As Lewis Hamilton went out for his final qualifying run at Silverstone, the message over the radio was firm: ‘Don’t over-drive!’
On his previous run he had done just that, and had run off the road, and into a spin. The lurid tail-out style was wonderful to watch, but Lewis looked like a driver on the edge, and although his last lap was better, it was good only for fourth on the grid. His McLaren-Mercedes team mate Heikki Kovalainen, meantime, eclipsed everyone, and took the first pole position of his Formula 1 career.
Therefore, the omens for Hamilton’s British Grand Prix were not the best. Since winning at Monaco he had scored not a championship point, and on top of that there were suggestions that a relentless PR schedule, plus an active social schedule, were having an adverse effect on his driving. While other drivers slapped Kovalainen on the back after qualifying, Lewis started vacantly into space, as if in a trance.
Twenty-four hours on, his world was looking rather better. If rain had merely threatened on Saturday, on race day it arrived, and inevitably one thought back to Fuji last autumn, when conditions were truly appalling, and Lewis faultlessly left everyone behind.
At Silverstone he did the same again, giving notice on intent right from the off. Both Mark Webber (a stunning front row qualifier for Red Bull) and Kimi Räikkönen were dispensed with before Copse, and as he turned into the corner Lewis showed every sign of wishing to snatch the lead from Kovalainen.
Heikki is no patsy, however, and made the most of a better line in. Momentarily the two McLarens touched, but no damage was done, and as they went away towards Becketts it was Kovalainen-Hamilton.
Although it wasn’t actually raining at the start of the race, the track surface was mighty treacherous – as Webber unfortunately proved: “I just dropped it at Becketts on the first lap. I was running close to Kimi, got on the white line, and that was it.” Having started second, Mark was now at the back, and although thereafter he drove a fine race 10th was where he finished.
All told, it was a disastrous race for the Red Bull and Toro Rosso teams. Within a minute of Webber’s spin, David Coulthard – taking part in his last British Grand Prix – had a touch with Sebastian Vettel, and both slid into a gravel trap from which there was no way back.
Although Kovalainen led Hamilton by over a second at the end of the first lap, Lewis was soon on his tail, and on lap five took the lead, which he proceeded to extend by three- or four-tenths a lap. Heikki appeared able to contain Raikkonen, but on lap 10 he spun, which elevated the Ferrari to second place.
By now the track was drying significantly, and it wasn’t long before Raikkonen began to catch Hamilton, and at quite a rate. Both made their first stops at the end of lap 21, and they were pretty much nose to tail when they came in.
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In fact, it was at this moment that the outcome of the race was settled, for while McLaren put a new set of Bridgestone intermediates on Lewis’s car, Ferrari opted to leave Kimi on his original set.
It was a throw of the dice, and it could have gone either way. Had the track continued to dry out, Räikkönen would have been in the pound seats with his nicely worn inters, but within a lap it was raining again, and suddenly semi-slicks were emphatically not the thing to have. As the track glistened Hamilton pulled away, to the tune of five and six seconds a lap, and soon Nick Heidfeld’sBMW – also on new intermediates – passed the hobbled Ferrari, as did the recovering Kovalainen. In no time at all the rain stopped, but Kimi’s bolt was shot for the day.
“I’m disappointed,” he said afterwards, “but equally I’m aware that things could have been much worse.” And it was true, for he did finish up with some decent points, which was more than could be said of his team mate. Felipe Massa won in France two weeks ago, but at Silverstone a wheel problem in the pits robbed him of the chance of a final quick lap in the dying seconds of qualifying, which meant that he started only ninth. Not the end of the world in itself on a day like this, when anything was possible, but on the opening lap Massa had the first of five spins, and made absolutely no impression. Altogether it was an atrocious performance by a man who arrived in Britain as the World Championship leader.
An hour into the race it began to rain again, hard, and now there were spins left, right and centre, some drivers surviving, while others – Piquet, Button and, significantly, Kubica – climbed from cars beached in gravel traps.
After the race Heidfeld talked about the importance of being on the right tyre at the right time, and Rubens Barrichello provided overwhelming proof of that. Given that he was driving a Honda, Barrichello’s prospects for the British Grand Prix would ordinarily not have been too wonderful, and he qualified only 16th. But Silverstone is a circuit Rubens adores, and he has always excelled in the wet. On lap 35 he made an important decision.
“When it started to rain again, I had a big moment at Club, almost hit the wall, and realised I had to make a quick decision. On the radio I told them I was coming in – and I wanted ‘extreme’ wets.”
It was an inspired decision. Barrichello had anyway been running well, in sixth place, but now his Honda was suddenly the quickest car on the track – quicker even than Hamilton’s vanishing McLaren. “My biggest problem,” Rubens said, “was to be patient. I could overtake inside, outside, everywhere, and when you’re so much faster than anyone else, it’s very easy to misjudge something, and have an accident.”
Effortlessly he picked them off – Räikkönen, Kovalainen, Alonso, Trulli, Heidfeld – and by lap 43 was up second place. But Barrichello’s last pit stop, three laps later, was slowed by a fuel rig problem, and he dropped to third place, which is where he finished.
Rubens, as Martin Brundle says, is ‘a proper bloke’, and there was much delight at this, his first podium since leaving Ferrari for Honda at the end of 2005.
The quiet Heidfeld, so easy to underrate and overlook, drove a great race, devoid of mistakes, for BMW, but in the end there was only one real story at Silverstone. By comparison with his debut season in 2007, Lewis Hamilton has had a patchy time of it thus far this year, and many had begun to question whether or not his career was being directed – and that’s the word for it – in the right way. Maybe at Hockenheim, in a couple of weeks, he will have another of his disappointing days, but this drive at Silverstone, before a home crowd, was not less than a masterpiece.
“This was,” he said, “the toughest race I have ever had, but also one of the best I’ve ever driven – it was so extreme and slippery out there. Of course I always thank the team, but today I really need to, because my stops were perfect, and they always made the right decisions about tyre choice in the changing conditions. When I came round the last time I saw the crowd standing up, and I prayed, ‘Just finish, just finish…’”