Hamilton only needed to finish eighth to guarantee the title numerically, but the Brit battled hard from lights out to rise from his fifth starting position to hold the lead after Bottas and Verstappen made their second pitstops. Hamilton stuck to a one-stop strategy and led for much of the second half of the race, only to be caught by his Mercedes teammate in the closing stages when his tyres finally lost grip.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finished third behind Hamilton’s slowing Mercedes. A double yellow flag at the end of COTA’s long back straight, just two laps from the finish, had denied the Dutchman the opportunity to overtake the Brit, who continued battling with thoroughly worn-out tyres.
A cold snap which set in during Friday and some of Saturday played havoc with team’s prior COTA plans. Max Verstappen topped FP3 that saw Lando Norris post a brilliant third-best time for McLaren and Charles Leclerc missing all of FP3 when an oil leak stopped his SF90 before completing a single lap.
Qualifying saw Valtteri Bottas immediately step up to secure his fifth pole position of the 2019 Formula 1 season. The Mercedes driver felt temperatures dropping and wanted to make sure his first run was his best effort – and it was. His first run in Q3 of 1m32.029s was fast enough capture pole.
Changing track surface temperatures once again showed the extremely delicate nature of Pirelli’s tyres as neither Bottas nor Sebastian Vettel, who was just 0.012 seconds slower, could improve on their second attempts. Yet, like Bottas, Vettel’s first-attempt pace put him on the front row.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen nailed his second attempt to ensure third place, 0.067s slower than Bottas, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc also going faster but ending up 0.108s down in fourth.
World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton lost time in the second sector and pitted, leaving him fifth and 0.292s down.
It would have been a safe bet that Lewis Hamilton would use caution at COTA, seeing that going for victory meant passing Bottas, Sebastian Vettel, Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. Better to collect the small number of points he needed to clinch the title and call it a championship.
But that’s not his style.
Hamilton jumped both Ferrari’s on the opening lap – taking Leclerc at Turn 1 and then around Sebastian Vettel outside of Turn 8 at the end of the sprawling Esses sequence – which gave him the inside line to slam home the pass on Sebastian Vettel in the tighter left-hander in Turn 9.
Hamilton, now secure in third, began his relentless chase of Verstappen.
The Dutchman had received minor front wing damage at the first corner, courtesy of Bottas. As Verstappen passed Vettel around the outside of Turn 1 at the start, he connected with race leader Bottas sliding wide on the exit.
Not enough to make a pit call, but Verstappen knew he had a front wing balance problem and would need to dial down his aggression to keep his front tyres from being chewed up. It also meant he couldn’t produce the pace to stay out of the clutches of the free-to-race Hamilton.
By the time Red Bull brought him in on Lap 13, Bottas was several seconds clear, and Hamilton was on his tail. Verstappen was now committed to a two-stop strategy, and now Hamilton knew it as well.
Mercedes responded by stopping Bottas one lap later to retain track position against the threat of the undercut, which was successful, while Hamilton continued until lap 24.
Hamilton had moved on to an alternate strategy – choosing a risky one-stop plan which required tyre management at the end of both stints. It was dangerous because the bumps and small corrects needed to stay fast would cost Hamilton tyre wear and time. Still, Hamilton knew Mercedes had Bottas running a two-stop, and now, Verstappen had been forced into a two-stop plan as well.
It put Hamilton in the lead after the first Bottas / Verstappen stops and kept him in the running for victory after Bottas and Verstappen pitted for a second time. Still, COTA’s bumps took a significant toll on Hamilton’s tyres and in the end, Bottas used his fresher second set to catch his teammate four laps from the finish.
Hamilton slipped to the inside line as Bottas drew alongside. The Brit held his braking to the last instant – Bottas, with nowhere to go chose the run-off on the exit of the corner.
The next lap, Bottas wasn’t about to take chances. He moved inside Hamilton with DRS earlier and stuck the pass.
By now, Hamilton’s mirrors were full of Verstappen.
Verstappen had been granted “full power” by his Red Bull engineers, but as he closed in on Hamilton, he never got a chance to make a pass.
A yellow flag at the end of the back straight – caused by Kevin Magnussen’s apparent brake failure in the Haas, put him in the gravel and eliminated the best overtaking opportunity for Verstappen, who had to settle for third.
Charles Leclerc finished fourth after struggling the entire race, He had started third behind Vettel in second, but their races went south immediately. Neither car could find grip, with Vettel’s car slipping to seventh from his front-row start after struggling with massive understeer in the early laps before it experienced a right-rear suspension failure on Lap 8. Leclerc also had a slow first stop and wound up 52 seconds behind Bottas.
Alexander Albon finished fifth in another solid race at a track he had never visited. He’s all but assured to remain Verstappen’s teammate in 2020.
Daniel Ricciardo found his former lustre with a stonking performance to beat McLaren duo of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz after a race-long battle for sixth position in his Renault.
Nico Hulkenberg finished ninth in the other Renault, while Sergio Perez took the final points-paying position in 10th.