Fighting literally to the finish, both men drove flat out, battling wheel-to-wheel until Mercedes strategically pitted Hamilton for a set of used medium tyres first on Lap 49 of 70. The action turned their race around. Lewis Hamilton could now chase down Verstappen while the Red Bull driver was forced to bypass a similar stop that would have taken him out of the lead. Lap after lap, Hamilton pushed closer while Verstappen was forced to feel his tyres slowly drained of grip until they gave up four laps from the finish.
In the end, Hamilton’s decisive pass at Turn 1 was uncontested. Conceding the inevitable, Red Bull then brought Verstappen in for a fresh set of tyres, which he used to set the fastest lap – and secure a bonus point. Nevertheless, it was clear, Verstappen and Hamilton were driving on a higher plane than the remainder of the field. The duo finished a country mile away from the Ferraris behind.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel passed teammate Charles Leclerc for the final podium position in the closing laps, but the Scuderia pair was 60 seconds behind the lead pair, giving the Italian team a clear mandate for where the team needs to be when the F1 circus arrives at Spa following August’s summer break.
Asked how he felt to have victory slip through his fingers so close to the end, Verstappen was forthright and practical.
“I think you can see how much margin (Mercedes) still have when they really need to push,” Verstappen said in the post-race press conference.
“Today we were both on fire as well, but you see, once he really had to go for it, you can see that (Mercedes) is still the dominant car.
“Of course at the point I started to run out of tyres, trying to keep up with Lewis’ pace on those medium tyres, trying to keep more than a second ahead – it’s almost impossible.”
“We just weren’t fast enough” he mused.
Max Verstappen claimed his inevitable first F1 career pole position by bettering Mercedes teammates Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen strung together two blinding laps in Q3. His final margin over Bottas was just 0.018s. It was Red Bull’s first pole position since Mexico last year and the first for a Honda-powered car since the 2006 Australian Grand Prix.
Ferrari pair Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel had to settle for fourth and fifth, ahead of Verstappen’s teammate Pierre Gasly.
McLaren locked out the fourth row of the grid, now an expected result thanks to the British team’s going competitiveness since the arrival of team boss Andreas Seidl. Teenager Lando Norris is getting stronger by the race, managing to out-qualify Carlos Sainz by 0.052s. Fortunate for McLaren, the pair remain friendly and communicative despite what is becoming one of the closest teammate battles on the grid.
Romain Grosjean qualified ninth in his Haas car which has been stripped of all upgrades and set back to the specification it ran at the Australian Grand Prix. Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top ten for Alfa Romeo.
Surprises included Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg missing out on a place in the top 10 shootouts by 0.03s, and teammate Daniel Ricciardo starting the Hungarian Grand Prix from the back of the grid after switching to a new complement of Renault engine components after qualifying.
Toro Rosso settled back to 12th and 13th on the grid with Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat after the glory of its first podium finish in 11 years at Hockenheim. Then there was Kevin Magnussen, who continues struggling with his up-to-date spec of Haas’ car.
On the other end of the “Joy Curve” was Williams driver George Russell who scored his and the team’s best qualifying performance of the year so far with a mighty effort for 16th.
On the starting grid, Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner probed the tarmac in front of Verstappen’s starting grid box for a sense of the available grip with his feet and hands. His thoughts were back to Hockenheim, where Verstappen got nothing but wheel spin when the starting lights went out.
Horner was determined to override any launch setting, preferring to feel the grip. His concern proved needless just minutes later.
At lights out, Verstappen’s Red Bull exploded unchallenged from his starting box. His launch allowed the Dutchman to place his car in the precise position to hold off Hamilton and Bottas while having equally aggressive acceleration off Turn 1.
Instead, it was fellow front-row man Valtteri Bottas who suffered a severe setback getting through the first turn. Bottas locked up attacking from the outside and then made negligible side-by-side contact with Mercedes teammate Hamilton, who was even further to the outside of the left-handed Turn 1.
Bottas was not free of Hamilton, having to defend against his teammate again into Turn 2 – causing him to lock up again. That brief mistake allowed Hamilton to adjust his line and sweep by around Bottas on the outside into Turn 3. Their continued slight contact freed Charles Leclerc to get ahead in his Ferrari.
Leclerc’s contact with Bottas was the final straw – the Mercedes driver’s front wing endplate snapped. By Lap 5, Bottas pitted to replace his W10’s nose, ceding the race chase to Hamilton as the Finn rejoined in last place.
Verstappen was clear that he needed immediate distance from Hamilton and pushed hard to establish a two-second buffer. Hamilton resisted the Dutchman’s attempt to enlarge his lead and turned up the pace. Hamilton was just short of DRS range when Verstappen and Red Bull blinked first, pitting on Lap 25. It was already clear that Verstappen, even driving smoothly, was losing grip and track position to Hamilton.
Mercedes held Hamilton out for six more laps before making his stop on Lap 31. Hamilton rejoined 5.8s behind and quickly made up the ground to Verstappen by Lap 36 – resuming his attacks on the Dutchman into Turn 1.
But on Lap 48, Mercedes gambled by pitting Hamilton again. Red Bull chose not to cover the stop – knowing that Red Bull’s Honda engine still lacked the ultimate speed of the Mercedes. Pitting Verstappen to counter Hamilton’s move would ensure a Mercedes win.
If Hamilton wanted to win, he would have to take the prize by running down Verstappen, and all the challenges that it meant. Hamilton had 20 laps to attack the 20-second gap to Verstappen on fresh tyres.
With six laps to go, Hamilton was 5.5s behind as a pained Verstappen announced his tyres were “dead”. Two laps later Hamilton was within DRS range and closed out Verstappen’s bid for his second-in-a-row Grands Prix victory romp in Turn 1.
Hamilton took the checkers with 17.7s in hand over Verstappen.
Valtteri Bottas was only able to recover to eighth position ahead of the four-week summer break. Mercedes principal Toto Wolff will use the time to decide whether Bottas should Hamilton took the checkers with 17.7s in hand over Verstappen.
Valtteri Bottas’ was only able to recover to eighth position ahead of the four-week summer break. Mercedes principal Toto Wolff will use the off-time to decide whether Bottas receives a contract extension for 2020.
Bottas’ recovery and Hamilton’s victory means the Brit carries a 62-point lead into the summer break while Bottas remains just seven points ahead of Verstappen in the championship.
Sebastian Vettel took third place from teammate Charles Leclerc in the final laps. They finished close together, but more than a minute behind the lead duo. It’s difficult not to believe there will be discussions of significant changes within Ferrari given that 2019 has seen an even further erosion of the Italian team from last season.
Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly finished a dismal sixth behind McLaren’s Carlos Sainz. That result means he is now just five points behind Gasly in the championship driving an inferior car.
Kimi Raikkonen finished seventh between Gasly and Bottas, while McLaren’s Lando Norris and Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon recovered from pit stop errors to take points.
The next Grand Prix will be at the end of August at legendary Spa, the longest circuit in the F1 World Championship. It won’t take long to learn if teams and specific drivers have made adjustments to their programs. For Ferrari, Haas, time is running out.