tyres had lost their heat and he warned his team he had “no grip” left.
Meanwhile Rosberg was flying in the other Mercedes. As usual the two Williams cars seemed to be allergic to rain, and he out-dragged Bottas from Copse to take third, then easily out-braked Massa for second at Village. He then set about slashing Hamilton’s lead, reeling him in by almost seven seconds in four laps.
But as the second W06 grew larger in his mirrors, Hamilton had one eye on the sky. “I can see the clouds over Stowe,” he told the team, “there’s more stuff coming.” At the end of lap 43 he called out “box this lap, box this lap” and dived into the pits. Rosberg, who was arriving at Club as Hamilton braked for the pit lane speed limit, thought he was going to grab another win.
This was no Monaco-style slip-up, however: this was a gutsy and almost prescient call by a driver with a lot to lose. He was followed in later that lap by Vettel, who also cashed in by calling the conditions perfectly. Hamilton put a lock on his fifth win of the year, Vettel clinched the final podium place having fallen as low as tenth at one stage.
Kvyat catches Bottas
Having started the race looking like a potential winner, Bottas was having huge problems on his intermediate tyres at the end of the race. Losing in the region of three to four seconds to the leaders, he was being caught at a similar rate by Daniil Kvyat, and the pair crossed the finishing line separated by little more than half a second.
“We saw again that we really struggle with the wet conditions,” said Bottas afterwards. “That’s one thing we need to still focus because there is going to be rain at some point so we need to be also strong then.”
Nico Hulkenberg was the last driver home on the lead lap having made a spectacular start. “Sensational”, he described it as afterwards, “maybe the best I ever had in Formula One”. It got him ahead of Kvyat and both the Ferraris, but predictably all three were able to jump back ahead via the pit stops. Hulkenberg came in seventh after Raikkonen handed back one of those places. The Ferrari driver finished eighth – another uncomfortable result for him given his contract situation.
Sergio Perez ensured Force India lost no ground to Red Bull in the constructors’ championship, while Fernando Alonso finally scored his first points since returning to McLaren.
It was a fairly hollow triumph for Alonso, however, particularly as he’d been involved – albeit blamelessly – in the lap one collision which put team mate Jenson Button out. Alonso laid the blame at the feet of the two Lotus drivers, who also retired, after Romain Grosjean swerved to avoid contact with Daniel Ricciardo. The stewards decided not to blame anyone.
“Hope we have more races like this”
With fans surveys demanding change and more questionable Strategy Group pronouncements dominating the build-up to the race, a hectic British Grand Prix was a welcome relief from negative headlines caused by a dearth of positive stories.
Formula One exists in a state of perpetual crisis and invariably seems to be one good race away from salvation. On this occasion, the race winner and championship leader reflected, “I think the English weather helped”.
So is there still a need for real change in F1? Hamilton suspects there probably is – but sounded a wise note of caution for the more enthusiastic nay-sayers. “I think there’s still some things… their views are probably still valid in many ways but also sometimes I guess it’s a bit of an indication for us not to throw our toys out of the pram and say everything’s wrong – that we’re not too far off the mark, hopefully, and hope that we have more races like this.”