Hamilton the history maker shows his class

Before the Russian Grand Prix weekend, many Formula One fans would have sighed at the prospect of a Lewis Hamilton-Max Verstappen 1-2 in Sochi. In the end though, we had by far the best Russian race since it’s debut in 2014, and one which was a microcosm of the season so far.

As soon as Max Verstappen opted for new power unit components after FP1 on Friday, his weekend was always going to be about damage limitation, whereas Lewis Hamilton knew he wouldn’t have a better chance to retake the championship lead with his main rival out of the picture. This looked like a straightforward task right up until the final moment s of qualifying, when old intermediates on a drying pitlane led to the smallest of mistakes from the seven-time champion. Fixing the front wing meant Hamilton (and Valtteri Bottas, who was held behind the Brit) only got one lap on slick tyres, leaving Lewis starting fourth behind Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, and his future teammate George Russell.

The rain caused a difficult day for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton on Saturday – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Still, many would have expected the Mercedes man to take an easy victory on Sunday, but this looked a lot less likely by the time the field reached the braking zone for turn two. Just like in the Monza sprint race, Hamilton was slow away, and he dropped to seventh before re-passing Fernando Alonso.

As his rivals pitted, this is where Hamilton’s mastery came to the fore. ‘Bono my tyres are gone’ has become the most feared message in Formula One, as it’s normally followed by purple sectors across the board for Car #44. For a man who was initially known as being hard on his tyres, Lewis seems to be able to eek out performance when the rubber is far from fresh, and this – combined with a less than ideal stop for McLaren’s Ricciardo – helped him jump up the order.

Once on fresh hards, Hamilton looked unstoppable. Sainz was dispatched with consummate ease, and the gap to Norris started rapidly reducing. Dirty air started having an effect though, and Lewis couldn’t quite get within that all important one second window.

Up until Spa, the prospect of wet-weather led to excitement rather than trepidation from Formula One fans. And Sochi proved that you don’t need monsoon-like conditions to cause drama; just a small shower can create panic and problems. As the heavens opened over the Black Sea coast, Norris initially extended his lead, and it looked like we were going to get a second debut winner of the season. Both drivers stayed out when the majority were pitting, before a decisive move from the McLaren driver proved to be costly. Whereas the Woking team were more advisory about Lando pitting, Mercedes were insistent: The slicks would soon be skidding, and intermediates were the only option. Straight away Hamilton gained time, and within one and a half laps he was well on the way to his hundredth victory – a simply staggering achievement.

Of course, the irony in this is that the rain hindered Hamilton’s chances of taking a record-breaking eighth title. Max Verstappen was in seventh, struggling to make up ground before the downpour, and he came in at just the right time to shoot up the order, finishing in second, and an astonishing eighteen places higher than he started. A twelve point swing had been reduced to seven, and he is now just two points behind with seven races still remaining.

Max Verstappen’s sublime recovery saw him limit the ground lost to Hamilton in the standings – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

For Lando, his time will come. And with an extra engine in the bag, Max may well be slight favourite for the championship despite trailing in the standings, thanks to a drive which again showed why many expect him to be the man to pick up the baton from Hamilton. But yesterday was Lewis’ day. Even the young karter from Stevenage could have barely imagined getting one hundred race victories, and there’s no reason why more won’t be added to the tally. The greatest of all time? That’s a bold statement. The greatest of his time? Unquestionably. The future is bright for Formula One, with Max, Lando, George and Charles Leclerc all looking like world championship material. But you’d be a brave individual to bet on any of them to surpass the achievements of Sir Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton.

F1 heats up before the summer break

Formula One heads for its traditional summer break after the Hungarian Grand Prix, and a few of the drivers will be glad to see some sun after a sprinkling of rain caused chaos on lap one at Budapest.

It looked like a mistake from one Mercedes had created the perfect opportunity for the other. Valtteri Bottas’ wet-weather prowess has come into question after disappointing performances over the last twelve months, and taking out Lando Norris – as well as both Red Bulls – will give extra ammunition to those who think his time at the Silver Arrows should come to an end this season. The fact that George Russell is taking part in this week’s Pirelli test for Mercedes will only add fuel to the fire.

