On the back of every single one of the over 400,000 tickets issued to fans across fourth days of activity for the 2022 British Grand Prix, the three most important yet most regularly overlooked words are ‘motorsport is dangerous’.
Hours before the grand prix began a horrific crash occured in the Formula 2 feature race involving Roy Nissany and Dennis Hauger. Then moments into the main event Zhou Guanyu was flipped over a barrier while at the same time a group of environmental protesters put thmselves and others in serious danger by venturing onto a live race track.
Thankfully, the overriding emotions of the day for most in the stands will be joyful – a remarkable race with a first-time winner will always live long in the memory. But the thousands in attendance and millions watching around the world should be under no illusions how close Formula 1 came to disaster on a summer Sunday in Silverstone.
Over two hours before Carlos Sainz Jnr raised the famous gold Royal Automobile Club trophy after soaking in the Spanish national anthem booming out of the podium speakers, the Ferrari driver had sat nervously on the grid, facing the prospect of starting from pole position on a Formula 1 grid for the very first time. If the pressure of knowing this was his best ever opportunity to finally win his first grand prix at the 150th time of asking was not enough as it was, seeing the Red Bull mechanics in his mirrors peel off the tyre blankets on Max Verstappen’s car alongside him to reveal red marked soft tyres would have only made him even more nervous.
Thankfully, the rain had stayed away on Sunday. Rays of sunshine appeared through cloudy skies as the field formed up on the grid, Sainz eager to beat his former Toro Rosso team mate in the short sprint to Abbey. However, when the lights went out, Verstappen’s soft tyres proved an inspired choice as the Red Bull shot out of the blocks so fast that Sainz could only stare at his rear wing as they rounded the right hander.
Back in the pack, George Russell had started the race on hard tyres, but pulled away so slowly off the line he may as well have been towing a caravan from the rear axle of his Mercedes. As he edged left to take the racing line for Abbey, he unknowingly pinched Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri between his car and Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo. The contact sent Russell spinning to the left and into the rookie’s car.
What resulted was one of the ugliest accidents in recent memory, Zhou sent skidding upside down with his helmet millimetres from scraping along the asphalt before flipping over the tyre barrier and into the catch fencing, sending spectators in the front rows of ‘The View’ grandstand scattering in panic. Russell was out on the spot, but Gasly managed to continue with a heavily damaged car.
Behind them, a second accident saw Sebastian Vettel inadvertently punt Alexander Albon into the pit wall, sending the Williams clattering into Esteban Ocon’s Alpine and leaving Yuki Tsunoda nowhere to go. In all, seven separate cars had been involved in the two shunts barely 14 seconds into the grand prix. A further seven seconds later, the race was officially stopped.
As the field slowed to a crawl along the Wellington Straight, a small troupe of orange-clad protesters walked out over the grass and proceeded to sit on the track, forming an unlikely obstacle for Ocon and Tsunoda to navigate around in their battered and broken machines. Thankfully, for the drivers, the marshals and the protesters themselves, the race had already been neutralised, minimising both the disruption to the race and the risk to safety for all involved.
Nearly one hour later, the drivers and fans had finally rediscovered their appetite for racing after it was confirmed that Zhou, Russell and Albon were fundamentally safe and well – though the Williams driver had been transported to hospital for precautionary checks. As so many of the field had not reached the second Safety Car line by the time the red flags were flown, the restart would take place in original grid order. Sainz had a second chance to keep his lead.
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Having caught Ferrari off-guard at the initial start on soft tyres, Red Bull opted not to try the same trick twice at the restart. Instead, all the top seven starters bolted on mediums.
As the lights extinguished for a second time, Sainz again got away second best. This time, however, he managed to squeeze the Red Bull to the inside as the pair rounded Abbey, forcing Verstappen over the kerbs which cost him enough momentum to prevent him taking the lead for a second time. Behind, Sergio Perez had snuck his way past Charles Leclerc and was looking to the inside of his team mate at Village, before suddenly finding Leclerc’s Ferrari to his inside heading into The Loop.
All four ran side-by-side around the tight left-hander, Perez clipped Sainz lightly but Leclerc bounced into the Red Bull, causing various parts of front wing to fly all over the place. Leclerc tucked into Verstappen’s slipstream and attempted to drive around the outside of the championship leader at Brooklands, but found himself being rudely rebuffed on the exit of the corner. Rounding Woodcote for the first time, a piece of Ferrari front wing fell off Leclerc’s car and was obliterated by Perez, causing more of his own wing to come off through Maggotts.
The result of all this mayhem was that Sainz retained the lead, with Verstappen second, Leclerc third and Perez fourth, with Lando Norris’s McLaren running in fifth ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in sixth. But of the four leaders, it was Perez who seemed to come out of the melee the worse for wear.
“I have some vibrations,” Perez warned his team as the three ahead of him started to pull away at an alarming rate. “And a lot of understeer.”
Red Bull did not like what they saw on the data and called Perez in at the end of lap five for a new front wing and another set of medium tyres, dropping him to the very back of the field. With no Perez ahead of him to hitch DRS from, Norris was a sitting duck as Hamilton breezed by the McLaren on the Wellington Straight and up into fourth place.
At the front, Sainz had done the hard part of holding onto the lead at the start. Now, he had to stay there. The problem was, Verstappen was matching the leader’s lap times and got comfortably within DRS range of the Ferrari, allowing him to loom large in Sainz’s mirrors.
As Verstappen studied Sainz from his slipstream, pondering how best to attack, he suddenly saw the Ferrari twitch through Becketts, sending Sainz wide and over the inside run-off at Chapel. Verstappen needed no further invitation and swept around the outside and into the lead along the Hangar Straight.
“I had understeer,” Sainz explained matter-of-factly over the radio. “I pushed too much.”
Further back, an intense battle was brewing between the AlphaTauris of Gasly and Tsunoda over seventh place. Tsunoda appeared to be faster than his more experienced team mate and the pair ran side-by-side through Stowe, with Gasly successfully fending Tsunoda off. But as he pulled to the inside at Village, Tsunoda lost the rear of his car and hit Gasly, sending both skidding into the run-off and facing the wrong way.
As the pair righted themselves and resumed the race, dropping positions as well as carbon fibre on the circuit, a large chunk fell off one of the afflicted AlphTauris on the exit of Aintree. Sebastian Vettel drove around the debris through sheer luck, but 40 seconds later, the piece was sitting right in the path of the race leader.
“I ran over a bit of carbon,” Verstappen alerted his Red Bull team. “Just keep checking the car.”
Unbeknownst to Verstappen, the shard of AlphaTauri was stuck in his floor. The impact on his handling was instant.
“My tyres are not lovely… I think I have a puncture or something,” Verstappen hypothesised as Sainz suddenly began to close on him. Driving around Chapel, Verstappen had lost enough speed to allow Sainz to use DRS down the Hangar Straight and retake the lead almost as easily as he had given it away.
“Puncture! Mate, I need to box,” Verstappen insisted and Red Bull obliged, bringing him in for another set of mediums. But the fresh rubber was not the solution to the problem, Verstappen admitting that his car was “still not good” as he struggled to get back up to speed now down in sixth position.
Out of nowhere, Ferrari had suddenly found themselves with both cars leading the race and Red Bull nowhere to be seen. However, Hamilton was in clear air in third place and over the next eight laps began slowly eating up the six-second gap that the Ferraris held over him. By lap 20, Hamilton was around 3.5 seconds away from Sainz and Ferrari chose to bring the leader in for his first stop at the end of the lap, rejoining in third place now almost 20 seconds behind his team mate on new hard tyres.
Despite the benefit of new tyres, Sainz struggled to beat the Mercedes for pace, Hamilton matching and even putting in better lap times than Sainz on his over 20-lap-old mediums. Leclerc also could not drop the Mercedes with clear air and when Ferrari eventually pitted Leclerc at the end of lap 25, he re-emerged a full two seconds behind Sainz in third place.
Hamilton had only surrendered about two seconds himself to Sainz since the former leader had pitted and he insisted that his medium tyres were “still quite good”, eventually starting to grow the gap back out gradually. Leclerc, stuck in third place behind his team mate, was beginning to get nervous about the Mercedes’ advantage.
