The German Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features ESPN F1 editor Laurence Edmondson.
The 2019 German Grand Prix was one of the most chaotic Formula One races in years, featuring changeable weather, all sorts of crashes, four safety cars and an unpredictable podium.
Max Verstappen was the winner despite a slow start, the wrong tyre choice in the middle of the race and a spin that should have cost him his victory aspirations, but his way was aided by Ferrari’s qualifying disaster and Saturday and Mercedes butchering a race it probably would’ve otherwise won.
The German Grand Prix almost completely lacked any sort of cohesive build-up. Friday practice was extremely hot, with temperatures peaking at 42°C, but by Saturday conditions had cooled by 10°C and higher humidity as rain circled the circuit. By Sunday the ambient conditions had deteriorated completely, with the mercury throttled in the low 20s°C and rain lashing the track from morning through to the race.
Ferrari nonetheless topped all three practice sessions as the team to beat in qualifying and the race, but disaster struck in typical Scuderia fashion during qualifying, with Sebastian Vettel unable to set a time due to a turbocharger problem and Charles Leclerc stuck in 10th when a fuel system problem prevented him from entering Q3.
Lewis Hamilton’s took pole ahead of Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas. Ferrari would require plenty of rain and generous unpredictability if it was to contend for victory with Leclerc, never mind Vettel.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
In truth Max Verstappen took the lead of the race only after Mercedes dropped its bundle — more on that in a moment — but once in control of the race Red Bull Racing made al the right moves to ensure it kept it.
Verstappen’s lead was first consolidated on lap 41 behind the safety car triggered by Nico Hulkenberg’s crash. Knowing the Dutchman would have to defend against both Mercedes cars at the restart, it brought him in immediately for a new set of intermediate tyres to ensure he’d have maximum grip once the safety car came in. When neither Bottas nor Hamilton followed him in, his advantage was guaranteed.
But the new set of inters weren’t required for long. The safety car persisted until lap 46, by which time a dry line had emerged sufficient to switch to slicks, and both he and Bottas availed themselves of the opportunity.
Verstappen emerged behind Lance Stroll and Bottas behind Stroll, Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat — more on their heroics below — and while the Dutchman made quick work of the Canadian, who was subsequently passed by Kvyat, Bottas struggled to do likewise and binned his car only eight laps later.
Hamilton, who stopped on lap 47, was eliminated from victory contention due to a five-second penalty for entering pit lane on the wrong side of the bollard for his third stop, and because the field was then at full racing speed, he fell to 12th.
With all challengers dispatched, Verstappen’s way was clear to take the chequered flag.
MERCEDES’S UNUSUAL BLUNDERS
Mercedes was unusually error-prone on the weekend it celebrated its 200th Formula One grand prix and 125 years of motorsport activity at its home race.
After an almost perfect Saturday, qualifying first and third, Hamilton and Bottas staggered through the race, with Bottas ending in the barriers and Hamilton out of the points before being promoted to ninth with some post-race penalties to both Alfa Romeo drivers.
Below is a list of the principal mistakes that turned what should have been a celebratory weekend into a nightmare.
Lap 26: Bottas pits for slicks — Mercedes covered Verstappen doing the same on the previous lap, but the medium-compound tyre was wrong on two counts. The first is that the return of rain was imminent; the second is that the medium tyre was too hard for the conditions anyway, as Verstappen’s spin illustrated.
Lap 28: Hamilton pits for slicks — Despite his own proclaimed better judgement, Hamilton was called in to replace his ageing intermediates with new softs on lap 28. The Briton said after the race that he could see the rain returning from his point of view in the cockpit but opted against challenging the team given their access to the rain radar. He identified this as the beginning of the end of his race.
Lap 29: Hamilton crashes — The rain returned and Hamilton couldn’t keep his soft-shod Mercedes on track. He ran wide at the penultimate turn and shattered his front wing. He managed to cross the circuit to enter the pits, but in doing so he crossed on the wrong side of the bollard — the marker on the pit-entry line that denotes the latest moment you can decide to enter pit lane — and subsequently earnt himself a five-second penalty.
Lap 29: Hamilton’s stop — The time between Hamilton sliding off track and arriving in his grid spot was evidently too short for Mercedes to be ready to change both his front wing and his tyres. Part of the problem appears to be protocol — had he required a nose change in a race, the standard would be to also replace his tyres with a new set of the same specification. However, it was dawning on the pit wall that the increasing rain required intermediates, and a full 50.2 seconds elapsed as the garage team scrambled for the correct rubber. This would have completely eliminated Hamilton from contention had a safety car not been in force to clear Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari; instead he dropped to fifth.
