There are still pieces to be moved in the great game of chess that has been Formula 1 in 2020. Before this weekend’s Grosser Preis Der Eifel at the legendary Nurburgring, Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez have been fending off rumours that their places for 2021 have, in fact, been confirmed.
Raikkonen, who will be 41 later this month, has denied he has re-signed with Alfa Romeo, whilst Sergio Perez, cut from Racing Point and to be replaced by Sebastian Vettel, also hasn’t turned down talk he has found a seat for next year at Red Bull.
“I’m trying to work around the options that are out there. I don’t really have anything to report at the moment. I hope in the coming weeks, things will get a bit clearer and then I will know what will happen with my future. I’m pretty relaxed about it, as I said.” said Perez. Due for upgrades to his vehicle after a solid fourth at the last GP at Sochi, Perez is confident of continued success. “I’m looking forward to scoring weekend after weekend.”
Of the current twenty drivers to race this weekend, Perez is one of just seven in the group to have been at the circuit before. In 2013, for McLaren, he finished eighth. He should then be familiar with the current track’s 5.148-kilometer layout, one that is open to daily drivers of any skill level. In the current form, its first race was in 1984 under the European Grand Prix banner, before changing to the German Grand Prix for the following year.
Practice sessions one and two were washed out on Friday, with the weather such that the rescue helicopter was grounded. Without access to the service, the regulations effectively halt any track action. Plenty of action off track however with a member of the Mercedes support team testing positive to Covid-19 and Lance Stroll falling ill before FP3. The call went out to Nico Hulkenberg who, as luck would have it, was having coffee with a friend when the call to arms was made. A mad scramble to get to the circuit and after a ninety-minute drive, a quick Covid test, and hasty seat adjustment, Hulkenberg took to the circuit.
Of the situation, “The Hulk” said: “It was even wilder and crazier than last time. I was in Cologne which is an hour from here. I was due to come here this afternoon anyway, I was going to do some TV stuff from RTL tomorrow. I was sat with a friend having a coffee at 11 am when I see that Otmar [Szafnauer, Racing Point Team Principal] rings me and says ‘Hulkenberg, hurry we need you here’.
For all of the bustle, Hulkenberg’s qualifying would disappoint. As talented a driver as he is, he could only manage last in the Racing Point car, 3/10ths off a surprisingly slow Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen, though, had given Nicholas Latifi a fright as their times were a minuscule 0.005 apart, with Latifi’s teammate George Russell barely two and a half tenths quicker for P17. In the bubble for Q2 were the Haas pairings and it would be Romain Grosjean that would fall by the wayside first, ultimately 4/10ths slower than Kevin Magnussen who had a timed lap disallowed for exceeding track limits.
Antonio Giovinazzi would take P14, edging Daniil Kvyat by just 0.09, with the Russian falling to P13 by just as narrow a margin to Pierre Gasly. Gasly himself would be pipped by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with 0.038 between the pair. Although starting from P11, Vettel can take heart from the fact that his Q1 time was quicker than P10’s Carlos Sainz, whose Q3 time was actually slower than Vettel’s Q2.
P9’s Sergio Perez can also be thankful as his time was just 0.005 quicker than Sainz, with 1:26.704 against 1:26.709. McLaren’s Lando Norris snared P8 whilst Renault’s Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo will be in close proximity for P7 and P6 with 0.019 between them. Similar close margins for the rest of the field with P5 and Alexander Albon 0.012 from Charles Leclerc in his Ferrari, and Max Verstappen’s P3 0.037 from P2’s Lewis Hamilton.
Pole position went to Valtteri Bottas, who dug deep in Q3 to take the prized p1 position after Hamilton’s Q2 time was a half-second quicker. “The lap was really nice, really enjoyed it. Of course, I can take the win, that’s what I’m here for.” grinned Bottas post-qualifying.
However, it would not to be for the amiable Finn, as his race start saw him go backwards then forwards quickly thanks to a wide exit on the first lap handed the lead momentarily to Hamilton. The air and track temperatures were cold and grip levels to start were not there. Immediately there was infighting between Daniel Ricciardo and Alexander Albon who would flatspot a tyre and pit soon enough to swap to mediums. Ricciardo was on the hunt and lap 10 saw a pass on the outside right of Leclerc.
Sergio Perez and Lando Norris were also getting feisty early on, with close-quarter racing almost resulting in contact. Vettel spins on lap 10 trying to avoid Giovinazzi before George Russell’s left rear collapses. This is courtesy of Raikkonen braking hard to avoid Vettel and Russell’s car clips Raikkon’s front left, lifting the Williams up and slamming down on the left rear. Meanwhile, Hamilton is getting the hurry up from the garage as Max Verstappen is within a second of Hamilton and pressuring. Lap 10 and Ricciardo gets the job done on Leclerc, he’s up to 4th. Hulkenberg, who started last on the grid, is up to 16th. Leclerc pits and he’s on mediums on a still cold track.
Vettel pits for the longer-lasting but slower harder rubber and all of a sudden the nature of the race changes. Bottas also locks up, flat spots his rubber, and in doing so Hamilton now takes the lead. Bottas changes to mediums and comes back out in 4th behind Ricciardo. A Virtual Safety Car is called to clear the Williams. Albon and Kvyat come together and the Russian loses his front wing.
