Where to start when considering the amazing race in Hockenheim? We’ve had three increasingly spectacular and enjoyable GPs on the bounce now, for differing reasons.
Austria was all about the heat, Mercedes on their back foot, and the two young guns of Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen duking it out for victory.
Silverstone featured many high-speed battles and clashes with home hero Lewis Hamilton taking the glory.
Germany was all about the rain and race-defining incidents lap after lap, even corner after corner occasionally.
There were four full safety car deployments and two virtual safety cars to clear up the carnage, and the winner pitted five times for tyres in ever-changing conditions, along with a quick 360-degree spin for good measure.
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Verstappen has won two of the last three races, with the team confident that one of their best chances of victory this season is this weekend in Budapest. It was a doubly important day for Red Bull as it gives them an ever-better chance of keeping Verstappen into the future.
A great day too for Honda, with another victory, two drivers on the podium including the ecstatic Daniil Kvyat, whose first child was also born the night before. And three drivers in the top six with a fine drive from rookie Alex Albon in the sister Toro Rosso in his first wet F1 driving experience in sixth place.
Once again Ferrari had a chance to win their first race this year but it just wouldn’t fall the team’s way. Starting from 10th and 20th on the grid after qualifying reliability gremlins, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel immediately made up places.
Leclerc looked strong and benefited from some ace pit stops during safety car periods, but sadly he hit the same Mercedes-Benz sponsorship decals on the conveyer belt barrier just before Hamilton, although the Ferrari was beached for good.
Leclerc could comfortably have won three races by now but has yet to break his duck. Like so many other drivers in the race, when his eyes opened on Monday morning and his brain kicked in the pain would have contracted all through his body and ended up in a knot in his stomach.
It’s an awful feeling of what might have been. Leclerc had already had two off-track adventures in the same zone.
Vettel in the other Ferrari struggled for pace initially but when on slicks on a predominantly dry track in the closing stages he was absolutely flying and would seize second place having started last on the grid. It was an important race for Seb to shine.
Nico Hulkenberg, searching for his first podium in 167 starts, would be feeling much the same way as Leclerc after collecting the barrier further round the final pair of corners while running in the top four. He will be doubly angry with himself as he had the car back under control before picking up the throttle and losing it again.
The problem was that in the run-off area there is the tyre warming burn-out staging zone for the drag racing strip, with all the rubber and products involved in that process duly covered in a layer of water. It was like a skating rink. Kimi Raikkonen’s prodigious car control saved him in a similar scare and Carlos Sainz managed to reverse out after a heavy delay but still go on to finish a fine fifth.
It was a cruel day for the usually serene and well-oiled machine of Mercedes-Benz, in their home and title-sponsored race.
An early one-two after appalling starts from the Red Bulls turned into Valtteri Bottas’s car heavily contacting the barriers at turn one, and an unwell Lewis Hamilton running last for a while before claiming ninth after both Alfa Romeos were penalised 30 seconds for a technical breach regarding their clutch operation off the startline, which they say they will appeal.
Hamilton’s pit stop fresh from the trip into barrier in the penultimate corner caught the team by surprise. Unable to jack the car up at the front because the front wing needed changing, a surprised group of people had to get organised, find a new nose and front wing, and also source some suitable tyres for the conditions.
This took rather a long while as you might expect, and the chaotic image was not helped by the fact that the team were celebrating 125 years of motorsport and Mercedes’ first victory in 1954 by being dressed ’50s style. That’s a shame because I thought the attire was a nice touch and a little bit of showbiz F1 should deliver along the way.
In entering the pits Hamilton couldn’t pass the correct side of the bollard which defines the final pit-lane entry point. His options were to ignore that rule and drive across the grass as he did, momentarily drive against the flow of race traffic to swing round the bollard which, of course, would have been crazy, or limp round the track with his damage and any potential puncture.
Rules are rules but it was harsh as he did the only smart thing from where he found himself geographically.
The subsequent five-second penalty further compromised him as the team stayed out not wanting to serve the penalty with the safety car deployed yet again and lose track position, and he was left with very worn tyres at one stage despite ultimately stopping six times.
If it could go wrong it did go wrong for Merc.
It was the day of the underdogs, as often happens in such conditions. Kvyat and Lance Stroll took on their last set of slick tyres at the perfect time and leapfrogged many cars.
Stroll led over the line at one point in his nicely updated Racing Point, and would go on to score a fine fourth place with the podium tantalisingly close. In F1 these days, David can only beat Goliath when there’s changeable weather conditions, and ‘David’ can take a few chances on strategy and show his skills too.
It was rather frustrating to see the race start behind the Safety Car. The latest regulations allow for the cars to trundle round as the best way to disperse water before thankfully lining up and performing a normal start with a suitably reduced number of race laps.
As always when you’re not responsible for H&S, it’s easy to say we should just have got on with it on a track not unduly covered with standing water. But as I often say, the throttle works both ways and some of the best drivers in the world can moderate speed to conditions.
Ferrari released Leclerc into the immediate path of Romain Grosjean on an early pit stop. It was a clear ‘unsafe release’ with mitigating circumstances being a narrow pit lane, rainy day multiple-driver, safety-car pit stop, and Leclerc having to turn hard left to get around the crew in front of him. A team financial penalty rather than an in-race penalty seems an uncomfortable precedent to set but the stewards had all the facts. We must protect the crews in the pit lane though.
There is much discussion and many meetings going on regarding changes to car regulations and race format, among other things, for the big F1 reset coming in 2021. It would be very easy after the last three races to say ‘change nothing’, but that would be wrong because we can make F1 even better and have consistently more great events.
My final word has to go to Max Verstappen, voted driver of the day to go with his victory and fastest lap.
I interviewed him in parc ferme as he took his crash helmet off. He was as calm as somebody waiting for a bus in no particular hurry. In the craziest of races when many couldn’t even remember all that happened to them, it was as if he owned the place, totally comfortable in his position and ability within F1.
A wise head on young shoulders, with a sublime co-ordination between his brain, eyes, hands and feet while controlling the fastest track car on earth in treacherous conditions. He kept his head after a bad start, again after a wild gripless spin, and then ran and hid after every safety car restart while many others faltered and crashed.