Lap 30: Bottas’s late stop — Had Hamilton not crashed, Bottas could have had the benefit of pitting on lap 29 for intermediate , as Verstappen did, rather than on lap 30, which resulted in him falling behind Nico Hulkenberg.
Lap 41: Neither car stops — Not stopping at least Lewis Hamilton behind this Nico Hulkenberg-triggered safety car eliminated him from contention. The team was hesitant to pit him so soon after his previous stop because he would have to serve a five-second penalty, but he subsequently served it when he switched to slicks only six laps later and at full racing speed, making the penalty substantially more costly. For Bottas this wasn’t a race-defining error, but had the rain returned during the safety car triggered by Nico Hulkenberg, Bottas and also Hamilton would have been caught out by Verstappen having stopped for fresh intermediates and them not. Not only would they have been unable to move forward, but they would have been vulnerable to Sebastian Vettel, who had also stopped for new intermediate tyres.
Lap 37: Hamilton’s penalty — Hamilton served his penalty at full racing speed and dropped to 12th, too far back to contend for victory.
Lap 57: Bottas crashes — Valtteri Bottas crashes out of the race while running fourth behind Lance Stroll and Daniil Kvyat ahead. He would have scored a minimum of 10 points but more realistically 18 had he kept it on the road; instead he scored nothing.
There’s much to reflect on for the ordinarily polished Mercedes team.
DANIIL KVYAT AND LANCE STROLL WIN BIG
The two big surprise winners from the chaos were Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll thanks to a brilliant bit of foresight from their respective Toro Rosso and Racing Point strategists.
Sat behind the Nico Hulkenberg-triggered safety car from lap 40 and with a dry line clearly forming, Stroll came in to take off his intermediates and switch to a fresh set of soft slicks on lap 44. He dropped from 14th to 15th. Kvyat’s team read the ploy perfectly and did likewise with the Russian on lap 45, dropping to 13, still behind the safety car.
Only when the race resumed on lap 46 did the other teams think to make the switch, but by now the field was up to racing speed, making all their stops substantially most costly.
For a brief moment they rose to first and second, but only very briefly — Verstappen emerged from his stop fractionally behind Stroll and soon relieved him of position, and Kvyat then passed the Canadian to drop him to third. A fast-charging Vettel later demoted them to third and fourth respectively.
SEBASTIAN VETTEL’S BIG RECOVERY
Sebastian Vettel was a driver-of-the-day contender for his 20th-to-second heroics. The German made up eight places at the start before the Sergio Perez-inspired safety car intervention and made quick progress up to seventh at the resumption, but his brightest moment came after switching to softs on lap 47. He was much happier in the car on slicks than intermediates — this was the first session run in wet conditions in anger all season — and rose from ninth to second in 14 laps after the last safety car.
Despite the herculean drive, there was a missed opportunity for Ferrari. Had Vettel made his final stop for slicks on lap 46, as per Verstappen — or even earlier, on lap 44 or lap 45, as per Stroll and Kvyat — he would likely have been bumped up to behind Bottas and had more time to close the gap to the lead.
MAN vs MACHINE
Judging strategy in the rain is a difficult blend of weather forecasts and gut instinct, and the tension between these two factors was evident throughout the race.
The example of Hamilton’s reluctance to pit for slicks in the middle race was a high-profile one, and both Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz illustrated at that moment that the Briton’s intuition was correct. Neither stopped for slicks when the rest of the field was following the forecast, and though Hulkenberg’s already lofty position meant the benefit wasn’t obvious in his case, Sainz was a big winner.
The Spaniard recovered from a spin on lap 18, dropping him to 14th, to sixth once the rain returned and fifth at the flag thanks to making one fewer stop.
Stroll call to make an early change to slicks in the final phase of the race also obviously paid off, as did Toro Rosso’s call to do likewise with Kvyat — the fact that the Russian spent the entire race trailing teammate Alex Albon by up to five places until that final strategy call only to lead him by as many places afterwards demonstrates how powerful a call it was.
THE WINNER’S STRATEGY
Max Verstappen: wets (new) to lap three, intermediates (new) to lap 25, mediums (used) to lap 29, intermediates (new) to lap 41, intermediates (new) to lap 46, softs (new) to lap 64.