It’s hard to believe only a week after three tyre blowouts marred the end of the British Grand Prix that we’re praising Pirelli for spicing up a race, but little in 2020 has gone according to expectation.
Whereas previously the soft tyres seemed destined to only increase the requirement for tyre management, instead it forced teams to consider multiple stops, and the combination of softer compounds at higher pressure and the warm, high-energy circuit meant not everyone got their thinking correct.
Mercedes, so dominant last week that Lewis Hamilton won on three wheels, seriously misjudged the tweaked conditions. Using only one set of mediums during practice and saving both hards for the race, the reigning constructors champion didn’t sufficiently grasp the effect high pressures would have on tyre life.
It left both poleman Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton painfully exposed to the sublimely quick Red Bull Racing car behind and the first non-Mercedes win of the season.
Key to the softer tyres — C2, C3 and C4, one step stickier than one week earlier — playing a defining role in undermining Mercedes was the increased tyre pressure mandated this weekend, enacted as a safeguard against failure.
The effect is to more evenly spread the load across the tread rather than focussing it close to the structurally critical shoulder, but a side-effect is that the tyre slides more freely. As it slides the surface overheats, and as the surface overheats it slides more. Eventually blisters erupt from the surface, blowing rubber off the carcass.
Mercedes had experienced some localised blistering on the front-left last week and had tweaked its set-up according, but because the team had only two sets of hard tyres for the whole weekend, it opted against running them in practice to save them for the race, meaning the effect of the increased pressures had to be guessed rather than measured.
The result was the blistering moved towards the rear of the car and became markedly more severe. It wasn’t the only team to experience this problem, but it was certainly the most hamstrung.
Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, was almost entirely unaffected. The RB16 seems naturally kinder to its tyres than the Mercedes — even last week the long stint on the hard tyre generated no problems — allowing Verstappen to push hard from the get-go and dominate Mercedes on merit.
The way the race unfolded the knockout blow to Mercedes came in Q2, when Verstappen snuck through to the top-10 shootout on hards while Mercedes stuck with mediums. At the time it at least gave him a point of strategic difference, but in the race it worked to lull Mercedes into a false sense of security.
Verstappen’s strong pace on the hard tyre in the first stint, running up behind Lewis Hamilton and leader Valtteri Bottas as he tried to manage his unravelling mediums, had Mercedes believe the white-walled rubber was simply the better race tyre.
Bottas and Hamilton slogged their way up to lap 13 and 14 respectively before making their first stops, and with Verstappen still required to use the medium later in the race, there was little reason to think the momentum wasn’t still with Mercedes.
But very early in that second stint things started to go wrong. After only five or six laps of typically rapid pace, eating into Verstappen’s inherited lead by more than a second a lap, both began to slow again.
Bottas and Hamilton had pushed hard early — too hard, too early, as it turned out. Blistering began erupting from the rears, and it suddenly became clear that it wasn’t the tyre on the RB16 but the RB16 itself that was facilitating Verstappen’s pace.
It meant the Dutchman was able to build enough of a gap from the lead to effectively make his first stop without losing the lead, and from there he only had to cover the hamstrung Mercedes drivers behind and the win was his.
While Verstappen effectively had the race in hand by lap 20, what happened subsequently still had a bearing on the podium composition, with title leader Hamilton beating Bottas to second.
Bottas was distraught post-race, having converted pole to third, and accused the team of “sleeping” on its strategy calls.
His second pit stop in particular was confusing, following Verstappen in on lap 32 for the same set of tyres and thereby locking in the two-second deficit.
Hamilton was left out in the lead to build a tyre offset — he and the team for a time considered not stopping again, but the tyres were clearly in too bad a shape to execute — before stopping on lap 41. With nine-lap-fresher tyres, he made quick work of Charles Leclerc for third and Bottas for second to finish runner-up.
Mercedes’s unwillingness to recognise Red Bull Racing’s pace superiority had left Bottas at a strategic disadvantage in the intrateam fight, and though team boss Toto Wolff disagreed that his team had taken its eye off the ball, it’s hard to tally that with his admission that the W11 was simply too slow to compete.
It would be unfair to say this race result was down only to Mercedes misjudging the conditions, for Red Bull Racing took a decidedly aggressive approach to the weekend that at least in part forced errors ahead.
The gamble on the hard tyre in Q2 — he snuck through to Q3 from ninth — set up his victory by giving him a strategic difference. Had he started on mediums, he might’ve fallen into tyre management mode with Mercedes and fallen into line with their pit stops, from where victory may have been harder.
And early in that first stint Verstappen’s aggression from the cockpit was clear, refusing to moderate his pace on pit wall command to maximise the pressure, seeing from his unique vantage point that his tyres were holding up better than expected.
It certainly made up for the team’s conservative late-race tyre stop last weekend that ultimately cost Verstappen victory when Hamilton’s tyre blew.
With Alex Albon the aggression was clear too. The Thai again qualified poorly, starting ninth, but an early stop on lap six, the team having gauged already how well Verstappen’s tyres were holding up, was the foundation of his rise to fifth. It got him out of the DRS train of cars managing their tyres in the midfield and allowed him to unleash some of his car’s pace on hards as he passed slower backmarker cars.
Special mention should go to Charles Leclerc, who finished a sensational fourth for Ferrari after making only one stop. The Monegasque, staring eighth, could see from early in the race that the low-downforce SF1000 was working agreeably with the medium compound and encouraged his team to go with ‘plan C’, a one-stop strategy.
The stop was perfectly timed, dropping him into a gaggle of midfielders about to make their own stops, allowing him to rise eight places post-stop without needing to make and overtake.
But all wasn’t so sweet inside Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel accusing the team of butchering his own race just to ease Leclerc’s way.
Vettel first stop, on lap 22, came early for someone starting on the hard tyre and dropping him into similarly paced traffic he couldn’t pass. Why the early stop? According to Vettel, it was to prevent Leclerc, then immediately behind him, from having to pass him.
Perhaps we can read into this that Ferrari had no faith Vettel would obey an order to allow his teammate through on a different strategy, but whatever the case, it undoubtedly cost him time.
The team says he lost nothing through the early stop, and it’s true he didn’t have enough pace on those old tyres to overcut anyone. He was also unlucky Carlos Sainz had a slow first stop and emerged between him and Daniil Kvyat, which in turn created space for Daniel Ricciardo to slot in between the Russian and the Spaniard when Vettel might’ve been able to shadow the AlphaTauri up the order.
But worse still was the team switched him to new hard tyres only to bring him back in after 11 laps for a final 19-lap stint on the medium tyre, on which his pace was unimpressive on his way to 12th. Had he held that middle stint longer, he may have been able to push the tyres harder as those ahead of him pitted and earnt himself an offset to fully exploit the medium near the end.
Undoubtedly Vettel must wear a significant proportion of the poor result for both qualifying 12th and spinning down to last on the first lap, but his recovery wasn’t helped by a team that seemed unwilling or unable to ease his way forward.
Max Verstappen: hard (used) to lap 26, medium (new) to lap 32, hard (new) to lap 52.