The titanic Lewis Hamilton-Max Verstappen championship tussle took a controversial turn at the British Grand Prix, where Hamilton emerged victorious despite a penalty for putting Verstappen out of the race on the first lap.
The Briton was determined to get past the Dutchman at the start, and for the first eight corners their spectacularly sparred side by side, but they made relatively light but ultimately devastating contact on the apex of Copse, sending the RB16B spinning into a 51G impact with the barriers.
Hamilton continued with a cracked rim — repaired under red flag conditions — and went on to win the race despite serving a 10-second penalty at his sole pit stop, slashing his championship deficit from 33 points to just eight.
Verstappen emerged unharmed but dizzy, and an afternoon in a nearby hospital for checks cleared him of any injury later that night. The Dutchman accused Hamilton of being “disrespectful and unsportsmanlike” for in the meanwhile celebrating victory.
Red Bull Racing was appalled by the leniency of the penalty for what Christian Horner described as a “desperate” and “amateur” move. Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko even suggested he should be suspended for a race.
But the stewards found that Hamilton was predominantly, not wholly, to blame for missing the apex of the corner rather than for anything more clumsy or sinister in slapping him with the second most lenient penalty applicable.
Whatever your view, the crash has undoubtedly turned up the heat immensely on this burgeoning rivalry, which is now back to almost square on the title tables with up to 13 rounds still to run.
The lap-one explosion had been building for a while, albeit not necessarily on track, where Verstappen and Hamilton’s various comings together have been far from controversial to date. Instead it was Red Bull Racing’s surging momentum and Mercedes’s flagging title campaign that turned Silverstone into a make-or-break weekend for Hamilton’s season.
The RB16B had been progressively updated over the last two rounds, which helped deliver Verstappen two emphatic wins in Austria and the team five straight victories. Mercedes’s upgrade programme has been light, the team more focused on next season’s rules, and its final update for the year came in time for Britain.
If the team was competitive enough to win in England, the title fight might yet be alive. If not, Verstappen’s odds of a maiden championship would shorten considerably.
The updates seemed to do the trick, bringing the two teams back to parity, as they were at the similarly demanding Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix.
But the experimental weekend format added a twist. Hamilton topped qualifying on Friday while Verstappen struggled with front-end grip on the soft tyres in the cooler early evening, but the Briton’s poor start in Saturday’s sprint qualifying half hour meant his good work was undone. With the cars closely matched, it was hard to envisage him finding a way past from second on the grid on Sunday.
In that context getting ahead at the start would be crucial to winning the race, particularly given Saturday suggested blistering in the warm British summer would curtail Sunday pace, making the two-stop strategy too slow to be effective and reducing the window for strategy.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVES
The need to be ahead at the end of the first lap is ultimately what led to the crash, deciding the race against Verstappen and ultimately in favour of Hamilton. Their driving styles are similarly uncompromising, putting rivals in a position to withdraw or crash.
Neither withdrew. Both crashed.
But putting Verstappen out of the race wasn’t enough to secure Hamilton victory, notwithstanding the potential for penalty. The first key decision came immediately after the crash, when the team had to respond to his cracked front-left rim.
The call was at first to pit, but, seeing the damage to the barriers and Verstappen’s car, Mercedes correctly foresaw a red flag. Hamilton was left out, the red flag was waved, and the field returned to the pits in order, allowing repairs to be made for free.
Had Hamilton pit with the safety car out, he would’ve rejoined at the back of the field and taken the restart from there, leaving him unlikely to score points.
Leclerc was on pole for the restart, having jumped Valtteri Bottas on the first lap and having got ahead of Hamilton in the aftermath of the crash. He held the place off the line to lead the first stint.
Hamilton’s penalty call came early in the restart given the lengthy race suspension, which worked in his favour. His first stint subsequently became a matter of running long on the medium tyre to lose as few places as possible before unleashing on the hards.
He made the call on lap 27, radioing his teams that grip had deserted him. He emerged fourth behind Lando Norris, Bottas and leader Leclerc, who stopped two laps later to set the gap at around 13 seconds.
With a lighter tank and with only 25 laps to run on the hard compound, Hamilton could unleash, and his lap times got progressively quicker as he was able to lean more on the tyre and as he burnt through his fuel.
