The brilliance of Formula 1, what makes it so utterly addictive, are those moments which catch you unaware.
The sudden switch of camera angle. The split second of ‘is-that-who-I-think-it-is’? The television commentator, cut off mid-sentence, who cannot help but go full Murray Walker.
‘It’s Vettel’ was the cry on lap 52 of the German Grand Prix, when the home hero braked fractionally late in the Motodrom and slithered into an advertising board.
Sebastian Vettel threw away a potential victory and, with it, the championship lead. That moment of pure drama opened the door for Lewis Hamilton to take an extraordinary win and reclaim the lead of the championship race.
Vettel cruises clear
The flaw of Formula 1, at least today, is the tendency for the races to become, well, formulaic. This was certainly true of the first half of the German Grand Prix while the track was dry.
The leaders held their positions at the start, despite Max Verstappen’s best efforts to pass Kimi Raikkonen, and for the most part settled into the usual pattern.
Hamilton may have started 14th, courtesy of a hydraulic failure in qualifying, but as in Silverstone there was never any doubt he would swiftly be back among the front-runners. Sure enough, by lap 14 he had the midfield in his mirrors, few of them having bothered to put up a serious fight. It wasn’t hard to see why Romain Grosjean, one of the nine drivers Hamilton passed with ease, describes the midfield as ‘Formula 1 B’.
Once Hamilton appeared in fifth position Ferrari reacted by bringing Raikkonen into the pits. This wasn’t a crude attempt to slow Hamilton down – Raikkonen emerged a few seconds ahead of the Mercedes and was obviously going to be quicker on his fresh tyres – but it ensured Hamilton did not get into Raikkonen’s pit window. Ferrari hadn’t seen his pace in clear air and if they’d waited a lap to see how quick he could go they might have got a nasty surprise.
Mercedes and Red Bull drew the conclusion Ferrari were plan to pit Raikkonen twice. They were probably hedging their bets. Had Ferrari committed to a two-stopper they would have put Raikkonen on another set of ultra-softs, which would have been quicker. Putting him on softs gave them the option to run to the end of the race if the rubber held up. This was not entirely out of the question as the track temperatures were lower on an overcast race day than they had been on Friday when the sun was blazing.
But on Sunday the weather took a turn for the worse, and would eventually ensure the final third of the race produced high drama.
Team orders 1
Vettel was edging closer to Raikkonen and beginning to get close enough for the disturbed air from his team mate’s car to be affecting his aerodynamics and, therefore, damaging his tyres. If Raikkonen was capable of getting to the end on his softs, then waving Vettel through was a call which potentially could decide the winner of the race.
Ferrari have form for this kind of thing, including one famous example at the same track eight years ago. On that occasion Felipe Massa had to be given a coded instruction to let Fernando Alonso by because team orders were, theoretically, banned. That is no longer the case, yet Ferrari nonetheless felt the need to issue their demand to Raikkonen in the most abstruse of terms.
“You are aware we need to look after tyres,” said Jock Clear. “Both cars need to look after tyres and you two are on different strategies. Your track strategies are slightly different and we’d like you not to hold up Seb. Thank you.”
Raikkonen, not unreasonably, said he didn’t understand what he was being asked to do. The attempt at a clarification which followed didn’t help: “Losing as little time as possible, obviously, but when you can Seb is capable of going quicker but, er, he’s hurting his tyres and you are as well, we need to look after them.”
If only they’d had Alan Permane on hand to tell Raikkonen, as he did five years ago, to “get out of the ******* way”. Despite Ferrari’s best efforts, Raikkonen got the message, and made way for his team mate.
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Small mistake, big price
On lap 39 Vettel was back in the lead and it was starting to look as though Mercedes were going to have to make the same decision as Ferrari about their two drivers. Hamilton, who unlike his closest rivals had been able to start on a new set of ultra-softs, was able to extend his first stint. But his tyres were beginning to fade, Bottas was looming behind him, and Mercedes were increasingly concerned by what they saw on the radar.
A ‘cell’ of wet weather was heading for the track. Whether it would douse the circuit sufficiently for intermediate or wet weather tyres to be needed no one could tell. But Mercedes knew Hamilton would be more vulnerable on his older tyres than if he was on a new set, so on lap 41 they brought him in.
When the rain fell a couple of minutes later it seemed Mercedes had missed the chance to put him on intermediates – especially when a handful of their rivals came in to do just that. In fact they’d nailed the call. While the front-runners struggled to maintain tyre temperature in their worn rubber, Hamilton had the benefit of fresher tyres plus his undoubted wet weather skill to work with.
In seven laps he almost halved his deficit to race leader Vettel, trimming it to just 12.1 seconds. At times he took over two seconds per lap out of the Ferrari. On the 51st lap Vettel dug deep and matched Hamilton’s lap time. But he ended lap 52 in the barriers at the Motodrom.
Did Vettel know how much pressure he was under? Was he being fed updates about Hamilton’s progress, catching glimpses on the video screens around the circuit or merely sensing he was losing too much time? Was this a case of him getting flustered when a race doesn’t go to plan, a weakness a former team mate of his alluded to in the days before the race?
