Miraculous Mercedes still underdogs despite German win

Mercedes didn’t have the fastest car at the German Grand Prix, but even this plain fact couldn’t stop the Silver Arrows from marching to a memorable one-two victory.

Lewis Hamilton led Valtteri Bottas to the chequered flag ecstatic and exhausted — ecstatic for having reversed the poor fortune of the previous two rounds, exhausted for having scythed his way up the field from an unlikely 14th on the grid.

“It’s obviously very, very difficult from that position and highly unlikely, but you’ve always got to believe,” he beamed. “I said a long, long prayer before the race started … so big, big thanks to God.”

Hamilton certainly was helped on his way to victory, but his thanks should go to title rival Sebastian Vettel as much as they should intervention of the divine.

Vettel was dominating the weekend. A major series of aerodynamics and power unit upgrades for both Ferrari and Mercedes over preceding rounds had placed the German and his Italian team at the head of their respective championship tallies.

Unfortunately for both, a sprinkling of rain washed all those advantages away.

Vettel was comfortably in control of the race when the rain arrived, and as he entered Hockenheimring’s tricky stadium section, he pushed too hard on the slick surface, locking his rear axle and gently but conclusively sliding his car into the barriers and out of the race.

The four-time world champion had nothing to blame but his own eagerness to build his margin over the field in the slippery conditions, and after he emotionally apologised to the team for dropping what should have been a guaranteed 25-point haul, he took responsibility for his error.

“Apologies to the team, they did everything right,” he said. “I had it in my hands.

“I don’t think it was a huge mistake, but it was a huge impact on the race.”

But even through disappointment etched heavily on the 31-year-old’s there was a glimmer of optimism: Vettel had been comfortably in control of the race because Ferrari had been the unquestionably faster car from the moment the sport arrived in Germany.

“It was a very positive weekend,” he confirmed in bittersweet tones. “We have a strong car, so I think we can be as confident as anyone else.”

This wasn’t just Vettel softening the blow of a race weekend lost; this was cold, hard fact.

In 2017, the first year Mercedes had its dominance challenged under the current regulations, Ferrari had the better-rounded package but still lacked ultimate pace, winning only by taking advantage of its rival’s weaknesses.

This season the fight has been too close to call, but across the last two rounds Ferrari has nosed ahead in terms of both aerodynamics and pure power, the latter hitherto the undisputed domain of Mercedes.

“They have a great power unit, huge performance,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after his team was easily beaten in qualifying. “We were looking good through all kinds of corner but we are not able to match their straight-line performance.

“If we want to win this championship or stay in the hunt … we’ve got a severe warning today.”

It’s a fascinating twist on the usual Formula One logic that Mercedes can power out of its problems, and it presents a foreign scenario for this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix on 29 July — ordinarily teams hope to catch Mercedes on a circuit that doesn’t reward engine performance; in 2018 Mercedes is hoping the tight and twisty Budapest circuit brings Ferrari back down to earth.

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes way have won the battle for the German Grand Prix, but the war for the 2018 championship is still far from decided.