The story of the Eifel Grand Prix was Lewis Hamilton’s record-equalling 91st victory, but for polesitter Valtteri Bottas it was the evaporation of his already fading title chances.
Bottas had beaten Hamilton to pole by a quarter of a second in what looked like a late resurgence in the Finn’s form after winning in Russia two weeks ago. And the early laps of his race were strong, getting his elbows out against his teammate at the first turn to hold the lead.
But a series of knockout blows dropped him from a promising lead to an early shower when his power unit gave up on him on lap 18.
The Nurburgring has never hosted an F1 grand prix this late in the year, and for good reason: the autumnal weather in this part of Germany is extremely fickle, and indeed the forecast was more reminiscent of winter testing than it was of a race held as part of a summer championship.
The cold weather — hovering around 10°C all weekend — played a crucial part to all three days.
Both Friday practice sessions were cancelled because thick fog meant the medical helicopter couldn’t fly to the hospital in an emergency.
On Saturday the weather cleared but the cold and green track meant the hour of third practice gave teams little insight into expectations at a circuit the sport hasn’t raced at since 2013, when the regulations were dramatically different.
Then, on race day, the shivering temperatures and momentary sprinklings of rain made keeping the tyres up to temperature extremely difficult, which in turn made gauging strategy something of a guessing game.
The lack of preparation manifested in a variety of strategy calls of varying effectiveness — that is, for everyone except the top three, who were guided by an early virtual safety car and late-race safety car to make their two stops with practically no time loss on their way to the flag.
Three distinct moments conspired to turn Valtteri Bottas into victory contender to non-finisher and in turn hand Lewis Hamilton victory.
The first was his lock-up at the start of lap 13. Under-rotating his front-right in the first turn in a spot of light drizzle, he ran wide and allowed Hamilton to slip around his outside at turn two and sail into the lead.
Worse, he now had a flat spot that forced him into an early pit stop, forcing him into a two-stop race when the place was to stop only once.
This wouldn’t have been a race-ending mistake — the two-stop was roughly as quick as the one-stop owing to its reliance on the well-suited soft tyre — had a virtual safety car not been triggered only three laps later.
George Russell’s Williams had stopped on track with suspension damage from a crash with Kimi Raikkonen, and the full-circuit yellow allowed Hamilton and Max Verstappen a cheap stop. Both emerged roughly a devastating 15 seconds ahead of Bottas.
The Finn may yet have contended here had the leading pair kept to one stop and he a two-stop strategy ending on that quick soft tyre, but unfortunately an MGU-H problem put paid to his race on lap 18.
The combination of the lock-up, virtual safety car and Bottas’s retirement handed Hamilton his 91st win, for even though Max Verstappen shadowed the Briton closely for much of the race, the RB16 lacked the ultimate pace of the W11.
If there was one moment of potential concern for Hamilton, it was the safety car restart on lap 50, the intervention triggered to collect Lando Norris’s stopped McLaren. With track temperatures so cold, tyre warm-up was extremely difficult, and we saw several lock-ups on the first lap of the resumption as drivers gauged grip levels.
But here Hamilton and Mercedes had the dual-axis steering, or DAS system, up their sleeve. Moving the steering wheel in and out and changing the toe angle of the front tyres helped the Briton warm his front tyres better than Verstappen and the rest of the field, helping him get away cleanly and control the final 10 laps of the race.
With Bottas out of the equation and Alex Albon enduring another difficult grand prix mired in the midfield, the final spot on the podium was left wide open for Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez and the McLaren drivers to contend for.
The battle was shaping up nicely in the middle of the race. Ricciardo was best placed early, having capitalised on the virtual safety car to make his first stop, and the subsequent 15-second advantage he earnt over the midfield tempted Renault into a long 44-lap run to the end on a single set of medium tyres.
Lando Norris and Sergio Perez were his main pursuers. Neither stopped during the virtual safety car, delaying instead until laps 29 and 28 respectively to aim for a more balanced one-stop strategy.
The Mexican attempted to undercut the Briton, and though he didn’t get ahead in the stop owing to the warm-up time on the medium tyre, the extra lap of warmth relative to Norris allowed him to execute a pass on track on the following tour.
The McLaren retired shortly afterwards with a power unit problem.
On lap 30 Perez was 16 seconds behind Ricciardo with a 12-lap offset. He closed to within 10 seconds in the following 13 laps, the pace difference widening to almost a second a lap.
He had 17 laps remaining when the safety car neutralised the battle. Racing Point contemplated leaving Perez out when Ricciardo pitted to take track position, but it was thought his worn medium tyres would be no match for the Renault’s soft tyres at the restart, so he too was brought in for the red rubber.
A brief skirmish in the first sector for position was decided in Ricciardo’s favour, and the Australian claimed Renault’s first podium in almost a decade.
Would the same have been true without the safety car intervention? Ricciardo had begun conserving his tyres to ensure they would make it to the end just as Perez began pushing to close the gap, which meant the difference in pace wouldn’t have been so pronounced when the two were due to meet on track in the final five or so laps.
No-one took any compound anywhere near Ricciardo’s 44-lap target. It would’ve been interesting to see if he could have seen it through, with both he and Perez effective tyre managers.
Up Renault’s sleeve, though, was that he would have lost positions only to Perez and Sainz — and Norris had he not retired — if he were forced into a late unscheduled stop, potentially making back one or two places with the soft tyre advantage.
The lengthy safety car interruption proved controversial among some, with tyre temperatures plunging at reduced pace.
Forecasts for chaos at the resumption didn’t materialise past a few lock-ups, though the late intervention was used well by some and less well by others to gain places.
The leaders — Hamilton, Verstappen and Ricciardo — all benefitted by taking the free second stop, taking the tension out of what might have been a long second stint.
Pierre Gasly and Nico Hulkenberg, finishing sixth and eighth respectively, were also able to lock in strong gains, having started the race 12th and 20th respectively and likewise trying to make it to the end with a single stop.
Charles Leclerc, up to sixth in his difficult Ferrari, missed a trick by not stopping for softs. His worn mediums were no match for Gasly’s newer tyres, and the Frenchman easily passed the Monegasque at the resumption to demote him to seventh.
Romain Grosjean was behind Leclerc and likewise chose not to stop, staying on track with the hard tyres he fitted on lap 28. It promoted him three places to seventh, ahead of Gasly, Hulkenberg, and Kimi Raikkonen, but lost him places to the first two via a massive grip deficit, leaving him ninth. It was a net gain of one place, though Raikkonen was discounted not through strategy but by serving a 10-second time penalty for his earlier crash with George Russell.
Lewis Hamilton: soft (used) to lap 16, medium (new) to lap 25, soft (used) to lap 60.