In the leadup to the fourth F1 race for 2020, the Formula 1 Pirelli British Grand Prix, being held at the classic and historic Silverstone circuit, located to the north-west and less than fifty miles from the heart of London, there are still clouds of uncertainty hanging over some of the garages in the paddock.
Chief in this storm are the names Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez, as well as Racing Point and Ferrari. Vettel has yet to declare a formal interest in joining Racing Point, at which stage the team can properly investigate the removal of Perez prior to his contracted finish date (should they choose to) and the Ferrari team then opens a door for a replacement for the German. The replacement is Carlos Sainz, meaning Perez is either shuffled into a test driver’s role or another team, should such a door open for Perez. Vettel himself appears to be ambivalent, saying only that “loose talks” have been conducted between him and the Racing Point hierarchy.
In Perez’s favor is his contract that sees him, currently with the team to be known as Racing Point Aston Martin in 2021, past next year. Also in his favor is an unlikely angle. Eddie Jordan, former driver and former owner of Jordan Grand Prix, the original name for Racing Point when the chatty Irishman founded it almost thirty years ago, says he would be highly unlikely to employ Vettel. “Can he rekindle a kind of sparkle and fire and the enthusiasm and the charisma that he had?” he said. “It’s going to be difficult at his age. Would I employ him? Probably not, because I think there are far, far too many young kids coming through.”
Still unresolved also is the Racing Point design issue with the brake ducts. This is still being debated as to the validity of the design of the interiors, as to whether it’s a bespoke creation or a direct lift from Mercedes.
However, McLaren has some better news, with a historic name returning to F1 as a partner. Gulf Oil, a long term prior contributor to McLaren and the company will once again support the team with lubricant supply to the road-going vehicles and brand identification on the F1 cars and driver suits. The lubrication deal commences next year, with the brand identification on the wing mirrors, engine covers, and race suits for Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz from the Silverstone round.
Race-wise, the Grand Prix events in Baku City, Singapore and Suzuka were all officially canceled earlier in the year, and in late July, news came through that the North American rounds, in Montreal, Austin and Mexico City, were canceled as well. Soon after, we found out that the South American round in Brazil would join that list. Currently, the remaining schedule for 2020 sees 13 rounds with an expectation of 18 ultimately being scheduled.
Racing Point was again in the news barely hours before the practice sessions. Sergio Perez had tested for COVID-19, and with a positive result, the chase was on for a replacement driver. Nico Hulkenberg, the driver detached from Renault at the end of 2019, was the man, and it was a mad dash to get the replacement driver from Europe to Silverstone for a seat measurement, some refreshment training, and out on the track.
“The last 24 hours have been a bit special, crazy and wild,” he said. “4:30 pm yesterday afternoon I got the call, took the plane here, seat fitted until 2.00 am and 8.00 am this morning into the simulator for an hour, bit of prep work. So it was a short night, but all worthwhile.”
The practice sessions had drama for Alexander Albon, with FP2 seeing his RB16 having a nose to tailspin before impacting the barriers at high speed. Heading into a right-hander, his front right tire slid on the ripple strip, unsettling and spinning his car before a sideways crash on the left. It was a disappointing end as Albon had been rapid in FP1, finishing fourth quickest.
Drama for Renault and Ricciardo; the garage had inspected his chassis and found a minuscule crack in the chassis. Under the regulations, the team was allowed to break a curfew and effectively build a new car for the Australian.
Qualifying and eyes were on the black cars from Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton was on track to set a new record, being the first F1 driver to claim pole seven times in a row at the same circuit. And he would go on to do so, with a time of 1:24.303. This was 0.3 seconds ahead of Bottas, and a full second ahead of Max Verstappen from Red Bull. Hamilton had had a rare error, spinning in Q2, and had also said the balance of the car still wasn’t right after the three practice sessions.
That time would give Hamilton his 100th pole position and as he made his final lap to do so, he also broke the track record, setting that time in imperious fashion. Charles Leclerc poled 4th, 3/10ths ahead of Lando Norris from McLaren as that team continues to improve. Lance Stroll continued to impress also for 6th, ahead of Carlos Sainz, Ricciardo, his teammate Esteban Ocon, and a very disappointed Sebastian Vettel.
The still out of contract Vettel barely moved from a 1:26 time in his qualifying. “The car was not too bad, but it didn’t fit me today,” he said afterward. “I was struggling yesterday with very little laps and this morning to get into the rhythm.” He had driven the car only in FP2 and FP3 after the engine’s intercooler had issue, keeping him from FP1, plus the car was suffering brake issues in the other two sessions.
Pierre Gasly and Albon missed out on the top ten by just 2/10ths, however, the real winner was Hulkenberg, slotting into 13th after some nine months away from F1. Daniil Kvyat and George Russell made it through from Q1, whilst Kevin Magnussen from Haas missed out by under a tenth. AlfaRomeo Racing’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen took 17th and 18th ahead of Romain Grosjean and Nicholas Latifi.
Both Kvyat and Russell copped a five grid place penalty for a gearbox change (Kvyat) and ignoring yellow flags in qualifying, (Russell). The latter had been behind Latifi and as the Williams driver had spun, Latifi was pinged for not slowing. However, he insists he had and said his telemetry would confirm.
Race day and it was one of the most intensely fought races seen in recent times. Nico Hulkenberg, brought in to fill in for Sergio Perez after his Covid-19 positive test wasn’t able to make the start line. The indication was that the car’s driveline had locked solid, and unable to move at all.
Hamilton managed to get away from a very rapid Bottas, only to have a safety car inside two laps. Kevin Magnussen tried to close down Alexander Albon in a right-hander only to have his right rear collect the left front of the Red Bull, spearing the Haas into the gravel trap and breaking off his front left after impact. Albon was able to continue for a few more laps before the front left, which had looked ok, showed vibrations, and the Red Bull was pitted for new rubber. In what may seem an unfair result, the stewards also handed Albon a five-second penalty.
Restart and mid-pack battles with Esteban Ocon getting close to Lance Stroll. Hamilton gained space on Bottas, Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, and Carlos Sainz. But it didn’t take long before the track bit again, and this time it’s Daniil Kvyat to feel the pain. The Russian had started 19th thanks to his five-place grid penalty from qualifying and was showing good pace only, having just passed Antonio Giovinazzi for 12th, to have a potential puncture send his AlphaTauri off at high speed at the Maggots corner. Although he exited the car uninjured, the same could not be said of his sorry-looking machine.
This triggered a flurry of pit stops for the majority of the field. Romain Grosjean was one of the few that didn’t and with the opportunity to get some room on his older medium rubber, was in P5. Ocon was in P11, quickly moved to 10th, getting past the season’s most luckless high profile driver, Sebastian Vettel. Ricciardo, who had been given a good pit stop, was threatening Sainz only to be passed by Lando Norris who almost then lost his car attacking Sainz. The Australian would say shortly after that his tires hadn’t yet come into the speed needed but he could feel gradual improvement.
It’s a 52 lap race and at the halfway point Hamilton is leading the field yet again. Romain Grosjean’s reputation for a street brawler came into focus as he receives an official warning for unsportsmanlike behavior, seeming to move across on Sainz as he tried a pass on Grosjean. Sainz would make a clean pass a lap later to see 5th against his name and needing five more seconds to reel in Leclerc. Grosjean would receive another warning on lap 36 as Ricciardo made a move. His race then went backward as he finally pitted for new rubber and rejoined the field at the tail end.
The lap count is in the early 40s and the brows of the officials in the Mercedes camp are starting to moisten. The tires are visibly wearing and it’s becoming a razor’s edge judgment call as to how to deal with this. Verstappen and Norris have been hounding the Mercedes drivers, whilst Verstappen’s mirrors have been full of Ferrari in the hands of Charles Leclerc.
The last three laps would bring all of the drama an F1 race could. Bottas, in sight and within reach of Hamilton, would see a front left vibrate harshly before letting go. Unfortunately for the Finn, it let go just after he had passed the pit entry, meaning a full lap at slow speed and dropping to 11th. Red Bull, knowing Verstappen was in danger, called the Dutchman in. The thinking was that fresh rubber would give him the pace needed for the quickest lap and that vital extra point, plus a tilt at the top spot on the podium. Hamilton was warily judging his drive after being told he would be left out.
It would be a heart-stopping moment for the championship leader as, with a gap of 30 seconds over Verstappen, and the Red Bull closing, his own front left would vibrate and let go. As he nursed his car to the line, Carlos Sainz, ahead of Ricciardo and Norris for 4th, had his front left also let go in spectacular fashion, dropping him down to 11th at race end.
Somehow, incredibly, Hamilton would get across the line for the win, with Verstappen a mere 5.8 seconds adrift. Leclerc continued to show up his fellow Ferrari driver, Vettel, for 3rd, whilst Ricciardo was a bare second shy of standing on the podium for 4th. McLaren would be well pleased with Norris in 5th, Ocon for 6th, with Pierre Gasly, Albon, Stroll and Vettel rounding the top ten. Albon drove a sensational final seven laps to make up seven places.
After Bottas would be George Russell, Sainz, Giovinazzi, and Nicholas Latifi. Grosjean’s brave run and subsequent pit stop ended with a 16th, and Kimi Raikkonen in 17th finished a lap down and increasingly likely to declare his F1 retirement at season’s end. With just four laps to go, his front left wing section had collapsed and rubbed against the tire before breaking loose and slowing his progress.
The final word goes to Hamilton: “I have never experienced anything like that before. That last lap was one of the most challenging laps I have ever had. Up until that point, everything was going relatively smoothly, the tires felt great and I was doing some management. When I heard Valtteri’s tire had gone, I looked at mine and everything seemed fine, but I started to back off. Then, it just suddenly deflated down the straight. It was a heart-in-your-mouth feeling and then I was just trying to keep the speed up without damaging the car. That last lap is definitely one to remember, I feel so grateful that I got it back and could secure the win. It was difficult standing up there on the podium without the crowd, but hopefully, I did everyone proud who was supporting us from home.”
The F1 teams stay at Silverstone for next weekend’s Emirates Formula 1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix 2020.