Having been beaten in qualifying by team-mate Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton had his own private strategy of how he wasn’t going to let that happen in the race. Mercedes knew nothing of it – but it was based on how practice had suggested this was going to be a two-stop race for everyone and Hamilton’s confidence that this wasn’t necessarily so.
Bottas bought into the pre-race team plan of a nailed-on two-stop. Hamilton did not. His hunch was right. He had a better feel for the reality than the engineers analysing all the collected data.
On race day he ran Bottas ragged right from the start. Bottas retaliated with some spirit but in doing so ran his front-left tyre far harder than was ideal. Hamilton’s style just doesn’t take as much from the tyre – he has a way of keeping the momentum up with less steering.
Out on track, you will often see him just letting the car breathe out wide at places where Bottas is insisting it turn exactly where he places it. Hamilton’s more freewheeling style can allow him that trick – on certain combinations of track and conditions – of being faster and using less rubber. This was one of those days and Hamilton made devastating use of it.
He won this not only on cunning, but on scintillating race day performance.
Valtteri Bottas, as usual with a contract only until the end of the season, could hardly have timed it better, stealing pole from home hero Lewis Hamilton by six milliseconds just as the paddock was abuzz with the idea of Max Verstappen potentially being on the 2020 driver market.
It was a tricky, variable session with gusting winds changing direction and a falling track temperature. Quite a few actually did their fastest times in Q1. Mercedes, in particular, was on the knife-edge of balance, with a baseline set-up that prioritised tyre usage for race day, but which made for a slightly unstable rear. It contributed towards the team’s margin over the rest being less than usual – as can be appreciated from the graph below, showing that the entire field gained on Mercedes.
As a generality, the Silverstone layout is no longer particularly friendly to Mercedes’ downforce advantage given that so many of the faster corners are now flat for everyone. Whereas Barcelona or Paul Ricard heavily reward that downforce advantage over Ferrari, here it only clawed back in the slow corners what it was losing to the Ferrari’s lower drag and higher power on the straights – and only just, given its tricky balance. Third-quickest Charles Leclerc got his Ferrari to within 0.079sec of pole.
On his first Q3 run, Hamilton got out of shape over the Brooklands exit kerb, losing him over 0.3sec to Bottas. Valtteri felt there was still lap time on the table for the lap that stood as provisional pole and attacked on his final lap. Perhaps it was the wind’s capricious tricks, but he couldn’t find that time and so had to hope that Hamilton (or Leclerc) wouldn’t either. On Hamilton’s last run, he was marginally slower in both sectors one and two than Bottas’ provisional pole – but took a chunk out of him in the final sector to get within six thousandths over the lap. Close but no cigar. Career pole number 10 for Bottas.
Bottas had done an extra lap in Q2, Hamilton hadn’t and in hindsight felt that maybe he should’ve done in order to get a better feeling for the car. They’d both completed Q2 on the medium tyre, as had Red Bull.
Ferrari however, had surprisingly opted for the soft tyre, just as in Austria. Friday afternoon had shown the car to be struggling to prevent the front left soft from graining badly after only a few laps. But the medium wasn’t much better. Others were also finding very little difference between the two compounds in the track’s new surface. So the logic was to use the softs for their greater startline performance, in the knowledge that they were probably going to be out-qualified. There seemed little downside risk.
Leclerc was in a much happier place with the car’s balance than Sebastian Vettel and put together a terrific lap to get that third-quickest time. “No, I don’t think I left anything on the table,” he said afterwards.
Vettel was over 0.6sec adrift of Leclerc and back in sixth. “I struggled to get the most out of the car,” he said, “I just couldn’t get a feel for it and I wasn’t happy with how it went. Lately, we have been clearly struggling on one lap pace.”
The Ferraris were split by the Red Bulls, fourth-fastest Verstappen 0.3sec ahead of Pierre Gasly. The RB15 is on a productive improvement curve since the new front wing went on in Austria – and now Gasly had it too. Verstappen reckoned it could have been better than this too. “We made improvements for qualifying, the car was great and we really found a good set-up. Unfortunately, I had a problem with lag and out of the low speed corners I was losing time. When you look at how close we are to pole position [less than 0.2sec] then the result is bittersweet as I think we could have fought for pole if everything had been perfect.”