“So target lap time for Sainz is a 1’32.2,” Leclerc was told by engineer Xavier Marcos Padros, “otherwise we’ll swap.”
“But we are losing time compared to Hamilton,” Leclerc pleaded. “A ’32.2 is not enough – in my opinion”.
Eventually, Ferrari granted Leclerc his wish and told Sainz to move over for his team mate along the Wellington Straight on lap 31. Set a target of a 1’32.2, Leclerc began lapping within the 1’31s and started chipping away at Hamilton’s advantage, making his inevitable lead seem more secure with every sector.
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With Leclerc now going fast enough to make it impossible for Hamilton to remain ahead when he pitted, Mercedes decided to pit the leader at the end of lap 33. Unfortunately for Hamilton, any slim chance of challenging the Ferraris out of the pits evaporated when a slow stop guaranteed that he would rejoin firmly behind the pair.
“How did we lose so much time to these guys?,” Hamilton asked, confused. “Bono, why am I so far behind?”
“Yeah, so the stop was slow,” Peter Bonnington eventually replied. “But once these tyres come in, we will have good pace.” And so it proved when, on lap 37, Hamilton set the fastest lap of the race up to that stage to pull to six second behind leader Leclerc.
Down in ninth, Verstappen was continuing to battle the effects of the debris still trapped in his car, losing eighth to Ocon. However, Verstappen suddenly regained the position on lap 39 when the Alpine began juddering through the first sector.
“I have a problem, guys!,” Ocon reported. “Yeah, I have a problem! I can’t exit the corners.”
A fuel pump problem was ending Ocon’s race, but with no inside run-off to pull on to at Copse, Ocon parked his Alpine on the inside of the circuit, essentially guaranteeing proceedings would be disrupted. By the time the Alpine had ground to a complete stop, Leclerc was making his way though Maggotts.
“Safety Car window is closed,” Marcos Padros warned his driver as he headed down the Hangar Straight.
“And VSC too?,” Leclerc enquired just seconds before hitting the brakes for Stowe, with the Safety Car deployed as he exited the turn.
“Yes, closed. Stay out. Stay out,” came the unambiguous order from Ferrari. Meanwhile, having told Leclerc to stay out, Sainz was instead called in from second place to make the switch to softs tyres.
Hamilton too, was in his Safety Car window and Mercedes did not hesitate to bring their sole remaining car into the pits, moving him onto the softs. However Hamilton did not seem fully confident in his team’s strategy at first.
“Ah, guys… are you sure this is the right tyre?,” he queried. “So no position loss,” Bonnington offered in response.
The gap to the cars behind left a gaping hole for Ferrari and Mercedes to pit into. Having been left out with his two closest rivals behind him on new, soft tyres, Leclerc’s intuition flared up.
“Wait, can we box, or is it too late now?,” questioned Leclerc.
“It’s too late now,” replied Marcos Padros. “So Sainz and Hamilton behind with new softs.”
“Copy. That’s going to be hard,” Leclerc assessed as he saw his two chasers cruise up behind him on very new, very fast tyres.
Ferrari asked Sainz to give Leclerc a gap of “10 car lengths” for the restart, but Sainz refused. Partly to avoid having to face the intense pressure of Hamilton and Perez now behind him, but also because in his own mind, Leclerc and the race lead were there for the taking.
“I knew I was going to pass him, 100%,” Sainz later explained after the race. “I just wanted to do it as cleanly as possible and without affecting his race.”
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Sainz’s gut instinct was proven correct when the race restarted at the start of lap 43. With his grippier tyres getting up to temperature far quicker than his team mate’s old hards, Sainz used his vastly superior traction out of The Loop to out-drag his team mate before reaching Aintree and takinfg the lead of the race.
Behind, Perez muscled past Hamilton for third while Leclerc struggled to match his team mate on old, cold hard tyres. When DRS was enabled on lap 45, Perez immediately began pressuring Leclerc, the two running inches apart through Stowe together before almost colliding at Club when Perez dived to the inside, sending Leclerc wide on exit and allowing Hamilton to slide by the pair of them and up into second place.