The events of Budapest have increased the pressure on Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

With Lewis Hamilton being the only front-running car left unscathed, it should have been straightforward for the Brit to claim his hundredth victory in Formula One after the red flag. But nothing is ever simple in Formula One. Out on his own in the record books, Hamilton was left out on his own on track as all the other cars came in for slicks. One lap later, the reigning champion was last with it all to do. Mercedes have history for making strange strategy decisions when forced to think on their feet (for example, pitting Lewis at Monaco 2015 and handing victory to Nico Rosberg), and this was another case of them being caught out when things go astray from the plan.

At this point, Hamilton would have snapped your hand off at the opportunity to take a podium, but it was another performance that took the fans (and his) breath away, dicing his way through the field on one of the trickiest tracks for overtaking on the calendar. Red Bull will certainly be hoping that Lewis’ usual post-summer break performance boost is not as potent this year, otherwise Max Verstappen may have his work cut out if he is to retake the championship lead.

Hamilton’s marvelous recovery to the podium in Hungary saw him re-take the championship lead – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Although Bottas’ first lap catastrophe didn’t lead to retirement for Verstappen, the damage done to the floor and barge board pretty much ended any chances of a competitive finish for the Dutchman. Crash damage in this cost-limited season is much more problematic than usual, and with Max’s engine from Silverstone being irreparably damaged, at least one grid penalty after the break is almost a certainty.

For the second race weekend in a row, Red Bull suffered from a first lap incident – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

All this drama allowed a young gun and an old hand show exactly why they belong in Formula One. Esteban Ocon drove superbly to keep Sebastian Vettel at bay, the Frenchman taking Alpine’s first ever win in the sport as a constructor, and the first since 2013 for the team based at Enstone. This may not have been possible were it not for the dogged defending from his teammate, Fernando Alonso. Almost inch-perfect with his car placement until a lock up at turn one allowed Hamilton through, Alonso showed the kind of performance he was known for in his original F1 foray, and a performance which will quiet those detractors who believe one of Alpine’s juniors should be in that seat. Yes, it’s a shame for Christian Lundgaard, Oscar Piastri and Guanyu Zhou that their path is blocked by a 40-year-old, but you aren’t going to find many 40-year-olds who can perform like the Spaniard.

Fernando Alonso superbly, and crucially, kept Lewis Hamilton away from the lead battle for several laps – Courtesy of Renault Sport Media

The drivers get a chance to recuperate for four weeks before the final twelve races of Formula One’s longest ever season. Thanks to a Mercedes resurgence and some bad luck for Red Bull, it looks like we may need every one of those to decide the championship.

Home is where the heart is for Red Bull – Austrian GP preview

The Formula One circus stays in the Styrian mountains as the Red Bull Ring plays host to the Austrian Grand Prix, just seven days after Max Verstappen claimed victory at the same circuit in the Styrian Grand Prix.

It would take a brave person to bet against Verstappen taking his third consecutive victory on Sunday, given his dominant performance last weekend. Sergio Perez will be hoping he can make it two Red Bulls on the podium, after coming within a second of Valtteri Bottas in the previous race.

A double podium is probably the best case scenario once again for Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton making a rare trip to the Brackley simulator in an aim to extract every last inch of performance out of his car. The quick turnaround means no upgrades for this race, and there are mixed messages from the Mercedes camp regarding how much more development we will see on their 2021 car.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (LAT Images / Mercedes AMG F1)

The pace from the top two teams meant Ferrari and McLaren were once again left fighting for fifth. Although it was Lando Norris who won the midfield battle last weekend, Daniel Ricciardo was showing good pace before reliability troubles dropped him down the order. Ferrari will also be hoping for a smoother weekend from Charles Leclerc, who showed some inspired moves after being controversially involved in Pierre Gasly’s retirement.