Gasly looked in much better shape than two weeks ago. “He’s turned a page,” said Christian Horner. “You can see from his first session today that his approach is different. He is much more confident in himself and the car, and this track is all about confidence.”
Bottas secured pole by six milliseconds
Renault also bounced back from a difficult Austria and Daniel Ricciardo qualified best of the rest – very narrowly over Lando Norris’ now identically-powered McLaren (Norris having received the upgraded motor for the first time). Had Norris been able to repeat his Q1 time, he’d have edged the Renault out of seventh. That’s how closely matched over the lap they were but the time was coming in a very different way, the Renault significantly quicker through the speed traps but losing time to the McLaren in the slower corners.
Their respective team-mates were less happy. Nico Hülkenberg made Q3 in the other Renault but could do no better than 10th there, a quarter-second off Ricciardo. “I couldn’t find the balance between front and rear all weekend and that continued in qualifying. You need confidence in the car here and that wasn’t all there today.” Carlos Sainz didn’t get out of Q2, lining up only 13th, 0.2sec off Norris in that session. His chosen set up began well but became ever-more oversteery as the session went on and conditions changed.
Alex Albon did a great job getting the Toro Rosso into Q3 and produced a great lap on his single run there to shade Hülkenberg, only 0.15sec off Norris. “Pleased with that!” he beamed. “The balance just got better and better.” By contrast, Daniil Kvyat just had no confidence in the feel of his car and went out in Q1, 0.3sec adrift of Albon. Confidence through such devastatingly fast corners was a big differentiator this weekend.
Neither Alfa made it past Q2, Antonio Giovinazzi just shading Kimi Räikkönen. The Alfas were running a major aero upgrade, with a McLaren-like profiling of the front wing, changes to the barge boards and the fashionable cape at the back of the nose.
Haas was conducting an experiment here by running Romain Grosjean in a Melbourne-spec standard car, with Kevin Magnussen in the car with all the season’s developments upon it. Grosjean’s proved faster, as he made it through to Q2 and went 14th, with Magnussen going out in Q1, 16th, having run wide at Woodcote on his crucial last run. But the comparison was less than conclusive. Grosjean felt there was Q3 potential in his car but found his second run over 1sec off his first for reasons he didn’t understand. Magnussen was facing similar tyre dilemmas. Grosjean felt that the old car was better balanced than the new even though the latter was generating more load.
Racing Point struggled around here, with Sergio Perez only just scraping into Q2 and going 15th, around 0.1sec faster than 18th-fastest Lance Stroll. The car seemed particularly sensitive to the gusty winds and neither driver could put their best sectors together as a result. The Williams featured its first significant aero upgrades of the season, with an extensively reworked barge board area. Although George Russell and Robert Kubica remained at the back (with 0.4sec between them), it was the closest to the pace it’s been all season.
Bottas leads at the start
Silverstone as she’s been so many times before, filled to the rafters, Union Jacks and Hamilton flags fluttering in a strong overcast breeze.
Hamilton had a plan. The Mercedes team had a plan. But they weren’t the same plan.
Mercedes – just like everyone else – was convinced this was going to be a two-stop race based on the wear of the left-front seen on the Friday long-runs, on both softs and mediums. At the race morning meeting it had been decided that the two drivers could choose an offset strategy. Or rather, whoever was in second place would get the option of running longer if he’d managed to keep his tyres in better shape – and thereby get the benefit of newer tyres in the second and third stints.
After a medium-tyred long-run simulation on Friday that was devastatingly better than anyone else’s (including Bottas’), Hamilton reckoned he had better race pace and way better tyre management. He was not at all as convinced as his team that this was a two-stop race.