Whatever the cause of his race-ending crash, Vettel was entirely right when he said it was a small mistake which brought a huge penalty. Had he braked too late at the Spitzkehre, a wide turn with a vast asphalt run-off, he might not even have left the track, and his time loss would have been mere seconds. Instead his race was over.
Team orders 2
The Safety Car was scrambled so the marshals could drag Vettel’s damaged Ferrari out of the barrier. Bottas reacted immediately, bringing his Mercedes into the pits. But a shambolic stop awaited him. While that was going on Hamilton was also summoned in.
He was already on road heading into the pits when the call came to stay out. Instinctively, Hamilton took to the grass to rejoin the track, even as another message told him “in in in”. This split-second decision ultimately won him the day, though not without some post-race drama.
Raikkonen had been passed by Bottas when he ran wide while lapping Kevin Magnussen. He also headed for the pits, his 39-lap-old soft tyres were 15 laps older than Bottas’s. Hamilton therefore inherited the lead from Bottas and the sole remaining Ferrari.
Bottas knew his best chance to pass Hamilton would come at the restart thanks to his tyres being 10 laps fresher than his team mates. Hamilton gunned his W09 out of the Motodrom but Bottas went with him. As the came onto the Parabolika he was in his team mate’s slipstream.
Hamilton defended superbly. He hung right approaching the Spitzkehre, obliging Bottas to use the outside line. Bottas switched to the inside at the exit but Hamilton squeezed towards his team mate who reacted, jinking left, losing precious momentum. Hamilton kept the inside line for the next significant corner and held the lead. At some point afterwards Mercedes intervened, ordering Bottas to hold position behind Hamilton.
Mercedes has generally been willing to let its drivers fight the championship out between themselves, particularly as until last year they were never realistically under threat from a rival team. But now they are under more pressure than ever, and on a weekend where Ferrari looked stronger, the temptation to bank the one-two proved irresistible. According to the team they would have done the same had they been running in the reverse order.
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Risk and reward
Hamilton’s emotional rollercoaster of a weekend wasn’t done when he took the chequered flag. He sprinted to the line at the team’s urging as they wanted to safeguard against a potential penalty for the pit entry incident, though the stewards had not announced an investigation. That came after the race, but hours after the race Hamilton was cleared and his victory confirmed.
Following their dire warnings about Ferrari’s performance and the progress they have made with their power unit, Mercedes scored a one-two which restored themselves and Hamilton to the top of their respective championships. But they have good cause for concern over their rivals’ performance, especially with two ‘power tracks’ coming up soon on the schedule.
Raikkonen’s third place means he has now stood on the podium more often than his team mate this season, though his five-year wait for a victory goes on. Behind the front-runners were many tales of risk and reward on a day where keeping a cool head on the track and the pit wall paid off.
Max Verstappen collected fourth after gambling on intermediate tyres. The move backfired, though it likely cost him nothing. He was always going to struggle to keep Hamilton behind and the only other car likely to beat him home, the one which belonged to his team mate, had broken down.
The next pair home, Nico Hulkenberg and Grosjean, also briefly gambled on intermediate tyres. Hulkenberg, who’d made an aggressively early first stop to gain track position, was able to get back on ultra-softs at the end without losing a place. Grosjean restarted the race outside the top 10 but picked off Brendon Hartley, Marcus Ericsson and both Force Indias for an excellent fifth.
It was a tribute to Force India’s strategists and drivers that the next one-stoppers home after Hamilton was the two pink cars. Sergio Perez led them in despite spinning earlier in the race, while Esteban Ocon took eighth having gone out in Q1 on Saturday.
For once it was Charles Leclerc who had a rough race for Sauber and Marcus Ericsson brought home the points, in ninth. Carlos Sainz Jnr took the chequered flag in 10th but was penalised for overtaking during the Safety Car period, which meant Brendon Hartley took his second point of the year.
Hartley was told to pit when the rain fell but persuaded his team to leave him out on slicks – a decision which paid off. His team mate followed the instruction to pit and to his astonishment was fitted with a set of full wet weather tyres. The track wasn’t wet enough for intermediates, so that call destroyed Gasly’s race.
Surprisingly, a similar fate befell a driver of Fernando Alonso’s experience. He also came in and was fitted with intermediates, despite warning his team it wasn’t wet enough. He dropped off the lead lap and out of contention for points, on a day when he might otherwise have done something special.
Hamilton back ahead
Afterwards Hamilton said his remarkable drive to victory from 14th – eight places lower than he’s ever won an F1 race from – was up there with his best. It was hard to disagree, though the imposition of team orders will always leave a sour taste.
Nonetheless, on a day which offered him a likely fourth place at best, a few drops of rain brought out the best in Hamilton. It stood in sharp contrast to his fellow four-time champion and title rival whose race ended in a barrier.
But Hamilton knows he can’t count on Vettel making many mistakes like that, and the strength of Ferrari’s package has never been more obvious. The championship lead has changed hands four times in the last four races, and with just one race left before the summer break this fight looks like it will go down to the wire.
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2018 German Grand Prix
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