British GP: Drama unfolds in the dying moments

Lewis Hamilton had begun the last lap more than half a minute ahead of Mark Verstappen. He finished it less than six seconds in front.

British Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton (centre) of Mercedes stands on the podium flanked by second-placed Red Bull driver Max Verstappen (left) of the Netherlands and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc of Monaco, who finished third.   -  AP

Two laps to go. Two teams instructing their drivers on the radio to go for the fastest lap of the race. Two decisions that almost cost one and surely cost the other the race win.

The first four races of the coronavirus-delayed Formula One season have all seen heavy on-track action in the final laps, but for once it didn’t involve McLaren’s Lando Norris (who gained positions — and points — on the last lap in each of the first three races).

The two Mercedes cars of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas led the British Grand Prix from the front row at the start, and two safety-car stints, starting at the end of lap 1 and again 12 laps later, did nothing to impede them as they pulled away from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in third at nearly one second per lap once racing resumed.

READ | Lewis Hamilton limps to record British GP win after late puncture

What followed was a procession of fastest laps — and lap records — at Silverstone by the two Silver Arrows. There seemed no way to keep the Mercedes from taking a one-two finish, not even an on-track incident between the two as Hamilton maintained a comfortable lead over Bottas.

In the end, it was only the team and the drivers themselves that could stop Mercedes.

The front-runners had all switched to the hardest-compound tyres during the second safety-car period to avoid having to pit again in the race, but that meant making their rubber last 39 laps. Nonetheless, the Mercedes cars set a blistering, lap-record-setting pace and seemed imperious.

Bottas was the first to hit trouble. The Finn had to drive around nearly an entire lap with his front-left tyre deflating before he could make it to the pits, dropping him out of the points.

Meanwhile, the team calls came.

Red Bull told Verstappen, who didn’t look at all likely to catch Hamilton at that point, to pit for fresh tyres on the penultimate lap of the race and attempt to take the fastest-lap point on his final circuit around Silverstone. Almost simultaneously, Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio to set the fastest time on the final lap.

READ | British Grand Prix: Team by team analysis

As the last lap began, Hamilton’s front-left tyre suffered the same fate as his teammate’s. The six-time world champion kept his car, now effectively on three wheels and with the front wing throwing off sparks, on the track for the final few corners to win his seventh British Grand Prix ahead of a surging Verstappen.

Hamilton had begun the last lap more than half a minute ahead of Verstappen. He finished it less than six seconds in front.

Pirelli’s pitfalls

Red Bull’s decision to pit Verstappen at the end so he could set the fastest lap seems, on first glance, to have cost him the win, but as team principal Christian Horner said after the race, there was no guarantee the Dutchman would have made it to the chequered flag on the old tyres as he too had reported vibrations as Bottas had earlier.

But the two Mercedes drivers and Verstappen were not the only ones to suffer tyre troubles. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr had moved up to fourth when Bottas pitted, but the Spaniard’s front-left tyre failed on the penultimate lap and he eventually finished 13th.

Hamilton inspects his punctured tyre after winning at Silverstone. The British driver survived a dramatic finale to win the Grand Prix, just making it across the line on three tyres to beat a fast-closing Max Verstappen in Red Bull.   -  AFP

 

Tyre supplier Pirelli said it will immediately investigate why three drivers suffered identical damage after roughly the same amount of time out on track on the hard tyres.

“It’s a bit early now to give you any conclusion. It could be high wear, because for sure tyres with 38 laps or more on this circuit are quite worn, but I’m not saying that the wear is the cause of the issue. It can be debris, because we had the pieces of the front wing of Kimi (Raikkonen of Alfa Romeo) that were on track, but also some other debris. So that’s why we want to investigate not only the tyres with a failure, but all the tyres used in the last few laps of the race, to understand if we find any other cut or any other possible indication on what happened,” Pirelli tyre chief Mario Isola said after the race.

A tale of two Red Bulls, and one of two Ferraris

Verstappen was the only driver to be able to stay within striking distance of the two Mercedes — a testament to how much more he can squeeze out of his Red Bull car than his teammate, Alexander Albon, who failed to make it to the third session of qualifying for the second race in a row.

Notably for Albon, it was the second race in a row that he was beaten in both qualifying and the race by the man he replaced at Red Bull midway through the 2019 season, Pierre Gasly.

In the decade and a half that Red Bull and Toro Rosso (renamed AlphaTauri for the 2020 season) have raced in F1 (the former entered in 2005, the latter a year later), they have been known as much for picking young, promising drivers as for abruptly swapping them between the two teams.

READ | Mercedes deserved to win and no regrets, says Verstappen

Current AlphaTauri driver Daniil Kvyat was promoted to Red Bull in 2015 before being dropped five races into the 2016 season in favour of Verstappen. Gasly drove the first 12 races of the 2019 season for Red Bull before being demoted to Toro Rosso and replaced by Albon.

Albon finished fifth at the Hungarian Grand Prix after recovering from 13th on the grid — albeit a full minute and 10 seconds behind his teammate in second. At the British Grand Prix, Albon started 12th and then received a five-second time penalty after contact with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen on the opening lap, which dropped him to the back of the field. Albon did cross the line in a points-scoring eighth place, but after four races, he is sixth in the standings with exactly half the points that Verstappen has, and he trails Lando Norris of McLaren and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Charles Leclerc makes a pit stop for new tyres. Leclerc has two podium finishes in four races — second in the opening race in Austria and third at Silverstone — by just patiently driving around the track and staying out of trouble.   -  Getty Images

 

Leclerc, meanwhile, has ridden his luck like no other racer this season. The Ferrari cars are nowhere near Red Bull in terms of race pace and they seem to be a bit off Racing Point and McLaren, too. Despite that, Leclerc has two scored podium finishes in four races — second in the opening race in Austria and third at Silverstone — by just patiently driving around the track and staying out of trouble.

Leclerc and his more illustrious teammate Sebastian Vettel have split the four qualifying sessions between them so far. But the German four-time world champion’s best finish has been sixth in Hungary; he placed 10th in both Austria and Great Britain, and retired at the Styrian Grand Prix.

Records keep tumbling for Hamilton and Mercedes

The 71st running of the British Grand Prix came and almost went as expected. The Mercedes cars were a second a lap faster than Red Bull all through the weekend. Hamilton and Bottas locked out the front row for the Brackley team — the 66th time Mercedes has done so in just 214 F1 race entries, breaking the tie with Ferrari, which has 65 from nearly 1,000 entries.

Hamilton booked his 91st pole position in F1, and it was his 65th for Mercedes — that’s as many as former pole-position record-holder Ayrton Senna had in his entire career. For Mercedes, it was the first time that a constructor had taken pole position at the same track eight consecutive times.

Hamilton’s seventh win at the British Grand Prix — his home race — leaves him with a comfortable 30-point lead over Bottas in the Drivers’ Championship, with Verstappen a further six adrift on 52. And Mercedes’ pace at Silverstone bodes extremely well for the next race on the calendar — the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at the very same venue.