Is there any better time in sport to score a blow against an opponent than just before half time?
How much was James Harrison’s infamous interception touchdown for the Pittburgh Steelers at the stroke of half time the catalyst for them to go on and win Super Bowl 43?
If the England men’s football team had been awarded that famous phantom goal in the 2010 World Cup mere minutes before the half time whistle, could it have been Germany who were ultimately eliminated that day?
Sebastian Vettel may head into the second half of the 2017 Formula One season as the world championship leader, but only with his advantage slashed to just one point after a dominant victory for Lewis Hamilton.
How crucial could this momentum shift be in the course of this year’s increasingly enthralling title fight?
Friendly fire for Toro Rosso
The trademark silver skies hung over the Silverstone circuit as the grid formed up for the 51st British Grand Prix to be held around this most historic of venues.
After a week of pseudo-controversy over his absence from a surprisingly slick and successful parade held by Formula One’s eager new owners in the heart of London, Lewis Hamilton had given his home fans plenty to cheer for by producing a stunning pole time in qualifying.
Hamilton, who has all but owned pole position here in the hybrid era, found himself lining up with two ravenous Ferraris hoping to snap at his heels immediately behind him. Meanwhile, last weekend’s race winning Mercedes driver, Valtteri Bottas, had been forced to start from the midfield after a five place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
The biggest question as the field set off on the formation lap for the tenth round of the season was would Ferrari be able to exploit their numbers advantage, gang up on the Mercedes and spoil Hamilton’s home town party?
Hollywood guests Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson readied their smartphones on the gantry to capture the drama and explosive energy of a Formula One start up close.
But they needn’t have bothered.
Jolyon Palmer, in the midst of what could only be described as his ‘annus horribilis’, saw perhaps his most promising starting position of the season fall away to nothing before the race had even begun. A hydraulic leak on his RS17 forcing him to pull off track on the Hangar Straight.
Palmer, understandably, was ‘gutted’ at being denied the opportunity to exploit the potential of Renault’s strongest weekend of the season so far in his home grand prix and the start was aborted to allow marshals the chance to remove the stricken car.
Once the field had reset and the five lights were eventually extinguished, Raikkonen immediately put pressure on the pole sitting Hamilton on the run to Abbey, almost thinking about a half-hearted look up the inside before deciding better of it.
Behind, Max Verstappen appeared not to have gotten the memo about the two Ferraris teaming up on the leading Mercedes as he decided to attack Vettel not once but twice in the opening corners, eventually passing the championship leader exiting the Loop.
While Verstappen was continuing to demonstrate his remarkable natural race craft out front, further back through the field, another driver from the Red Bull stable was about to be involved in an avoidable accident yet again.
Carlos Sainz had passed team mate Daniil Kvyat for 13th into the blisteringly fast Copse kink, but allowed the young Russian to come back at him with the two running side-by-side on the run to Maggots.
Conventional wisdom has always dictated that two into Maggots is not the most intelligent option, especially when your team mate is the other party. Still, Kvyat chose to try and hold on around the outside of Maggots.
Rather than completing a brilliant defence of his position, Kvyat promptly ran out of road, ran off it and bounced back onto the track and directly into the side of Sainz, knocking the Spaniard out of the race and causing minor damage to his own.
It was clumsy, it was avoidable and it was also clear who was responsible. Despite Kvyat’s protests that it was he who had been left no room, the stewards took little time to determine that no, he was in fact to blame. A drive through penalty and two points on his superlicence for ‘rejoining the track in an unsafe manner and causing a collision with car 55’.
Close quarters combat
The safety car was deployed to clear the resulting debris from the accident. When the race resumed on lap four, Hamilton led away from Raikkonen, Verstappen, Vettel, Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault, Esteban Ocon’s Force India and Valtteri Bottas, who had made up two places from his starting position to seventh.
Hamilton slowly but surely began to eke out a modest advantage over Raikkonen, while the pair opened up a more sizable gap to Verstappen and Vettel behind.
Having retired early from five of the last seven grands prix, you could forgive Max Verstappen for being in the mood to have a bit of fun around the Silverstone circuit.
Vettel began to pressure Verstappen for third position on lap 14, using DRS to pull into the young Red Bull driver’s slipstream along the Hangar Straight and choosing, quite bravely, to go for the smaller gap to the inside.
