In unseasonably steamy conditions, Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel passed Valtteri Bottas with five laps remaining to win the riveting British Grand Prix at Silverstone by 2.264 seconds over Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who battled back from last after a Turn 3 opening-lap contretemps with Kimi Raikkonen to finish an impressive second, with Raikkonen eventually taking the final podium spot.
The victory was the 51st of Vettel’s Formula One career, his fourth this season and his second at Silverstone, but first since 2010. The win also allowed Vettel to increase his lead in the championship standings to eight points over Hamilton, his nearest pursuer. His victory tied Vettel with Alain Prost for third in total Grand Prix wins.
The phrase “you can’t win a Grand Prix in the first corner, but you can lose one…” has been threatened forever it seems, warning that an overzealous driver will always lose to one more careful. Given the aero developments of the last three F1 seasons, that phrase is now invalid. Due to the disruptive wakes of air coming off a leading car’s front wing, it’s now mandatory to duel with your competitors into the first turn to get ahead, whatever the risk, or suffer debilitating tyre wear as a follower, watching the race leader disappear in the distance.
Couple that scenario with Mercedes double DNF in Austria and Vettel’s coming together with Valtteri Bottas in France, the anticipation of a “leader takes all” clash between current championship leader Vettel and archival Lewis Hamilton in Silverstone’s fast first turn was palpable for each of the 340,000 fans lining the circuit. Something was going to happen; who would emerge unscathed?
Qualifying had been electric, with Vettel and Hamilton exchanging pole position throughout the Q1 and Q2. In both sessions, it was Vettel who held the edge. At the start of Q3, Hamilton visibly struggled to put the entire lap together, but when he did, it was magnificent; a new ultimate lap record, 0.044-seconds ahead of an equally committed Vettel. Kimi Raikkonen slotted ahead of Bottas for third. Back in Park Ferme, Hamilton stepped from the car with his hands trembling, admitting that he remembered little of the lap to reporters.
Yes, the start of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone would warrant a complete focus on Turn 1. Something was going to happen, but what and to who?
At lights out, it was Vettel who leapt from second to surge past pole-sitter Hamilton hundreds of yards before Turn 1. Hamilton had bogged down enabling teammate Bottas to also steam past Hamilton as well, with Raikkonen now attached to the Brits gearbox. Raikkonen off to Hamilton’s right, the Finn set up to pass Hamilton into Turn 3. It didn’t go well.
Raikkonen locked up his fronts and speared the Mercedes, spinning it and dropping it to the back of the field. With the roar of the British crowd drowning out the sound of the racing cars, both cars continued with little visible damage, but Raikkonen had fallen to fifth behind the very wide Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo. Instantly, Hamilton started charging his way through the field.
Little noticed was Force India’s Sergio Perez spinning his way across the pit exit lane and almost collecting both Williams cars as they charged into the race after both started from the pit lane. Both Haas drivers collided, their promising start now in shambles and out of the points.
Even while complaining of his Mercedes’ balance and grip problems, Hamilton regularly lapped half a second quicker than race leader Vettel, as he slashed through F1’s entire midfield contingent, recovering to the top six by Lap 1, although he was still more than a pitstop’s time behind the leaders.
For his part, Raikkonen received a 10-second time penalty, effectively nullifying his overtaken of Ricciardo’s Red Bull, so Ferrari chose to pit the Finn early to switch to medium tyres. While he could then go to the end of the race on faster tyres, he faced passing the clump of midfield runners to regain a top three finish.
Red Bull was determined to leave their cars out for as long as possible to guard against Raikkonen’s probable late-race recovery, and both Verstappen and Ricciardo pitted by Lap 18 and rejoined in front of the Finn. Hamilton, thanks to these pit stops was now up to third place, but he still faced his mandatory pitstop.
Up front and in control, Vettel was watching his tyres blister slowly in the 53C track temperatures but still held Bottas at bay by three-to-five seconds. After both pitted a lap apart, Vettel easily retained his lead. Behind, Hamilton pitted on Lap 25 and fell back to sixth, ten-seconds behind Raikkonen.
On Lap 32, Marcus Ericsson went off track in Turn 1 with his DRS still open, slamming hard into the barriers and triggering the Safety Car. Ferrari pitted Vettel for fresh tyres, while Mercedes ordered Bottas to stay out and claim the race lead. Hamilton took advantage of the period and moved back up to third as both Verstappen and Raikkonen pitted for tyres.
The race returned to green on Lap 37, and race leader Bottas gave a lesson in restarting, bolting away with the lead while newly re-shod cars of Verstappen and Raikkonen attacked, with the Dutchman taking the position. Moments later, the Safety Car was called again after Carlos Sainz and Roman Grosjean collided going into Copse Corner, sending both cars off the circuit and on recovery vehicles. The period covered three laps, leaving 11 laps to the flag.
Talk about an image. All four protagonists, Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen, were a nose-to-tail silver and red striped train and duelling under the unforgiving Sun. At the centre of this whirlwind was Bottas, under relentless attack from Vettel. The German finally found a hole on Lap 47, when Bottas’ tyres finally screamed enough when they slid coming out of the Loop entering the Wellington Straight. Vettel was driving as if his life depended on it, drafting the Finn all the way into Brooklands before reaching the braking zone, counting to three and hitting the brakes. Bottas seemed startled by such an impossibly “laaaaaaate” inside move. Vettel was past in an instant and began stretching out his advantage.
Reflecting later on the move, Vettel offered he thought he risked overshooting the corner. “It felt great when I was side by side – I wasn’t sure if I’d make the corner, but I did,” he said. “Once I was ahead, obviously I could use that advantage to pull out a gap and control the race from there. But, it was crucial, it wasn’t easy, they seemed to be very strong in the straights.”
Behind, Hamilton stung his teammate with a similar move in Brooklands a lap later. Meanwhile, a now very aggressive Raikkonen finally rushed past a similarly determined Verstappen just as the Red Bull man lost his brake-by-wire system and retired. Then he swept past the now helplessly “de-tyred” Bottas for third. Bottas held on to fourth, somehow holding off Ricciardo, followed by Nico Hulkenberg finishing sixth for Renault, Force India’s Esteban Ocon, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, the Haas of Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly in 10th for Toro Rosso and Honda.
Hamilton taken out of contention on the first lap allowed fans to see a great climb back from last. It wasn’t the expected fight with Vettel, however on the first lap Hamilton could have given away25 points to Vettel, but by the checkered flag, Hamilton had only lost 7 points. It could have been a lot worse.
Raikkonen made up for his faux pas with a good drive, but surely the 38-years old Finn will have some regrets of a possible last career win. He had a great series of fights with Verstappen as well.
Bottas was not impressive the first few laps, but his strong defence against Vettel showed guts even if it was a losing battle. Leaving him out during the first Safety Car was a clear strategic mistake from Mercedes. He had a solid second in the bag if not for that.
Finally, congratulations to Silverstone – once again, flat out in long fast sweepers and long straights over 80% of the 3.66-miles demonstrate it’s possible for racing and overtaking actually to exist simultaneously.
Imagine that in this day and age.