By lap 49 of 52 the British Grand Prix, having long settled into a rhythm of tyre management and pace control, seemed headed for a predictable Lewis Hamilton-led Mercedes one-two finish.
Then all hell broke loose.
As Valtteri Bottas crossed the line to start his lap 50 his front-left tyre collapsed, handing Max Verstappen second place. The next lap Carlos Sainz suffered the same Pirelli blowout, and on the final tour the identical fate befell Hamilton.
But the Briton had only half a lap to go and a 40-second buffer to Verstappen. He was able to limp home and retain the lead with a five-second margin to record perhaps the most dramatic of his seven home-race wins.
Practice at the British Grand Prix was hot, with air temperature reaching 37°C and the track readout nudging 51°C, but an overnight change meant conditions for qualifying and the race were as much as 15°C milder, adding uncertainty to prediction about race performance and tyre longevity.
Mercedes’s advantage appeared dulled in the warmth — a multi-season trait — but over long-run simulations still had a handy margin over the field. Qualifying confirmed the Q11’s superiority by a factor of more than a second.
Red Bull Racing was adrift in the gap between Mercedes and the rest on short and long runs, while the midfield looked unpredictably tight.
Pirelli had brought the hardest three compounds for the British Grand Prix — they’ll be one step softer this weekend for the second race at Silverstone — and the hard and medium compounds were sturdy enough even in the heat to tempt teams into a one-stop strategy. Last year Hamilton proved as much was doable if the timing of the pit stop was about right, winning the race with a medium-hard strategy.
But perhaps not adequately accounted for was the improvement in car performance between this year and last. Pole was 0.7 seconds quicker in 2020 and, as per ESPN, apex speed in Copse was up by 11 kilometres per hour and in Maggots and Becketts by 12 kilometres per hour.
This put substantially more energy through the tyres, a problem only exacerbated by the decision by almost the entire field to run up to 40 laps on the hard compound, and though the race turned into an exercise in tyre management at reduced pace from the beginning of that final stint, the stress proved so much for some cars.
The secret to Hamilton’s success was holding pole off the line despite Bottas getting the better start and looking down his inside at the first turn. Not only did this obviously give him track position, but the clear air and the ability to freely control the pace meant his tyres were less worn by the end of the grand prix.
Bottas, on the other hand, having run close behind Hamilton to apply gentle pressure for the lead, didn’t have that opportunity, and running in the dirty air can only have contributed to the tyre blowout three laps from the flag.
Cruelly, had Bottas’s tyre given way only a few hundred metres earlier, he would’ve been better placed to dive into the pits and lose substantially less time. Instead he had to complete almost a full lap on three wheels, which eventually had him finish 11th and outside the points.
Ironically this saved Hamilton when his own tyres had blown — Verstappen had used Bottas’s bad luck to make a late stop to take the point for fastest lap, which meant his was too far back to challenge the three-wheeled Hamilton for the lead.
Daniil Kvyat’s lap-12 crash at Maggots and Becketts was the turning point of this race. Not only did it bring out the safety car, but the location of the crash and the debris created meant the intervention was going to be lengthy.
It opened the one-stop window for the hard tyre just enough for the entire field to take up the offer.
Everyone bar Romain Grosjean — more on him later — switch to the hards with a view of making it the 39–40 laps to the end. The compound was rated to last around 40 laps, with the optimum stint around 35 laps.
Pace management was enacted, as was from the lack of field spread — excluding the top three cars, only around 30 seconds covered the field, with equal intervals between just about every car — but moderating speed can only do so much to slow the physical wearing away of the tread around the high-energy circuit.
It meant almost every car was in the danger zone of running out of rubber late in the race, and regardless of whether debris caused the punctures — likely caused by Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing failure on lap 47 — or the tyres simply gave up, the cause of the blowouts was the lack of protective tread on the tyres from the ambitious length of the stint.
With Bottas out of the picture the battle at the head of the tight midfield suddenly became the fight for the lead, as claimed by Charles Leclerc.
The Monegasque’s second podium of the season — a record that defies his car’s dreadful lack of pace — was thanks in equal parts to his superb qualifying lap that put him fourth on the grid and a little bit of post-safety car luck that protected him from the McLaren drivers behind at the restart.
Romain Grosjean was one of only two drivers not to stop for hards on lap 12 or 13 — the other was Alex Albon, explained below — and rose from 14th to fifth as a result, separating Leclerc ahead from Sainz behind.
On medium tyres that were easier to warm and in the context of a race defined by pace management the Haas wasn’t such easy pickings — indeed the robustness of his defence attracted the ire of the stewards — and the six laps its took both McLaren drivers to get past allowed Leclerc to establish a rhythm.
By half distance it was clear McLaren couldn’t challenge Leclerc, such was the deteriorating state of the tyres on the orange cars. Leclerc wasn’t suffering in the same way — perhaps the Ferrari’s lack of downforce perversely helped in this regard — and the result was that Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris came under attack late from Daniel Ricciardo, who nabbed fifth off the latter before the former suffered his tyre failure, promoting the Australian to fourth at the flag.
Alex Albon was the only driver to score points with a notably different strategy. Having crashed with Kevin Magnussen on the first lap, a switch off damaged mediums and onto hards on lap six dropped him to last with a mammoth recovery drive ahead.
He made a second stop for mediums on lap 30, dropping him to 20 seconds behind the pack, but the quicker tyre made quick work of a field running at a controlled pace. In six laps he began picking off cars until he was 11th with two laps to go. He passed one more car — Lance Stroll — and gained place from Bottas and Sainz to finish eighth with four points.
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 13, hard (new) to lap 52.