Perez fought back into Village and took back second with an aggressive lunge as Leclerc tried to follow the Red Bull through, getting ahead of Hamilton with the better exit out of the tight left hander. Leclerc then fended off the Mercedes through Luffield, leaving Hamilton vulnerable to an attack from Alonso’s Alpine.
But Hamilton was not through with his pursuit of a podium and pulled along the outside of Leclerc into Brooklands on the next lap, before switching positions in an effort to drive clean around the outside of the Ferrari at Luffield. It appeared to have worked, but Leclerc refused to give up on the final podium place and took back third once more with a jaw-dropping move around the outside of Copse. Ultimately, Hamilton took the place permanently along the Hangar Straight by using DRS to drive around the Ferrari and, this time, Leclerc could offer up no answer.
All this squabbling behind had been perfect for Sainz. He opened up a gap of three seconds to the chasing Red Bull, who also appeared to have the measure of Hamilton behind him. Entering the final lap, Sainz pushed with all he had to try and secure fastest lap honours on top of his pole position and what was now looking certainly like his firs win. However, Hamilton had other ideas.
Not that it mattered too much to Sainz. After 150 grands prix and ten podiums, Sainz rounded Club for the last time and took the chequered flag to finally join the elite club of Formula 1 race winners.
“We did it!,” he shouted, the relief physically washing over his body in the cockpit. “Yes! We did it! Yes! Vamos!”
After a tumultuous start to the season, this moment may have felt all the sweeter for it. “My first race win in Formula 1… and with Ferrari – you cannot imagine how it feels,” he continued over radio. “And in Silverstone!”
However, while one Ferrari driver was ecstatic, the other was keen for answers having once again been left to miss out after a controversial strategy call on the Ferrari pit wall.
“The amount of race time that we have lost in this race… oh my God!,” an exasperated Leclerc exhaled.
“The only good thing about today is that Carlos won, but friggin’ hell… Anyway – enjoy the victory.”
For Perez, second place must have seemed like an impossible result after his early wing replacement.
“We got lucky with the Safety Car there at the end, which gave us a good opportunity to fight for the podium,” Perez admitted. ”Those final laps were such a great fight with Lewis. It has been so long since we had a good fight, so I was ready to have him back.”
Hamilton had taken a second consecutive podium, but the trophy was perhaps a secondary reward after Mercedes showed they might finally be able to take the fight to Red Bull and Ferrari at high speed circuits.
“I think it’s hugely encouraging that we were in the fight,” said Hamilton. “For a good period of time, I was matching the Ferraris’ pace, and even better at some stages.
“I don’t think we’re in a winning position yet. But we’re not far away.”
Alonso claimed fifth and, with it, ‘best of the rest’ honours for this weekend, while Norris brought home solid points in sixth after a relatively anonymous afternoon. Verstappen was delighted with six points after driving a compromised car for the vast majority of the car, while Mick Schumacher was the most relieved driver in the paddock having finally broken his point-less streak over 30 races into his F1 career. Vettel and Magnussen completed the points as the final two top ten finishers – an unlikely prospect after their Q1 exit on Saturday afternoon.
Seeing Sainz finally climb atop the podium for the first time in his career certainly was a popular sight for many of the thousands who stormed the track after chequered flags to watch the celebrations up close. But perhaps the best scene of the afternoon was not Sainz beaming with his winner’s trophy, not Vettel embracing Schumacher in parc ferme to congratulate him on his first points and nor was it Hamilton celebrating yet another home podium. Instead, it was seeing Zhou Guanyu walking freely around the paddock after the race having been declared fit and well after medical evaluation.
The British Grand Prix had done what it has so often done in years gone by and helped to make the championship picture more intriguing than when the paddock had arrived at Silverstone, but it had again provided a visceral reminder of how danger is never lurking far away in Formula 1. Fortunately, the biggest British crowd in history had not only enjoyed a spectacular event but, more importantly, seen no serious injuries to competitors, marshals or spectators.
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