Lap 18 and Bottas’ race is over. His engine has failed and his chances of a win and closing the gap to Hamilton take another hit. “But then it was quite a big loss of power – something wrong with the Power Unit. We’ll have to investigate what that is, but it was really unlucky. I went around for a couple of laps to see if it recovered but there was nothing else we could do.” a disconsolate Bottas would say.
News and it’s a ten-second penalty for Raikkonen as a result of his impact with Russell. It’s not a good day for the Finn as it’s a race where he becomes the driver with the most amount of races started. It matters not for Hamilton as he’s in the lead and looking for his 91st win to equal Michael Schumacher’s record. Lap 23 and the Renault of Esteban Ocon is retired from P7. Here it’s a hydraulics failure: ” I basically lost steering, brakes and gears and it’s a hydraulic issue, which we’ll investigate. It’s a shame, but we’ll come back from it and we look forward to the next race.” Albon cops a five-second penalty for taking out Kvyat’s wing.
P7 and P8 and Gasly heads Albon by a half-second. Albon had had another attempt at passing Gasly only to again lock up and flat spot. He would head to the garage and be benched for the rest of the race as his power unit has also displayed issues. Close to the mid-point and there are still drivers on race start rubber. Perez is on his starting rubber, as is Norris and Sainz. Norris is frantic, having reported power issues with his McLaren. It’s still running and he’s sent back out. Hulkenberg is up in the top ten. he pits on lap 31 leaving Gasly as the sole original runner.
Perez is looking racy on his new tires and with Hamilton and Verstappen away and gone, P3 is open now that Bottas is out. Perez, Sainz, Giovinazzi, and Norris, even with the system issues, are also within sight of each other. Lap 37 and Leclerc is in P5, pits, and he’s back in P10. Hamilton’s lead continues to grow and he’s close to a lap of P3 sitter, Ricciardo. Lap 40 and Vettel is in P7, Leclerc in P8 for a possible Ferrari dual top ten. Ahead of them is Perez in P4 and he’s on newer rubber than Ricciardo in P3. “The Hulk” is back into the top ten after a rubber swap dropped him to P13. Vettel pits on lap 43 and he’s out of the top ten. Lap 44 and Perez is closer but suddenly that reported power issue for Norris rears its head again and the car is stopped and smoking.
It’s a godsend for Ricciardo as the resulting safety car allows him to duck in and grab new tyres, aiding his charge for a podium. This also closes up Verstappen and Hamilton, and Perez then pits too. This slots him well behind Ricciardo and the hard work has to be done again. A restart behind the safety car and there’s confusion as some cars leading the train are lapped cars. Resdtart and Hamilton launches hard, catching Verstappen unawares. Ricciardo has a shot here for P2 but misses out as Verstappen’s Red Bull is just that important bit quicker. It takes little time though for Perez’s rubber to come on and he’s again hustling for P3.
In amongst all of this is the Haas of Romain Grosjean. He’s in P9 and on hard rubber. Grosjean had been struck by a small stone on a finger very early in the race and has been battling the pain distraction since. Closing laps and Hamilton gets the race’s fastest lap and the extra vital point. P10 is the final points awarding position and it’s a true battle with Magnussen, Giovinazzi, Vettel all scrapping for track space. Hulkenberg is still in the top ten and a great result given his P20 starting place.
Verstappen is lunging and he’s clearing Ricciardo on every lap but simultaneously failing to reel in Hamilton. Perez is also trying however Ricciardo has him covered. And that’s how the checkered flag sees the finish, with Hamilton taking the win, equaling Michael Schumacher’s 91, and well on track to equal his seven championships. Verstappen comes home in P2 with the fastest lap to boot, untroubled by P3’s Ricciardo who is ten second adrift. Perez tried his best but P4 it is by 1.4 seconds. P5 and it’s McLaren’s Sainz, a second ahead of Gasly. P7 and Ferrari have points in the hands of Leclerc. Hulkenberg’s semi-resurgence continues for P8 ahead of Grosjean and Giovinazzi.
Out of the points and missing out by less than a second is Vettel in P11. Raikkonen’s average season continues with P12, ahead of the final three of Magnussen, Latifi, and Kvyat. It’s Ricciardo, though, that brings the joy of being a F1 driver driver with: “Oh wow, it feels like the first time I ever got a podium. These emotions and that feeling you get when you get out the car, hug the team, the mechanics slapping you on the helmet, it’s just amazing and I am so happy we did it! It’s obviously my first one with Renault and it’s something I wanted to achieve when I set out on this journey with the team. ” It’s the team’s first podium since Malaysia in 2013.
The final word before heading to Portugal in two weeks comes from Hamilton as he enters the record books. Gifted a race helmet from Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, as part of the podium presentation, he said: “It’s tough to put what this means into words. I remember watching Michael winning all those races when I was a kid and playing racing games with my brother and choosing to play as Michael. I dreamed of being there myself, but I don’t think anyone and especially me, imagined another driver getting anywhere near Michael’s records. It was beyond my wildest dreams to be equaling his number of race wins and it just shows that dreams can come true.
It’s an incredible honour and something that will take some time to sink in. But I couldn’t have done it without this incredible team, everyone pushing so hard and giving it absolutely everything. A huge thank you to everyone back at the factories and also a huge respect for Michael, I feel really grateful today.”
He’ll have time off to savour it, with October 23-26 the next weekend and it’s the Formula 1 Heineken Grand Premio de Portugal at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve.