That wasn’t necessarily a disastrous thing in itself, and so long as there was still plenty of tread gauge on the tyres, they still had reasonable grip. There wasn’t a lot of standing water, just patches of lesser or greater dampness and the latter could be used to keep the tyres cool. The front-right tyres did go through a graining phase, after which they’d be good again, having worn the upper surface away. But there was only so far you could take that before there would be no gauge rubber left. Still the track remained stubbornly damp, its fine-textured surface not allowing the water to drain away in its pores. After that front-right had stabilised, the right-rear would also need to be carefully nursed.
Hamilton got level with Perez on the back straight on lap 35, Perez sat it out in the braking zone on the inside and they diced through the following switchback turns onto the pit straight side-by-side, Hamilton actually ahead as they passed the start/finish line, but Perez grabbing the place back down the inside of the first turn. Again Hamilton seemed to be very aware of the necessity not to tangle, which would be potentially disastrous for his title campaign.
When to pit
It was becoming clear that with only 22 laps left the track wasn’t going to be ready for slicks any time soon but the inters were a long way past their best. Meantime, what that Perez/Hamilton dice had done was take Hamilton out of Verstappen’s pit stop window. This essentially created the cascade of the leading pit stops, with Verstappen coming in on lap 36, Mercedes responded with leader Bottas on the next lap, when Perez too was brought in. Again, no particular stress in this from Bottas’ commanding position: “Obviously Max stopping triggered us stopping,” he said, “but I think it was the right time. If I look at the whole race, I think that was the right point. It was not clear at any point if it’s going to be dry tyres or not at some point, so we needed to go pretty long in the first stint and it was good.”
Verstappen pitstop triggered most of the leaders to follow him in for fresh inters
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
But Leclerc – now leading – and Hamilton, up to fourth, stayed out. For them the decision was less clear-cut. Leclerc had done a great job in hanging onto to within a couple of seconds of Verstappen in a Ferrari with a lower downforce rear wing. It rotated into the corners much easier than the Red Bull and Leclerc was very much at ease with its slightly oversteery balance. The grippy track had given the Red Bull too much rear end with its big wing, but the team had been reluctant to trim it out because of the need to protect the tyres.
One-stop or non-stop
So now Leclerc was out front and the car still felt good. Bottas had rejoined around 13sec behind, with Verstappen a further 8sec or so back. The question posed itself: could Leclerc just stay out and try to hang on for the win?
It wasn’t such a crazy idea. Because those new inters on the cars of Bottas and Verstappen would need to be nursed when new and vulnerable, especially as the drizzle was now easing off and there was a dry line beginning to go down through Turn 8-9 and into the Turn 12 braking area. You couldn’t use all of the performance of the new tyre straight away, but needed to nurse it in for a few laps. Which meant it initially wasn’t really any faster than the worn rubber.
Leclerc tried to hang on to the lead with the tyres he started on
Hamilton was quite happy with his car’s balance too and was tracking Verstappen from only around 3sec behind. He wasn’t going to be catching and passing him but maybe, just maybe, he could stay on these tyres to the end.
But it was just an illusion. Once the fresh inters had been brought in, they were up to 2sec faster. Leclerc’s rears were the first to hit the canvas, giving him a few locked rear moments – and Bottas would soon be upon him.
Hamilton meanwhile was called in on lap 41 but he resisted. He was not at all convinced he needed to change. Mercedes acquiesced, assuming that Leclerc would stop and reasoning that if Hamilton could get the tyres to hang on he’d likely be third – and if the track did dry up enough for slicks, he might even steal a victory. It was a throw of the dice.
Bringing the tyres in
Bottas goes past Leclerc for the lead
Xavi Bonilla / DPPI
“Because the track was really grippy, I managed on the out lap to keep temperature instead of losing it,” said Bottas, “so actually it was OK and I just backed off a bit in places, not to destroy the tyres.
“When I was gaining to Charles, he was really quick on the parts that were a bit drier and I was quicker on the parts that were a bit wetter and just when I was closing onto him my tyres started to grain quite a bit, but I was still catching him and then obviously my tyres grained to the point that they were slicks again and then they were fine.”
Ugly look of tyres that stayed on from start to finish
Bottas retook the lead going into lap 46. Leclerc pitted a lap later, before Perez could get ahead, and rejoined fourth just ahead of the second Red Bull. Putting Hamilton third. But although the car felt balanced, it was no longer setting competitive times as the new-tyred cars came into their own. Not only did Bottas and Verstappen begin pulling away, but Gasly – who was only just over a pit stop’s-worth of gap behind – began lapping up to 2sec quicker. Hamilton was in no-man’s land now – and his rear tyre temperatures had dropped, indicating there was no gauge left on the rubber. Mercedes brought him in just before Gasly got into his pit stop window. The gamble had failed and he was distraught to realise he’d dropped two places when he rejoined.