At Hockenheim Mercedes was celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Daimler company’s involvement in the sport. It had bankrolled the German Grand Prix into not being lost to the 2019 calendar and so was taking maximum promotional advantage. Everywhere you looked the three-pointed star was present, ditto images of various racing Mercs and Benzes from history – and in a final flourish the current W10s were finished partly in white, the traditional racing colour of Germany before the advent of the silver arrows in 1934. The jagged line ahead of the cockpit where white transitioned to silver represented the moment of that change. The belle époque ‘Mercedes’ font on the car was from the early 20th century, back when the name was first applied to what had previously been Daimler.
The historical pedants would point out that 125 years ago (1894), there was no such brand as Mercedes, that it flowered into existence in 1901, named after the daughter of the Daimler company’s main financier. But that’s to nitpick; the company was there at the start, the brand a few years later. Daimler powered the ‘winning’ (it was complicated, let’s not get distracted) Peugeot of Albert Lemaître at what is recognised as the very first motor sport competition, the 1894 Paris-Rouen trial. Essentially, Gottlieb Daimler invented the petrol engine while fellow inventor Carl Benz created the first car. The two companies raced against each other at the dawn of the sport until they merged in 1926.
The Mercedes team members were dressed in period costume – mechanics, engineers, marketeers, strategists. But the car was up to the minute. It featured a major aero upgrade incorporating cooling tweaks. The new package comprised front wing, barge boards, sidepods (with a slightly outward orientation of the radiator inlets for better cooling) and rear wing endplate. It was said to be worth half a second per lap.
Except it didn’t seem to be quite translating. Lewis Hamilton, feeling unwell enough that Esteban Ocon was on stand-by, nonetheless secured pole but the Mercs were split by the ever-improving Red Bull-Honda of Max Verstappen. That contest might all have been for the second row, however, had the Ferraris run cleanly. An intercooler leak stopped Sebastian Vettel while Charles Leclerc’s car suffered a failed fuel pump in Q3. The red cars thus lined up only 10th and 20th around a power track at which they’d looked the fastest of all. A new Shell fuel was introduced, to take advantage of what is believed by rivals to be Ferrari’s extra cooling of the engine’s inlet charge at full throttle. It is not known if the failures were linked to increased stresses from this, but that was certainly being speculated.
Whatever, that was Ferrari’s present to Mercedes on this anniversary weekend. But on race day Ferrari would soon enough be right there as Hockenheim’s layout played well to the car’s power advantage.
In the race Hamilton had initially dominated on the wet track, with Bottas fending off an attacking Verstappen. But a series of safety cars and virtual safety cars kept resetting the pack, with the circuit seemingly forever on the verge of being ready for slicks, but not quite. Leclerc had used a VSC to pull back most of his early deficit and by lap 26 had jumped Verstappen and Bottas as Ferrari fitted him with a set of slicks with which to take the battle to Hamilton. The latter pitted for slicks a lap later and was just exiting the pits when Leclerc lost control on the still-wet final two turns, running out onto the ice rink-like run-off area and from there into the barriers. By now it had begun raining again and under the Leclerc safety car Hamilton could get no heat into his slicks – and he lost it at much the same place as Leclerc, but managed just to glance the barriers and keep enough momentum to crawl to the pits for a new wing and a change back to intermediates.
The team, which had been expecting Bottas, had the wrong tyres ready and the new nosecone was in the back of the garage. So it was a disastrously slow stop by the costumed crew. Hamilton blamed himself for not having insisted on inters earlier, as he could see the black cloud arriving. That was where Mercedes lost the race and, with Leclerc not around, it all played beautifully for Red Bull and Verstappen, who were on the way to a second victory in three GPs.
Everything thus rested on Bottas. The car was super-difficult in the damp and slow on the straights
Merc’s problems just compounded in the way the safety cars and VSCs did not dovetail with its strategy calls, Hamilton falling near the back after taking a 5sec penalty for missing the pit entry bollard as he crawled back, and losing more time with a Turn One spin. Everything thus rested on Bottas. The car was super-difficult in the damp and slow on the straights. Eventually he too lost control at Turn One – and hit the barriers hard. Perhaps the celebrations were a distraction to the team. Vettel, meanwhile, from last on the grid, finished second, going some way to atoning for crashing out of the lead here last year. Daniil Kvyat gambled on an early switch to slicks to record Toro Rosso’s first podium since Vettel won the 2008 Italian GP, with Lance Stroll doing the same to take fourth for Racing Point. Alex Albon’s Toro Rosso was a superb sixth – the rookie having impressed hugely by running fourth in his first F1 drive in the wet.
A week later, the Hungaroring changed the emphasis from power to downforce – to leave it a straight Mercedes vs Verstappen fight. And a fight for the ages it was. As Verstappen recorded his first F1 pole – and Honda’s first since 2006 – and Bottas was taken out of contention by a first lap wing-damaging hit from Leclerc, so the race distilled down to Verstappen vs Hamilton, the young pretender leading the king of the pride, leaving the others behind.
Hamilton prodded and pushed, forcing Verstappen to go harder than ideal for the tyres in order to keep out of DRS range. Red Bull pitted its man as soon as he had enough of a gap to rejoin without getting snagged in the Ferraris. So, Mercedes left Hamilton out longer, to give him newer tyres than Verstappen when he rejoined, 5sec behind. The Mercedes race pace was revealed for the first time as Hamilton unleashed everything to slash that gap down to almost nothing within two laps. Game on.
A dizzying dice then ensued as they fought their way through backmarkers, tyre deg and – in Hamilton’s case – brake temperatures. Hamilton, with his electrical systems fully armed, used his faster exit out of Turns Two and Three to devour the Red Bull up the hill towards the sixth-gear blind exit of Turn Four – and went for a move around the outside there. But as Verstappen held his line and Hamilton was forced to bail out over the run-off area, so it seemed the Red Bull driver had prevailed during the crisis moment, as Hamilton was forced back into brake temperature control mode.
But so big was their lead over all the others it allowed Mercedes an option: an extra stop for tyres that would be 23 laps newer than Verstappen’s, with 22 laps to run. Hamilton was far from convinced but complied and rejoined 19sec behind. Hamilton’s pace as he caught up forced Verstappen to ask for more than his tyres could give. Seven laps from the end Verstappen declared his tyres dead. Four laps later Hamilton passed for his seventh victory around the Hungaroring.
Regardless of getting back on its victory juggernaut, Mercedes entered the summer break under no illusions about the potential threat of the resurgent Red Bull, even if its engine supplier first appeared in the sport only 55 years ago.
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