It was a brave and decisive move from Vettel and it looked to have won him third position. But Max Verstappen does not make it easy for anyone to overtake him and held on around the outside with the two eventually making brief contact on exit.
Verstappen kept his foot planted and ran through the run off back onto the track, before blocking off the inside line into Vale and rebuffing the Ferrari on the outside run off in retaliation.
The many thousands that packed out the grandstands at the back end of the circuit roared in approval of the no-quarter contest while, in the cockpits, both drivers were quick to offer critiques of the other’s driving over radio.
By now it was becoming clear to Ferrari that they may have to consider an alternate means of passing the Red Bull. Vettel was brought in for a relatively early stop on lap 19, resuming on fresh Soft tyres and with an opportunity to undercut his tricky adversary.
Red Bull immediately responded, but the advantage of fresh rubber and clear air for Vettel coupled with a slow change of the left-rear wheel put paid to Verstappen’s chances of retaining third position.
With a one stop strategy the most obvious approach, the rest of the field began to filter through the pits to either rid themselves of the Soft tyre or install it onto their cars for the second phase of the race.
Having fallen to ten seconds adrift from the leader, Raikkonen pitted on lap 25 with Hamilton making his sole trip through the pits on the following tour. Only half way through the race, Hamilton was looking like a strong chance to take his fourth victory of the season.
Ricciardo and Bottas battle back
Further back, perhaps the most interesting stories of the race where the two recovery drives of Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.
Not long after having both driven through early setbacks to the top two positions of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix podium, Bottas and Ricciardo found themselves having to work hard for their money once more in Britain.
Ricciardo had been struck by car trouble as he topped the time sheets in the opening qualifying session, dooming him to the back row of the grid with a handful of grid penalties for good measure. Bottas suffered the same gearbox issue that befell Mercedes team mate Hamilton in Austria and had seen his fourth place qualifying position converted into a ninth placed start as a result.
Taking advantage of Palmer’s non start and the two Toro Rossos colliding, Ricciardo moved up to 14th position by the time the safety car was deployed. At the restart, the Red Bull quickly dispatched Kevin Magnussen and Lance Stroll in the first sector before attempting to pass Romain Grosjean in the second Haas around the outside of Luffield.
Ricciardo soon ran out of room and took to the grass, dropping back down to 18th place and negating all of his good early work. As he admitted after the race, “I probably shouldn’t have been there. I felt like I came from the back twice, basically.”
For the remaining 45 laps of the race, the Red Bull driver treated the Silverstone fans to a clinic in making a swift recovery through the field.
Over the course of the race, Ricciardo picked off Daniil Kvyat, Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein, Kevin Magnussen (again), Fernando Alonso, Lance Stroll (again), Romain Grosjean, Felipe Massa, Stoffel Vandoorne, Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez, and Kevin Magnussen for a third time before eventually chasing down and overtaking Nico Hulkenberg on the penultimate lap of the race.
It was another brilliant showing from the Australian that saw him be voted as ‘Driver of the Day’ and further demonstrated the potency of Ricciardo’s racecraft.
It was also a stark contrast to the previous weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, where Ricciardo had very much been on the defensive, holding off a hard charging Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages. “ Last weekend I was the hunted and today I was the hunter,” he succinctly summed up after the race.
Bottas too had a job on his hands to reaffirm his championship bid after his midfield start, but set about a superb drive combining a smart strategy with the raw peformance of his Mercedes to steadily rise through the field on the Soft compound tyres.
Having jumped both Vandoorne and Perez at the start, the Austrian Grand Prix winner passed Esteban Ocon at the restart for sixth before relieving Hulkenberg of fifth just a couple of laps later.
Bottas pitted from second place on lap 32, emerging with fresh Super Soft tyres and a five second gap to Vettel’s Ferrari. With Vettel’s tyres beginning to fade, Bottas eventually caught the Ferrari on lap 42, immediately putting the championship leader under pressure.
Vettel, perhaps having learned something from his earlier skirmish with Verstappen, was robust in his defence as the Mercedes attacked into Stowe, making him go the long way around the outside and closing off the space on corner exit.
It was hard but even Bottas admitted it was perfectly fair and he regrouped to mount a second assault along the Hangar Straight two laps later. This time, the sheer strength of the slipstream and DRS combination was too much for Vettel to hold off and Bottas swept by into an unlikely podium position.
