MPH: Valtteri Bottas had the pace... but no hope of Eifel GP victory


Valtteri Bottas should have been favourite to win the Eifel GP at the Nürburgring. But pressure from Hamilton and an error meant he had no chance, writes Mark Hughes - even without his power unit problems

Close up of Valtteri Bottas in his Mercedes during the 2020 F1 Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

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The route to Hamilton’s Schumacher-equalling 91st victory wasn’t as swashbuckling as he’d perhaps have chosen. It relied upon a single error and a subsequent series of misfortunes for his only opposition, team-mate Valtteri Bottas who set pole position and won the tussle between them through the first couple of corners. But Hamilton played his part in forcing that error at a chilly, sometimes damp, Nürburgring.

Bottas’ woes

Things had begun so well for Bottas, who invariably shines on a low grip surface, which the Nürburgring in October certainly was. On the Friday it was foggy too, so much so that the two practice sessions couldn’t happen. Saturday’s one-hour FP3 effectively became FP1 and Bottas headed the times, a trick he repeated in the final Q3 runs of qualifying, shading Hamilton and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by a couple of tenths.

This was the closest Red Bull had been to Mercedes in qualifying all season at 100.23 per cent of pole and although the understeer Verstappen was suffering – and which he’d not had the practice time to dial out – denied him a shot at pole, he was nonetheless quite excited about what that understeer represented. It meant that the subtle aero upgrades on the RB16 here had cured its unstable rear end.

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Aside from winning the start, among the key challenges for Bottas was going to be controlling the expected tyre graining. The long corners and cool temperatures were sure to induce it. The graining was potentially going to increase the wear rate of the left-front and limit how long you could make your first stint, giving you real problems getting through on the faster one-stop strategy. One of the core skills of Hamilton is his ability to combine pace with giving the tyres an easy time. It’s the key skill required of any driver in this era of F1 and the area that Bottas targeted pre-season for where he most needed to improve.

But actually the temperatures on Sunday, whilst low enough to have drivers complaining of numb fingers and toes, were not as low as forecast. With the sun peeping through the clouds, the track temperature was up to 15C. Good news for Bottas. Hamilton winning the drag race off the startline and claiming the inside for Turn One was a potential problem, but Bottas hung on around the outside of the right-hander, the two black Mercedes’ perilously close to touching as they understeered way off circuit, but Bottas maintaining momentum enough to still be alongside as they rejoined the track, thereby putting himself on the inside for the left-hander that follows. Now it was Hamilton hanging on around the outside and as he tried to get the power down, so the car snapped out of line, losing him enough momentum to allow Bottas to escape.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas battle for the lead of the 2020 F1 Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurbirgring

Hamilton was ahead after Turn One, but Bottas came back on the inside at the next corner

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Even with the aid of DRS, the Nürburgring isn’t conducive to overtaking and Hamilton’s most feasible route to victory as Bottas set quite a hot early pace was to try for a tyre offset in the second stint. So he backed himself out of the turbulence of Bottas’ car, just enough to keep Verstappen off his back.

The one-stop strategy was calculated as faster by around 5sec over a race distance than a two-stop. But for that to be so required a first stint of at least 20 laps, preferably more. So after a dozen laps or so, Hamilton – having nursed his rubber carefully – began to apply a bit of pressure to his team-mate. Bottas responded, keen to keep Hamilton out of DRS range. There was a little bit of drizzle falling at the first turn and Bottas locked up there going into the 13th lap. He’d badly flat-spotted his right-front and lost the lead. He headed to the pits for replacements, now locked into a two-stop race.

Valtteri Bottas locks up at the Nurbirgring during the 2020 f1 Eifel Grand Prix

Lock-up by Bottas released Hamilton, and his day would get worse


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But if he could make up that theoretical 5sec by being able to push harder on his shorter stints than Hamilton on his one-stop, all might not have been lost. At least, that’s what he was reasoning. But that plan fell into tatters three laps later when a Virtual Safety Car (to clear the damaged Williams of George Russell, who’d been assaulted by the most experienced F1 driver of all time, Kimi Räikkönen) allowed Hamilton and Verstappen to pit with a much reduced time loss compared to a stop with the field at racing speed. They’d each just gained 11sec on Bottas right there and the victory chance was now gone.

As it happened, if it hadn’t have been that, it would have been something else – Bottas’ MGU-H, actually, which ceased to operate shortly after, obliging Mercedes to retire the car. So the waters parted for Hamilton’s record-equalling feat. It wasn’t quite a perfect day for Hamilton as Verstappen snatched the point for the race’s fastest lap on the very last lap of the race, but the Red Bull was never a threat to the outcome. Not even on the restart after a late safety car.

Valtteri Bottas is pushed into his pit garage to retire during the 2020 F1 Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Bottas is pushed into retirement

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Bottas was there to see Hamilton receive one of Michael Schumacher’s helmets from the German legend’s son Mick in a very touching gesture.

Best of the Rest

The late safety car to attend to Lando Norris’s broken-down McLaren saw most of the field dive into the pits for unscheduled second stops. Which got third place Daniel Ricciardo off the hook from the newer-tyred attacked he’d been under from Sergio Perez’s Racing Point. This was Ricciardo’s first podium with Renault and reflects the very real progress the team has made with the car since Silverstone. But without the safety car it would still have been almost a lap down on the winner.

Perez’s fourth place puts the uncontracted-for-‘21 Mexican into fifth place in the championship. But that’s a status he shares with the leader of the championship… that’s right: the equal-most successful driver of all time still has no contract for next year.