Standing in the rainLewis Hamilton was on top, and it was tipping down.
Driving their reconnaissance laps on a soaked circuit, Hamilton was one of a handful of drivers who braced the intermediate tyre. However when race control elected to send the field away behind the Safety Car, the question of which tyre to start on became moot. It would be ‘full’ wets all round.
Since 2017 the race director has had the option of ordering a standing start after commencing a race behind a Safety Car. But in the two-and-a-half years since the rule was introduced, many commentators appeared to have forgotten it, and led many fans to believe the race would have a rolling start. Instead, after three laps the field formed up on a still very wet grid to start the race.
The field sent huge rooster tails of spray into the air as the lights went out. Everyone got away from their positions, though some markedly better than others. In particularly those starting off the racing line, where few if any drivers had thought to run during the pace laps, got away poorly. So Hamilton led the field from pole position followed by Valtteri Bottas from third and Kimi Raikkonen from fifth.
From the front row of the grid, Max Verstappen slipped to fourth place. Nico Hulkenberg emerged from the Spitzkehre a nose ahead of Romain Grosjean after winning a thrilling three-wide tussle with the Haas driver and Carlos Sainz Jnr’s McLaren.
Charles Leclerc capitalised on that fight to take up sixth behind Hulkenberg, followed by Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, Kevin Magnussen and Sergio Perez. But the Racing Point driver’s race did not last much longer.
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Verstappen pressures Mercedes
Perez and Magnussen swapped 10th place on the second lap, but coming out of turn 10 the Racing Point driver swapped ends and planted the back end of his RP19 into the wall. The Safety Car was summoned. It was going to be a long afternoon for Bernd Maylander.
The track was still very wet but Pirelli’s full wet weather tyres are little loved by the drivers, and most of the field pitted to get rid of them. Magnussen, Lance Stroll, Lando Norris and the Williams drivers were the only exceptions.
This meant that when the race restarted Hamilton had the useful buffer of Magnussen’s Haas between him and the chasing pack. It wasn’t there long, however: The VF-19 was demoted by Bottas, then Verstappen, who had passed Raikkonen before the Safety Car appeared. Leclerc and Hulkenberg came next, having also dispatched Stroll’s Racing Point.
Over the next laps it looked like business as usual for Hamilton, who despite suffering what Mercedes described as “flu” gradually edged away from his pursuers. The team had decked its W10 chassis out in a retro livery and were wearing fifties-style kit, celebrating 125 years of motor sport at their home race. The prospects of another post-race celebration looked good.
Behind Hamilton, Verstappen was just about able to keep in touch with Bottas, and drew a little closer to the Mercedes after Daniel Ricciardo’s expired Renault power unit caused a brief Virtual Safety Car period.
But Mercedes came unstuck as the conditions became seriously tricky. The track was sufficiently dry for slick tyres to be a realistic option, but the radars were threatening further rain. This is one of the most challenging decisions teams can face in wet conditions.
Verstappen went aggressive, not only pitting early but putting on a set of medium compound tyres. The harder rubber would take longer to warm up, but should have seen him through to the end had the track continued to dry. But he struggled to switch them on and performed a dramatic 360-degree spin in the Motodrom.
Bottas came in on the next lap, took the same tyres and rejoined the track ahead of Verstappen. Leclerc, who had taken a second set of intermediates during the VSC period and used them to close on the leaders, opted for the softs.
Hamilton was similarly unconvinced by Mercedes’ initial call for wet tyres. After some to-ing and fro-ing, the team agreed to fit softs instead. By the time he came in another VSC period had been triggered when Norris’s McLaren came to stop, but it cleared as Hamilton arrived in the pits, meaning he would lose more time relative to his rivals. But that soon proved the least of his troubles.
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Mercedes throw one-two away
As Hamilton turned onto the Parabolika the Safety Car was scrambled. Leclerc, who had already skirted disaster at the end of the lap once before, pushed his luck too far on lap 28, and skidded into a barrier. “It’s still slippery as hell,” Hamilton remarked as he struggled to warm his soft slicks at reduced speed. “This tyre feels risky,” he added as he reached the Motodrom.
Rounding turn 15 he found no purchase at all and understeered off. For a moment it seemed he might smack into Leclerc’s empty Ferrari – its driver was walking away from the crash scene as Hamilton went off nearby – but he reduced his sped just enough to bounce lightly off the barrier and keep going. But his front wing was damaged, which meant a return visit to the pits. Rather than risk another painfully slow lap on his slicks, Hamilton bypassed the pit entry bollard to get to his team sooner, incurring a five-second time penalty.
Mercedes were waiting for Bottas at the time and had to scramble to find fresh tyres plus a new front wing for Hamilton. The result was a 50-second pit stop, which might have been a respectable time when they made their world championship debut in 1954, but left Hamilton down in fifth.
From there things just snowballed. Bottas missed out on his chance to take the lead as Verstappen got back onto intermediates the lap before him, jumping ahead. He and Hamilton missed a chance to take fresh sets of intermediates during a subsequent Safety Car period. Mercedes didn’t want Hamilton to lose further places by serving his five-second time penalty in the pits.
As the track dried further stops for slick tyres became unavoidable. But both drivers found the car a handful at turn one. Hamilton, his car still bearing damage from his off, nearly spun there once, then did lose control two laps later. At that point he urged the team to retire his car, but was told to press on.
Bottas’s race, and his chance to take a huge bite out of Hamilton’s points lead, ended at turn one on lap 57. He lost control of the car in much the same way Hamilton did, but Bottas made it all the way to the barrier.
This might have given Hamilton the opportunity to take a points finish ‘on the road’. However he lost precious seconds behind the Safety Car amid confusion over whether he was being waved past. That done, once he was able to close the gap he was almost on the tail of George Russell’s Williams as the race restarted. By the time the chequered flag dropped, the former race leader had made it back to 11th place.
Mixed fortunes at Ferrari
Mercedes’ and Leclerc’s losses were Sebastian Vettel’s gain. But the Ferrari driver made halting progress on his climb from last on the grid to the second step on the podium.
His start was excellent, moving immediately up to 14th, which became seventh after the first Safety Car period. But from there he seemed unable to get any further.
Vettel admitted afterwards he wasn’t happy with the feel of his intermediate tyres. He spent half the race stuck behind his former team mate Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo.
It wasn’t until the track began to dry out properly that he came to life. He swept past the battling Magnussen and Gasly for seventh on lap 52. He took Alexander Albon next, the Toro Rosso driver having a superb run in his first ever wet F1 race.
After the Bottas-triggered Safety Car, Vettel relieved Carlos Sainz Jnr of fourth place. Unlike most of his rivals, the McLaren driver had made life easy for his pit crew, coming in just three times on a day when a five-stop strategy was typical.
Vettel’s next targets were two drivers who called the final pit stop perfectly and cashed in massively. Stroll was trailing around in 14th when he gambled on a Safety Car appearance to switch to soft tyres. His timing proved perfect – unlike, he admitted afterwards, all his other pit stops – and he briefly led the field (though not officially).
Stroll’s podium hopes ended when Vettel sailed past him two laps from home, DRS open, the pass completed long before the braking zone. The next time around Vettel did exactly the same to the unlikely occupant of second place: Daniil Kvyat, who had been running ninth before taking the same gamble as Stroll.
Kvyat nearly got his second place back on the final tour. Vettel ran wide as they came into the Mercedes arena, and the Toro Rosso was on his tail as they rounded turn 10. Kvyat chases him into the Motodrom where Vettel took it very cautiously. He backed off at turn 11 and again at turn 12 – the scene of his humiliating retirement from last year’s race – bringing Kvyat within touching distance of the SF90. There was no repeat of Vettel’s 2018 heartbreak, however, and he collected a deserved second place.
Midfielders seize their chance
Kvyat and Stroll were the big winners in the midfield. Sainz, who had spun off at 15 earlier in the race, recovered to take fifth.
The treacherous run-off at the outside of the corner, formed from a drag strip, proved a major talking point of the race. It became like an ice rink in the rain. As well as being the scenes of incidents for Leclerc and Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen also went off at the same corner.
The slippery surface also claimed Nico Hulkenberg. F1’s holder of the record for most race starts without a podium appearance chalked up another near-miss. Having run second at one stage he was holding fourth place when he touched the run-off and skated helplessly into a barrier.
That crash promoted Albon to fourth place, before he lost out to his team mate and Stroll’s pit stop gambles. Sixth place was a career-best result and an incredible achievement under the circumstances, but it wasn’t hard to understand why he felt a little deflated.
Albon robustly held off Gasly, the Red Bull stablemates tangling with three laps to go, ending Gasly’s race. After his fine run at Silverstone, this no-score meant the gap between him and Verstappen has reached 107 points.
That moved Raikkonen and team mate Antonio Giovinazzi up to seventh and eighth place. But after the race a technical inspection of their cars revealed their clutch performance during the start was outside acceptable parameters, intended to prevent teams mimicking traction control. Both were handed 30-second penalties.
This promoted the two Haas drivers who, incredibly, had managed to collide again. Grosjean had rocketed up behind his team mate and tried to pass him around the outside of the Spitzkehre. Magnussen ran wide and the pair made contact. “This guy is incredible,” fumed Grosjean, “He will never learn.”
“Let me by, guys,” Grosjean added. Team principal Guenther Steiner made the call. “Let Grosjean by,” Magnussen was instructed, with the words, “message from team principal” appended to the message. “Understood,” he replied, and blended out of the throttle on the next straight.
The Alfa penalties promoted Hamilton to ninth and Robert Kubica to the final points place, his first since returning to Formula 1. It was a bitter result for his team mate George Russell, however, who had been the lead Williams for much of the race and tried to persuade the team put slicks on his car at the same time Stroll and Kvyat did.
Auf Wiedersehen Hockenheim?
For the second year in a row, rain at the Hockenheimring produced a race of pure drama. Verstappen’s victory and Vettel’s climb to second proved a popular result with the crowd, many of which were in Ferrari red or Verstappen orange.
But the chance Hockenheim will play host to F1 again next year seems slim. The race does not yet have a place on the 2020 F1 calendar. This year’s race was bankrolled by Mercedes, who took over title sponsorship of the race to promote their motorsport heritage.
In the rapidly-changing conditions Mercedes, who have made unflustered, error-free wins their trademark this year, finally came unglued. And once again it was not Ferrari who capitalised, but the inspired Verstappen and the rapidly-improving Red Bull-Honda.
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2019 German Grand Prix
- Williams keep only point of 2019 so far as appeal court rejects Alfa Romeo protest
- Fine instead of penalty for unsafe release was “proper” decision – Ferrari
- Alfa Romeo appeal to be heard next month
- Hulkenberg: Hockenheim drag strip run-off not up to F1 standard
- Leclerc “surprised” by fan video showing Hamilton going off at his crash scene
2019 F1 race reviews
- Untouchable Hamilton ends season with 11th victory
- Verstappen’s ruined masterpiece becomes Hamilton’s latest triumph
- Verstappen’s win, Hamilton’s title in tyre-dominated Mexican GP
- Error-free Raikkonen shows Vettel how it’s done
- Hamilton on cusp of fifth title as Vettel throws in the towel