Fortunes fall apart for Ferrari
With Bottas now setting off to try and catch Raikkonen, Hamilton ahead was enjoying a comfortable ten second margin to the second placed Ferrari. Unless something drastic was to happen, it seemed as though Hamilton would continue to cruise to victory.
Then, with the chequered flag almost in sight, a drastic develop did indeed strike the race – but Hamilton and Mercedes would prove to be the main beneficiaries.
The phenomenal high cornering speeds of the new 2017 cars around the fast Silverstone circuit were beginning to take their toll on the Ferraris with Vettel complaining of having no front end over team radio.
Bottas was starting to get within reasonable proximity of Raikkonen, but then, out of nowhere, the Ferrari driver began to slow out of Copse, the left-front tyre showing the tell tale signs of instantaneous failure.
With vibrations rattling his car, Raikkonen was forced to cruise gently back to the pits for a new set of tyres with less than three laps remaining, his wheel showing all the hallmarks of suffering a deflation.
Seeing the evidence on screen for themselves, Red Bull chose to bring Verstappen in for a new set of tyres to guarantee so risk of a being struck by a similar issue.
It was a call that was almost immediately proven right, however, as Sebastian Vettel was suddenly shown to be slowing with an almost identical but more severe tyre deflation than his team mate. At the snap of a finger, a solid double podium for Ferrari had disappeared and now Vettel’s championship lead was in clear danger.
The clear running following the early safety car and the quick pace of the race helped to soften the blow somewhat for Vettel as despite an inlap of over two minutes and a horrendously damaged front wheel, Ferrari were still able to get their man back out onto the circuit in seventh place.
Back at the front, Hamilton and Mercedes could be forgiven for hardly believing their fortune. With Bottas now promoted to second, the Silver Arrows had somehow been handed a surprise one-two at the team’s home circuit, mere miles from their Brackley factory.
Hamilton was told to ease right of the tyres for the final lap and cruised across the line to secure his fourth win of the season and his fourth consecutive British Grand Prix victory. Bottas crossed to claim his second last-gasp second place in three races while Raikkonen successfully brought his Ferrari home in third.
On the podium, Raikkonen’s normally stoic manner was replaced by a look of clear frustration at losing what would’ve been a well deserved best result of the season. “Unfortunately it seems like bad luck seems to be following us,” he admitted. It was hard not to sympathise.
Unsurprisingly, Raikkonen’s countryman Bottas was more pleased with his result. “Best second place that I’ve had as a feeling,” he said. “Me starting ninth, it was never going to be easy. So ending up one-two as a team is amazing.”
But unquestionably, the happiest man in Britain this side of Wimbledon was Lewis Hamilton, who had led every single lap of his home grand prix to continue his dominance over Silverstone in the hybrid era.
“The feeling, I can’t really describe,” he told the adoring crowd. “It feels amazing to be up here. The support this weekend has been immense and I’m really proud that I could do this for you all.”
A week that had begun with criticism from fans and pundits alike for being the only driver to miss the London parade ended with Hamilton crowd surfing over a sea of delighted Silverstone supporters after hoisting the British Grand Prix trophy for the fifth time in his career.
Verstappen and Ricciardo, who had completed a storming fight back from the back, claimed fourth and fifth, while Nico Hulkenberg capped off a strong weekend for Renault by taking an understated and underappreciated sixth place, despite a late minor power issue.
Vettel had seen both the air in his left front tyre and his championship advantage evaporate with just a couple of laps remaining, but even with the unexpected drama, the Ferrari driver kept a cool head.
“I think it could’ve been better for sure, but ‘disaster’? I don’t think so,” he said. “It felt like it took half an hour to get back so I was surprised that I got back out. In the end I think we can be happy we still recovered some points.”
After a couple of high-profile dramas over the last few races, Force India would likely have enjoyed a quiet and trouble-free run for both Ocon and Perez to eighth and ninth, while Massa rounded out the points for Williams in tenth.
And so, at the half way point in the season, all of the back and forth between Ferrari and Mercedes, Vettel and Hamilton has yielded a gap in the championship of just a single point. With the long summer break just one race away, how much will the events of the British Grand Prix affect the psychology of this increasingly entertaining championship season?
If the best time to score a blow against your opponent really is before half time, then could this victory provide a momentum shift that may carry Lewis Hamilton to a fourth world title?