Cooling issues cost Mercedes here a year ago, and it was cooling issues for another team that then undermined the defending champions’ race. Fighting with Esteban Ocon outside the points, Kevin Magnussen went straight on at Turn Three with a brake problem caused by over-aggressive cooling, and the safety car came out.
Slightly strangely, the whole field opted for a similar strategy and headed to the pits. The data showed a one-stop was clearly the way to go in the heat, and everyone except Sergio Perez switched to hard tyres. Again, just a single anomaly to watch out for in an otherwise underwhelming scenario.
At least Hamilton was now on Bottas’ gearbox, and with the same tyres at the same stage of their life.
“The first stint was not that bad because I had a decent gap, I could control and make sure we’d make it to the target stop lap,” Bottas said. “I tried to do the right thing with the tyres and maintaining the car.
“In the second stint there was never, like, massive pressure, because I was up in front and we wanted to make really sure we made it to the end, but there was all these variables in the race.”
It might have made for more of a race at the front, but Hamilton wanted a different tyre to his team-mate in order to try and attack. Soon, Mercedes turned the power units down and started giving both drivers ever-more worrying messages about the state of the car, yet the pair continued to ease away from Albon behind.
Reliability looked like the only thing that would prevent a Mercedes one-two, and Bottas seemed to have matters under control as Hamilton never launched a serious attempt to overtake, but it was a different Mercedes power unit that then ensured the race ignited.
George Russell had been enjoying a competitive run – racing with the Alfa Romeos and Haas as Williams were in with an outside chance of points – when he pulled to the inside of Turn Four. By then he was the fifth retirement after Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll – the first three slowing and returning to their respective garages – and Magnussen, and it sparked safety car number two a little over 20 laps from the finish.
Red Bull gambled.
Albon was brought in for new soft tyres, while the Mercedes pair stayed out as they could have lost track position to Albon if the Red Bull hadn’t stopped. Clearly Mercedes felt the car was not in a state to race hard to the end.
So when Albon cleared Sergio Perez – struggling to make it to the end on those mediums – he was right behind the Mercedes pair as another safety car was deployed for Kimi Räikkönen’s three-wheeled Alfa. A cross-threaded wheel nut was to blame for the Finn losing his front right as he accelerated through the penultimate corner at the latest restart, and the smart money was now on a Red Bull win.
“When you are in the lead, getting one safety car after another… In the end I was, like, ‘again?!’,” Bottas admitted. “Because when you are in the lead you just want things to be constant and trouble-free.”
“I was on the edge. I thought if I give him as much space as I can give him, it was up to him if he wants to crash or not…”
With 10 laps remaining, Albon had to clear Hamilton first before attacking the leader, and knew he needed to make the most of his tyre advantage early. On the first lap after the restart, he went to the outside of Turn Four, where drivers have struggled to pass this weekend in various categories. The softer tyre meant he could carry great speed around the outside of Hamilton, but just as it appeared Albon had pulled off an epic move, the right rear of the Red Bull met the left front of the Mercedes and suddenly he was facing the wrong way, just as in Brazil last year.
“I really felt like we could’ve won that race,” Albon said. “Of course I think Mercedes had the outright pace today but the guys did a great job with strategy.
“Honestly when I did the pitstop I came out on track and didn’t know where I was. Then as soon as it all played out it looked really strong for us, and I knew basically they were on the hard tyres and the first five laps I was going to do the overtakes.
“I feel like this one, I wouldn’t say it hurts more but I felt like Brazil was a bit more 50/50. I felt like I did the move already. I was kind of already focused on Bottas in front. It was so late, the contact. I think Brazil was 50/50. For me [this race] was more.
“I think there’s always a risk of overtaking on the outside but I gave as much space as I really could, I was on the edge. I thought if I give him as much space as I can give him, it was up to him if he wants to crash or not…”
Hamilton received a five-second time penalty for the collision, and Bottas was home free. But all hell was breaking loose behind him.
When Russell retired, Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz all took on fresh mediums, but Perez stuck with his bold strategy to make a one-stop work. Then the field had to run through the pit lane due to a crane recovering Raikkonen’s car on the pit straight, and Perez was pinged for speeding, receiving a five-second time penalty of his own.
Leclerc pounced, passing Norris and then Perez despite a Ferrari that was severely lacking in top speed. With Perez struggling in fourth, Leclerc could use his fresh rubber to pull a gap and get within five seconds of Hamilton, but all eyes were on Norris in fifth on the road.
The McLaren was just over five seconds behind Hamilton and, after holding off a challenge from Sainz, there was a robust dive down the inside of Perez into Turn Three with a little over two laps remaining. It was a move that displayed the increasing confidence Norris now races with and shouldn’t be underestimated after Sebastian Vettel misjudged a similar move on Sainz earlier on and spun.
“I knew I had to get past [Perez], but at that point I still didn’t know about Lewis having the penalty either so I was happy to get past him in the first place and I had clean air which was good for me,” Norris said. “I could start putting down some decent laps and start catching Charles a little bit but he was still too far ahead to really catch.
“Then I got told Lewis had the five-second penalty and we used the rest of our engine modes and obviously I pushed it a little bit more in terms of track limits and using the kerbs.