He was pretty sure he could make it into a one-stop. But didn’t make a big thing of it. In the full knowledge that Bottas had bought into the two-stop plan and that the fastest way to run a two-stop was medium/medium/soft. Therefore Bottas would be committed to that two-stop as soon as his first set of mediums were replaced by another (as at least two different compounds must be used). All Hamilton had to do was stay in touch, keep his tyres in good enough shape to run longer – and then ask for the hard. Giving him the opportunity to one-stop, with Bottas trapped into a two. It was audacious, but he was backing his own ability.
Hamilton slipstreamed Bottas down Wellington Straight, forcing him to get defensive. He was putting his private strategy into play
But Hamilton’s plan wasn’t just to try to do one stop less than Bottas. He’d decided he was going to run fast right from the start. “We were supposed to save the tyres at the start,” he related. “But I went flat out. Because I had the best long run on Friday. So risked it all, took them by surprise.” And forced Bottas into using his tyres even harder.
He got a better launch off the line than Bottas but the latter was uncompromising in his chop across the other Mercedes’ bows and stayed ahead as they all surged through Abbey towards Village. Leclerc retained his third place from Verstappen and Vettel, the latter having made a flyer off the grid to scythe straight past Gasly. Behind them, Norris was determined to pass Ricciardo immediately, given the Renault’s better straightline performance and forged ahead side-by-side through there and the following kink. He actually got ahead of Gasly down the inside into Village but in having to back off to avoid the back of Vettel, allowed Gasly – after a bit of a wheel bang with the McLaren – to hang on around the outside and get back ahead.
Hülkenberg was right up with team-mate Ricciardo, then Albon, Sainz, Giovinazzi and Räikkönen, Kimi going ahead of his team mate around the outside of the loop and onto Wellington Straight. Unbelievably, the two Haas’ made contact on the first lap, just as last year – this time as Magnussen attempted to do to Grosjean what Räikkönen had just done to Giovinazzi. Grosjean didn’t budge and the resultant bump damaged both cars and punctured Magnussen’s tyre. They’d be in the pits at the end of the lap and would subsequently be retired. One can only imagine the vocabulary of Gunther Steiner. This promoted Perez, Stroll, Kvyat, Russell and Kubica.
The wheels fell off the Haas challenge on lap one
Hamilton slipstreamed Bottas down Wellington Straight, forcing him to get defensive. Hamilton was putting his private strategy into play – and he’d continue to press Bottas for the next few laps. This dicing was allowing Leclerc and the closely-following Verstappen to stay in touch, with Gasly not far back either. The lead group soon established a handy and growing margin over the Norris-led Class B, his fight with Ricciardo continuing.
As DRS was enabled on the third lap, Hamilton began giving Bottas an even harder time. Inside the car, Bottas was surprised by Hamilton’s early pace. It went against the pre-race discussion that morning. Defending into Stowe put Bottas on a compromised line on the run up to Vale – and he had to defend even harder there. A lap later, Hamilton used the DRS down Wellington Straight to again overlap the other Mercedes into Brooklands, but this time lined himself up to pass into the following Luffield. The crowd was still screaming its appreciation of that move as Bottas retaliated, swooping to Hamilton’s inside as they approached Copse flat-out and refusing to back out of it as they got side-by-side. Hamilton was obliged to concede.
Not far behind them Verstappen was giving Leclerc a similarly hard time, but never with quite enough straightline speed to make his moves stick.
What was happening here? Why were the cars able to follow closely and race wheel-to-wheel through such fast corners? The answer was that the tyres were slightly under-temperature with a track temperature of just 28-deg C. Which meant they were not overheating when you sat behind the car in front. But where was the aerodynamic forcefield that normally loses you 50% of your downforce once you’re within couple of car lengths? In this, the massive downforce of this generation of car dovetailed fantastically well with the track’s layout. Corners such as Copse, Maggotts, Chapel and Abbey are so easily flat you can afford to lose some downforce and still be right there. Especially with your tyres not overheating. It was a happy confluence that together with some relaxed race stewarding that allowed the drivers to take full advantage of this, was to make for some fantastic racing.
Hamilton kept pushing Bottas, rarely giving him respite for more than a lap as he occasionally cooled down the car from running in the slipstream. Verstappen meanwhile was having his chance of joining the Mercedes pair frustrated by the lesser pace of Leclerc’s Ferrari.
But it was fast in all the right places to keep it ahead and Charles was not in a mood to concede a solitary inch of track space to his Austria adversary. From around the ninth lap, with both Mercedes now escaping, Verstappen began to get more adventurous, taking a look at the Ferrari at Stowe and following it a lap later with a move at Brooklands that looked like sticking, until running out of grip into Luffield, allowing Leclerc to chop across his bows to retain the place.
Vettel and Gasly were just a little behind and on the 12th lap Gasly launched one down the inside of the Ferrari into Village. But actually, unbeknown to Ferrari this was his in-lap. Ferrari was forced to pit Leclerc in response – and Verstappen followed him in, almost touching the Ferrari. The Red Bull stop was slightly faster, which got their man out slightly ahead of Leclerc as they went down the pit-lane side-by-side, now both on fresh mediums. As Verstappen had started on the same compound, this confirmed he’d be stopping twice. Leclerc, having started on softs, wasn’t obliged to stop again but the range of the mediums was only reckoned to be about 30 laps – and there were 39 to go. Realistically, they were both stopping again.
Verstappen only just leapfrogged Leclerc in the pits
Around the loop after Village, Verstappen’s front tyres just weren’t up to temperature and as he understeered wide over the kerb, so Leclerc was able to nip back ahead. This all brought Vettel up to third place. With Ferrari forced to respond with Leclerc to Gasly’s stop, Vettel had already lost the place – and so stayed out, hoping to get the benefit of the fresh tyre offset in later stints.
At the head of ‘Class B’ Norris and Ricciardo’s dice was as close as that at the front. Renault tried for the undercut with Ricciardo on the 12th lap. McLaren responded a lap later, but Ricciardo’s out-lap pace had been enough to get him ahead. Just behind them, Albon had just passed Hülkenberg for 10th before they each pitted – with the Toro Rosso managing to stay ahead afterwards but on the medium (he’d started on the soft) in contrast to the hard of Hülkenberg. Just like Gasly, Hulk was reckoning on trying to get to the end without another stop. The hard might just about be able to do this. It was beginning to become apparent that actually, this might not be a nailed-on two-stop at all. But virtually no-one had tried the hard on Friday – so it was a jump into the unknown. Gasly and Hülkenberg would soon be showing that actually, its pace was fine.
Bottas was still fending off Hamilton and now his front-left was suffering. But he’d got plenty of gap over Leclerc to drop into – and so was brought in at the end of the 16th lap. Hindsight says he and his team should really have fitted him with hards at this point- so at least he’d have the option of doing a one-stop if it proved feasible. But the team was still wedded to the idea of a two. It didn’t want to risk a one when there was no apparent need to. With Verstappen – the only one who might have been able to put pressure on them – having spent a whole stint failing to get past the slower car of Leclerc, they comfortably had the pace to do the no-risk two-stop. On Friday they’d noted that Leclerc had taken his front left right down to the canvas. It had been about to burst. That was the sort of disaster they believed they were courting if they attempted to one-stop. There was no need. They were even more convinced of this when they inspected the tyres that had just come off Bottas’ car: there was zero tread left on the left-front after just 16 laps.
And yet… here was Hamilton still running a really strong pace. As had been agreed in the morning meeting, as the second car, if his tyres felt up to it, he could run longer and aim to get as much of a tyre offset as possible into the subsequent stints. In fact, Bottas’ first flying lap on his new mediums wasn’t quite as quick as Hamilton was doing on his now 17-lap old mediums. “Valtteri came out of the pits 0.7sec inside my window,” recalled Hamilton. “It crept up to 1.5sec then 2sec. If I’d done another lap maybe it would have crept out to 2.5sec. I wanted to go as long as possible – and I told them I wanted the hard tyre when I stopped.”
Verstappen was still attacking Leclerc hard. On the 19th lap he got a good DRS tow down Hangar Straight and moved to the inside for Stowe. Still flat-out on the straight, Leclerc moved across, but gave him a car’s width. Verstappen actually got ahead momentarily but was going too fast at too acute an angle to have kept in front and so surrendered the entry to Leclerc.
Then on lap 20 – just as Hamilton was figuring he might get two more laps from his old tyres — Giovinazzi dropped his Alfa into Vale, turning in with the right-rear on a white line and spinning broadside straight into the gravel trap where it beached. The safety car was deployed – just as Hamilton was approaching Abbey. For him, the timing could not have been more perfect. He could pit now with the pack at the safety car delta speed and save about 10sec loss to the pack compared to a normal stop. In he came, on went the hards. Out he came – leading the race ahead of Bottas who was still obliged to stop again. The safety car had definitively changed the race to the one-stop Hamilton had long suspected it was going to be anyway. Even if the hards turned out not to be up to it and he had also to two-stop, he was confident he had the pace to get ahead of his team-mate.
Safety car timing was bad luck for Bottas
This was bad timing for Verstappen and Leclerc who’d not long ago committed to two-stop tyre choices. But it was great news for Vettel, who like Hamilton, got a stop almost free and rejoined on hards now ahead of Gasly once more. Verstappen and Leclerc came in for hards so as to get to the end, thereby dropping behind Vettel and Gasly. Leclerc had to wait for Vettel and that delay put him behind Verstappen. The safety car also worked a treat for Carlos Sainz, who hadn’t yet stopped and so was able to leapfrog past Norris and Ricciardo to take the ‘class lead’. Renault chose to stop Ricciardo for a second time under the safety car to get him onto the hards. Norris by contrast remained on mediums and was thereby doomed to have to stop again later without the time saving – the same situation as faced by Albon further back. Räikkönen had got onto the hards just before the safety car and as the pack lined up behind it, the order was Hamilton, Bottas, Vettel, Gasly, Verstappen, Leclerc, Sainz, Norris, Albon, Hülkenberg, Ricciardo, Perez, Räikkönen, Stroll, Kvyat, Russell and Kubica.
As racing resumed at the end of the 23rd lap, Hamilton made a break for it from Stowe, pulling comfortably out of Bottas’ reach. He would go on to pull out a few seconds’ worth of gap over Bottas despite being on older tyres of a slower compound – and in this way ensured he could beat Bottas regardless of one or two stops. Ricciardo on his fresh tyres was immediately past team-mate Hülkenberg who came under attack into Brooklands from Perez, who got his front wing crushed by Hulk’s rear tyre as a consequence, forcing him to the pits and out of any contention.
On the 25th lap Leclerc went for Verstappen’s outside at Vale, Verstappen sitting it out as the inside becomes the outside through the right-handed part. They exited Club with Verstappen now on the outside, neither conceding ground, the Red Bull running way over onto the run-off, Leclerc getting all four wheels off too. Verstappen remained ahead. The stewards (with Tonio Liuzzi the driver steward this time) didn’t even choose to investigate it.
A couple of laps later Gasly moved aside for Verstappen into Stowe under team instructions and Max set about catching Vettel – at around half-a-second per lap. Leclerc in turn trained his targets on Gasly. He passed him with a clinical move around the outside of Village on the 36th lap. But Verstappen was now 4sec up the road and pulling out 0.4sec on him.
The Mercedes were lapping at a similar pace to Verstappen, which meant that they’d soon have enough time over Vettel’s third place to be able to make their second stops. Verstappen was right with Vettel by the 36th lap and, helped by DRS down Hangar straight, made a great around the outside pass into Stowe. It ran him a little wide over the exit kerbs, meaning he was a little compromised down the short run to Vale. He covered the inside, but not totally. Vettel thought there was an opportunity but no sooner had he moved there than he realised the door was closing. Too late, he tried to swoop to the other side. As his front wing lost downforce, so he locked up and hit the back of the Red Bull hard – sending it into the gravel.