It was a home victory without a home crowd.Lewis Hamilton has been able to celebrate grand prix success with the Silverstone faithful six times previously, but not his record-breaking seventh. Good thing he didn’t attempt to crowd-surf.
So we were left to imagine what the atmosphere would have felt like had Hamilton’s last-lap drama unfolded in front of the usual capacity crowd. After his front-left tyre collapsed, a flying Max Verstappen tried in vain to close down a 34-second deficit to the Mercedes driver in a single lap. He fell short, and Hamilton had his third win of the year.
But as the champagne corks popped, thoughts were already turning to the dilemma F1 now faces. It is supposed to race at Silverstone again in six days’ time, it has just witnessed three late-race tyre failures with no warning, and softer rubber has been selected for next weekend.
Silverstone has been a problematic circuit for Pirelli in the past. The 2013 race saw a series of tyre blow-outs, one of which struck Hamilton while he was leading, costing him a likely win. Four years later both Ferrari drivers suffered tyre failures in the penultimate laps.
This year Friday practice was held in very high temperatures – far hotter than the cool race conditions. The second session, where teams usually work on the race performance, was also disrupted by a red flag when Alexander Albon crashed. Teams therefore may have generated less useful data than usual about tyre performance.
Pirelli did observe some blistering, but it was on the front-right tyres. Sunday’s failures caught them and the teams by surprise.
Mercedes lead away
Of no surprise was the occupants of the front row: Lewis Hamilton on his 91st pole position, Valtteri Bottas alongside. Depressingly for their rivals, everyone else was at least a second away.
Bottas made a fractionally better start than Hamilton, but not enough to be able to assert his place alongside his team mate in the flat-out sprint through Abbey and Farm. As they wound their way through the Arena section, Hamilton drew clear.
Behind them Verstappen held third from Charles Leclerc. The top four had all started on the medium compound tyres, while the soft-shod McLarens went on the attack. Lando Norris didn’t make a particularly good start, and team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr took over in fifth place.
The early exchanges were halted when Kevin Magnussen’s Haas bounced off the Club barrier at the end of lap one. He’d run wide in the previous corner, Alexander Albon had taken a look at the inside of him and the pair collided.
Although it’s an unusual place to make a pass, some of the support race drivers had demonstrated it was perfectly possible to go two-wide through there. Having made the initial mistake, Magnussen had been unwise to turn in as if no one was going to be there, and Albon had cause to feel aggrieved at copping a five-second penalty for the move. It seemed like exactly the sort of the thing the spirit of ‘let them race’ should have permitted.
That brought out the Safety Car. After it returned to the pits there were few changes of position until it reappeared on lap 13. Daniil Kvyat had just found his way past Antonio Giovinazzi when the AlphaTauri driver speared into a barrier at Maggotts. He apologised to his team on the radio, but later investigations suggested a tyre failure at the rear of the car may have been responsible – another potential problem for Pirelli.
That Safety Car period sent virtually the entire field into the pits, and put in motion the sequence of events which led to the dramatic tyre failures at the race’s conclusion.
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Punctures cause late-race drama
Mercedes ‘stacked’ their drivers in the pits, which meant any hope Bottas had of finding a strategic means of fighting Hamilton vanished. When the race resumed, he pressed Hamilton hard, and the race leader suspected his team mate was taking too much out of his tyres by doing so.
“Certainly, they were pushing each other maybe a little bit beyond what we would have wanted as a team,” said team principal Toto Wolff. “But I guess you need to let them race.
“We warned them that the tyres needed to make it to the end. They were both aware that they could lose first or second with a failure. And they are very experienced, so it’s then down to their decision once they got all the input from us.
“I don’t want to interfere into the racing. We can’t say to Valtteri ‘back off, let’s cruise home’ and we didn’t do that.”
As the laps ticked down, however, Bottas became increasingly concerned about the state of his rubber. “Valtteri was complaining about heavy vibration that almost went to a point that his vision was heavily impacted,” said Wolff.
The team wasn’t sure whether this might be the sign of a serious problem, as trackside operations director Andrew Shovlin explained. “Valtteri [had] complained about some vibration a while ago, but you often you often get that when the tyres are very worn if they wear unevenly.
“Sometimes it’s just been a pick-up on the tyre. We were a little bit worried about it but all the indications were that the tyres should have been fine to get to the end.”
Despite the real-time data available to the teams, Bottas’s tyre failure on lap 50 of 52 took Mercedes by surprise, said Shovlin. “The things you measure on the tyre are essentially the temperature and the pressures. We can detect a puncture very accurately because from the temperature you can actually work out the number of moles of air in there.
“Obviously if a tyre cools down the pressure drops, but we can distinguish between it cooling and losing air. But these were relatively rapid deflations. Almost without warning.”
With cruel luck, Bottas’s puncture occured as he passed the pit lane entrance, forcing him to complete a full circuit of the second-longest lap on the 2020 F1 calendar (Baku having been cancelled) with only three tyres intact. Verstappen, who’d taken big bites out of the gap to Bottas in the laps leading up to the tyre failure, passed him on the track. By the time Bottas had made it in and out of the pits and resumed on the penultimate lap, he’d fallen to 12th place behind Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton hangs on
Verstappen pitted at the same time, taking on a set of soft tyres to go after the bonus point for fastest lap. It may have been a good thing they did, for they discovered around 50 cuts on one of his tyres, lending weight to the theory debris had contributed to the punctures.
“There was a bit of debris around,” said Shovlin, adding that neither Hamilton nor Bottas had mentioned it. “You could see the little bits and pieces in various places on the onboard camera but not at a level that had us more worried than normal at any other race.” It may have been significant that Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing failed in the Maggotts-Becketts sequence shortly before Bottas’s tyre let go.
Verstappen’s pit stop gave Mercedes enough of a gap to bring Hamilton in for a fresh set of rubber on the final lap. Somehow this opportunity was missed, and as he loaded the front-left tyre up in the right-hander of Luffield on the final lap it gave way. The track is bordered by a gravel trap and a close barrier here, and had Hamilton not already been driving well within himself he could easily have lost the race in this moment.
Over a fraught final minute, Hamilton coaxed his car around the remaining bends. As he approached the sharp left-hander of Vale he stamped on the brake pedal as hard as he dared, the shredded tyre sending up a cloud of smoke, but car the car turned in. With Peter Bonnington counting down his gap over the charging Verstappen behind, Hamilton made it to the line with just five seconds to spare.
Having been 34 seconds behind at the beginning of the lap, Verstappen caught a glimpse of the Mercedes as he braked for Vale. The bonus point for fastest lap robbed us of the chance to see whether Red Bull would have dared to leave him out in the hope of putting one over Mercedes.
Mercedes weren’t the only team to suffer late punctures. Sainz ran fifth most of the day, though was causing some concern to Norris who felt he was losing time behind his team mate. His tyre failed on the penultimate lap. Daniel Ricciardo had already passed Norris by this point for a fine fourth place.
Both Renault drivers scored their best result of the season so far: Esteban Ocon took sixth. Pierre Gasly made some excellent passed on his way to seventh, while Albon was fifth despite serving his penalty and being one of few drivers who made a second pit stop after the Safety Car periods.
It was a hugely disappointing home race for Racing Point. Having lost Sergio Perez pre-race due to his positive Covid-19 test, substitute Nico Hulkenberg failed to even start the race as a sheared bolt jammed in his Mercedes power unit. Lance Stroll’s tactical advantage of qualifying on the medium tyres failed to pay off due to the Safety Car period, and he went backwards in the second stint. He would have finished outside the points if it hadn’t been for the spate of late-race punctures.
Sebastian Vettel’s last-lap defence of 10th place and the final point from the recovering Bottas was about the only upside to his desperate weekend.
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Pirelli need answers fast
This weekend Silverstone is due to hold a second F1 race, named the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. But the punctures seen on Sunday will inevitably prompt concerns over further failures, especially as a softer set of tyres have been nominated, which was done in a bid to add a different challenge to what would otherwise be a repeat of exactly the same event.
Before the race weekend began Pirelli had already made arrangements with teams to obtain their data from the race earlier than usual, so they can make any necessary adjustments to their plans.
“If the level of downforce is higher than expected, maybe then we have to react with different prescriptions,” explained Pirelli’s head of motorsport Mario Isola. “We have the possibility to investigate if the level of load on the tyres was in line with the simulation or not. In that case, we can react with a higher starting [tyre] pressure. It’s a possibility. We don’t want to exclude anything.”
They may also change their plans for Friday. Teams were originally due to test new prototype tyres this coming weekend, but that could be shelved to ensure they get the maximum data possible for Sunday.
“If it is better to give the teams the full free practice two for testing the tyres, we are not here to say ‘no, we have the first half hour for our prototypes’,” said Isola.”
“Also, because now we know that we will have more races in Europe, we can also review the plan in order to test our prototypes at a later stage if it is better to give them the option to run the full 90 minutes of second practice next Friday.”
Pirelli had developed new tyre compounds for 2020, which the teams decided last year they did not want to use. But Isola suspects today’s failures would not have been avoided had those tyres been used instead.
“If we are talking about wear it doesn’t make a change because the 2020 construction was developed mainly to have a higher resistance to integrity so those tyres can be used at a lower pressure,” he said. “So if we are talking about fatigue or something like that, it’s one thing. If we are talking about wear it is a different story.”
That leaves Pirelli with some difficult questions to answer ahead of this weekend’s race, including whether it’s wise to press ahead with plans to use the softer rubber.
“I don’t think that having a harder compound is the solution because it’s against the principle to have different strategies and more than one pit stop. We are working on a tyre that is able to generate the ‘cliff’,” Isola added.
“Unfortunately the point is that today we had a race where in the last few laps they were fighting for the position and with the early Safety Car, the second stage was very, very long. Longer than expected. In a normal situation. I struggle to believe that the teams were planning to stop the car at lap 13 and go to the end of the race.”
Hamilton “lucky and unlucky”
Verstappen’s race engineer remarked Hamilton had been a “lucky boy” after the race. But speaking to the media afterwards, Verstappen reckoned his rival had been “lucky but also unlucky because he got a puncture”.
The world champion couldn’t recall a similar drama during his 14-year spell in the top flight.
“There was a race when I was in Formula Renault, at Croft,” he recalled, “where the rear suspension, there was two springs and one had snapped off. So I remember driving through the corners, through the left-handers with one wheel in the air, and through the right-handers it was fine.
“So that was a race where I was in the lead and I managed to still win the race – just. I don’t even know how I managed to make that one work. So, that was a little bit similar to today but of course it was more extreme today and the cost was obviously a lot higher.”
His last-lap heroics brought a huge reward: With Bottas finishing only 11th, Hamilton’s lead has ballooned from five points to 30.