AlphaTauri, Alpine and Aston Martin will look to pick up some of the lesser points once again, in what looks to be one of the tightest midfield battles for years. Strategy could well be key in this battle, as free air is hard to come by on the track with the shortest lap time of the year. Pirelli are also bringing softer tyres to the Austrian GP than they did at the Styrian round, which might lead to more action in the pitlane.

For George Russell, he will be hoping his pitlane action is much more conventional this weekend. A pneumatic leak cost him a shot at his first ever points for Williams, with the Brit admitting that there’s no guarantee he will be able to replicate that performance again this time around. His teammate will also be hoping for a better result, after being an innocent victim in last weekend’s lap one shenanigans.

 

Alfa Romeo will be hoping they can sneak a point, after just missing out with Kimi Raikkonen last time around. The intriguing battle between the Haas cars will also be one to watch, as Mick Schumacher and his teammate battle for inter-team supremacy, which must be a small ray of light in a very difficult debut season for both drivers.

It’s fair to say last week’s race was not a classic, but different tyres (and possibly different weather) could make the Austrian GP an entirely different beast indeed.

 

France fascinates for once

Paul Ricard hasn’t been known for its classic races since re-joining the calendar in 2018, but thankfully this weekend’s French GP put an end to that. Max Verstappen claimed Red Bull’s third consecutive victory this season, overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the penultimate lap of the race, with Sergio Perez rounding out a great weekend for the Austrian team in third place. It was a result few would have predicted during the first stint of the race.

Luckily for Red Bull, this was another race where tyres were the talk of the town. Thankfully, random failures weren’t on the agenda on Sunday afternoon, but the morning rain  – combined with higher tyre pressures to combat said failures –  meant the conventional one-stop strategy wasn’t as sure of an option as it was expected to be. This lack of grip even caught Max out on lap one, as the Dutchman slid wide at the first corner, gifting the lead to his title rival.

This was the only mistake Max made all race, meaning he was able to capitalise on strategical errors from Mercedes. After Verstappen made his first stop, Mercedes decided not to react straight away, figuring they had enough of a margin to stay out one extra lap, and retain the lead on a fresher set of tyres. A combination of a lightning fast out lap from the Red Bull, and a slower than expected stop from Mercedes gave Verstappen the lead, and left the Brackley-based team’s pitwall scratching their heads. It’s not the first time Mercedes have lost out in the pits this season, with Red Bull consistently a few tenths quicker at tyre changes. Rarely has that small weakness made as big of a difference as it did on Sunday.

The Red Bull crew were immaculate in the pits again on Sunday – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

It became clear during the second stint that the hards were not going to last at even a semi-reasonable pace  – unless you had done an epically long first stint à la Perez and Lando Norris –  and that the two-stop might be your best shot of winning. Still, it was a huge risk for Red Bull to call the Dutchman in from the lead, and in doing so they left Mercedes’ hands tied. Either pit, and resign yourself to losing the victory, or hold on for dear life and pray that the tyres would last to the end. Mercedes went all in on the latter option, when perhaps splitting the strategy might have been the best way to go. It was pretty clear from his expletive-laden messages what Valtteri Bottas wanted to do, delivering messages with the air of a man who doesn’t expect to be hanging around the Silver Arrows too much longer.

The Finn’s tyres were cooked, and as soon as he went deep into the Mistral chicane, there was almost an inevitability about the result. Who knows how much longer he’d have been able to hold off Verstappen without that mistake, but that could well be a key turning point when we look back at the championship in six months time. As could the decision to keep not pit Valtteri after he’d been passed by Sergio Perez, with Mercedes clearly gambling on the Mexican getting a penalty – and gaining them three extra points – rather than going for the fastest lap, and crucially taking one point off Verstappen.

Valtteri Bottas cut a frustrated figure after Mercedes’ strategy cost him a podium finish – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Further down the grid, there were some great drives that went under the radar. McLaren were clearly best of the rest, with Norris and Daniel Ricciardo both claiming top-10 finishes. Vettel and Alonso seemed to continue their recent run of form, both scoring multiple points. George Russell also put in a fantastic drive to take 12th, in a race with no retirements, a timely reminder of the young Brit’s talents.

All the talk though was on the brilliant Red Bull strategy, which helped Verstappen extend his championship lead to twelve points over Hamilton. A double-header at their own circuit in Austria now awaits, and it is already starting to feel that if Mercedes do not find some pace soon, their quest for an eighth consecutive championship double will come up agonisingly short.

Mistakes maketh the man at Monaco

Formula One has always been a sport of fine margins. The difference between delight and disaster is often measured in milliseconds, and millions of pounds of prize money rest on split second decisions.

Nowhere is more prevalent than Monaco, one of the most historic circuits in motor racing. Many drivers have fallen foul of the barriers around the twisting streets of the principality, and plenty of this year’s grid left the track with their cars (and egos) more battered than on arrival.

Of course, no driver’s mistake was more costly than Charles Leclerc’s in qualifying. Yet to see the chequered flag at his home race, damage from Saturday’s shunt meant that he wasn’t even able to see the green flag on Sunday, with Ferrari’s first pole since Mexico 2019 proving to be for nothing. It looked like he had gotten away with it, as the gearbox was undamaged, but the left driveshaft was inexplicably left unchecked by the Italian team, with the problem only presenting itself on the lap to the grid. It’s hard to imagine that such an oversight would have happened in the days of Jean Todt and Ross Brawn.

Leclerc’s exceptional pole position evaporated after a crash on his second run, damaging the driveshaft – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

While F1 fans have got used to Ferrari making errors, one of the reasons Mercedes have been so dominant in the hybrid era is their fantastic ability to pull things together at key moments. Lewis Hamilton has become known for switching it on after the summer break, and the Brackley-based team never seem to be on the back foot for long – as they looked to be after pre-season testing in March.

On paper, this was always going to be the biggest test so far this season for the reigning champions. Red Bull looked mighty in the final sector of Barcelona, a key benchmark for performance at Monaco. After Thursday practice, it looked like the Silver Arrows had ground to make up with the setup, with Hamilton and his engineers having different ideas on which way to go. What followed on Saturday was one of the worst qualifying performances in recent memory. Hamilton ended up four places behind Bottas, in seventh position.

Sunday was a chance for redemption, and it looked like the trademark Mercedes undercut was going to work to great effect when Lewis came in on lap 29, in an attempt to jump Pierre Gasly. Not only did it fail to work, but Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez were able to eek extra life out of their softs to pull off the overcut, leaving a frustrated Hamilton down in seventh – his worst result since Monza last season.

Lewis Hamilton endured an immensely frustrating weekend in Monaco, qualifying and finishing seventh – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Although, at least Lewis came home with some consolation points for Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas was set for his best result of the season, until a stripped wheel nut cost him any chance of victory, and arguably any chance of a championship challenge. It’s a shame that there wasn’t a sledgehammer nearby to remove the wheel, as the Finn looked as though he needed to release some anger.

A bad race for Mercedes (and Leclerc) meant it was the perfect opportunity for a man who has fallen victim to Monaco’s barriers before to take the victory. Max Verstappen crashed here in 2016 and 2018, with some even questioning his seat after the latter crash, but it was a fantastic performance here, giving him the lead of the championship for the first time in his career.

A clean qualifying and race was exactly what he needed, after small errors cost him victory in Bahrain, and pole in Portimao. Mercedes will learn from this weekend, and will be looking to bounce back in Baku in two weeks time. Mistakes arguably cost Vettel in his fight against Hamilton in 2017 and 2018, and near-perfection will be required from Verstappen and Red Bull if they’re to stop Lewis making it a record braking eight titles this year.

A splendid performance from Max Verstappen saw him score a dominant and potentially crucial victory – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

The biggest mistake of the weekend however, belonged to the TV director. On track action was once again at a premium at Monaco, and the one bit of wheel -to-wheel action outside of Lap 1 was thought to be far too exciting for the viewers, who were treated to a view of Lance Stroll skipping the swimming pool chicane. Thankfully, Baku will provide plenty more action for the fans, and probably its fair share of mistakes as well.