The move came on lap 50 — and of course it was at Copse. This time Hamilton was given plenty of space on the outside — Leclerc had been right behind the turn-one crash — and cut easily into the lead before taking the chequered flag.
BOTTAS HAMPERED BY SLOW GETAWAYS
It was a perfect recovery for Hamilton and an almost perfect weekend for Mercedes. Putting aside the loss of pole through experimental sprint qualifying, only Valtteri Bottas failing to capture second place blots the weekend’s record.
The Finn’s race was undone by losing places at both starts, to Leclerc at the first and to Lando Norris at the second. In the delicate first stint on the medium tyre he couldn’t get past the McLaren, but the place was gifted to him when Norris came in for an early stop, ironically to pre-empt an undercut.
The stop was slow, and Bottas easily got past him with a stop on the following lap. It secured him third on the road but at the expense of performance late in the race as the hard tyre faded. He was ordered to let Hamilton and his fresher tyres past on lap 40.
PEREZ PLAYS THE TEAM GAME
In a race of free tyre choice that saw little variation in strategy, Sergio Perez was the outlier. He had been the big loser from sprint qualifying, dropping to near the back in a high-speed off at Chapel before being retired for checks, and he was withdrawn from the grid for a pit-lane start so he could be fitted with a racier aero and cooling package to lift him up the order.
He made good progress early, rising to 14th by lap five and picking up a couple of extra places before the stops, but he found the hard tyre didn’t have the longevity for a long opening stint with full tanks and a racy disposition.
The Mexican ultimately had to make two stops in a hard-medium-medium strategy that delivered him to 10th with six laps to go.
But we was recalled for a third stop one lap later for a set of soft tyres with a view to setting the fastest lap. Dropping to 16th and out of the points, he wouldn’t be eligible to score the bonus point for doing so, but saliently he took the point off Hamilton.
It meant Red Bull Racing scored no points, but it was a net-neutral move for the constructors championship and saved Verstappen an extra point in a costly afternoon in the drivers standings.
ANALYSING THE EFFECTS SPRINT QUALIFYING
The events of the first lap of the grand prix will understandably be the key talking point of the British Grand Prix weekend, but the now overshadowed format change deserves some consideration for its effects on running of the race.
Most notable was the dramatic reduction in practice time, effectively cut by 66 per cent. Teams had to compress all their data gathering and set-up experimentation into a single 60-minute session before parc ferme conditions were enacted for qualifying on Friday afternoon.
Saturday’s FP2, though busy, was effectively useless for data gathering given set-ups were by then fixed, and teams obfuscated with fuel loads and run plans so as to not show their hands before the grand prix.
The lack of practice time showed itself in the lead battle. Verstappen was dominant in FP1, but Mercedes busiest itself with long-run analysis. The Dutchman later lamented that the team had opted for an aero set-up with too much downforce, leaving him too slow down the straights and ultimately costing him a shot at heading qualifying. It also would have left him unable to pass the Mercedes cars in race conditions.
Mercedes, on the other hand, had been able to trim its rear wing thanks in part to its updates this weekend, enabling Hamilton to top qualifying, though it counted for little thanks to his tardy start in the sprint.
There was also the difficulty of predicting tyre behaviour without a practice session at a representative hour. FP2 on Friday afternoon is normally the most important session for estimating race set-up and tyre behaviour, but without it teams had to make assumptions based on FP1.
This also worked against Verstappen, for it was only in qualifying that it became clear the RB16B was underworking the front tyres and that in cooler conditions the car fell out of balance. In the sprint, however, run earlier in the afternoon in full sunshine, the car was much quicker, and the same would have been true in the race — which is why Hamilton was eager to get past as soon as possible before Verstappen could establish a rhythm and break away.
The sprint itself, the centrepiece of the change, was roughly on par with predictions. Some drivers — Fernando Alonso in particular — monstered the start to make up a swathe of places thanks to his gamble on the soft tyre while most others went for mediums, and Verstappen obviously pipped Hamilton for pole, but after the freneticism of the first few laps the DRS trains formed, preventing further action, Near the end of the not-race drivers had to consider tyre preservation.
The sprint also meant the grand prix offered drivers free tyre choice rather than the current rule regarding Q2 compounds for the top 10, which meant the entire field bar one started on the favoured medium and switched to the hard in the expected stop window, neutralising tyre strategy.