Finally, the flashpoint.
Lewis Hamilton delighted his home fans with victory at the British Grand Prix after recovering from a first lap clash with title rival Max Verstappen.
Saturday’s sprint qualifying experiment had put Verstappen on pole, leaving Hamilton disappointed after a great performance in the regular qualifying format on Friday evening.
When the lights went out on Sunday, though, it was the World Champion who got away better. The pair fought tooth and nail for half a lap, regularly wheel-to-wheel and once brushing tyres on the Wellington Straight. Hamilton took a wide line around Luffield to get better drive and closed in on Verstappen down the old pit straight. The Red Bull defended but Hamilton sold him a dummy to move up the inside as the pair approached Copse at nearly 200 mph.
And then the clash – which has been narrowly avoided on numerous ocCASions this year – finally occurred.
Hamilton’s right front and Verstappen’s left rear touched and the Dutchman was sent spearing into the wall at a terrifying speed. Whilst clearly winded and shaken, he was able to walk away from the accident and transported to hospital for cautionary checks.
The Mercedes, meanwhile, had survived with minor damage and the race had been red flagged.
Once the barriers had been repaired, we witnessed our third standing start of the weekend with Charles Leclerc the unlikely polesitter. Hamilton sat in second – the damage to his car repaired with a bit of superglue – with his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, in third and fellow home hero Lando Norris in fourth.
The Ferrari held Hamilton at bay on the run to the first corner, but behind them Norris started well and passed Bottas for a provisional podium spot.
That would – somewhat surprisingly – remain the order through to the pit stops. Hamilton was generally within two seconds of the leader but couldn’t get close enough to fashion a move, despite occasional power issues for the Ferrari.
The Briton had been given a ten-second penalty as a result of his first-lap collision so an undercut was out of the question. He ran longer than those following, pitting on lap 28 and rejoined in what would effectively become fourth place.
A slow stop for Norris had left him behind Bottas and he didn’t fight as his compatriot stormed past into Copse on lap 31.
As Hamilton closed in rapidly on fresher tyres, his team-mate was asked to move aside and that left just Leclerc – nine seconds up the road with 12 laps remaining.
By lap 50 of 52, Hamilton was within the slipstream of the Monegasque. Once again he found himself pulling alongside the leader on the run to Copse. This time, slightly further back, he backed out of it but Leclerc – aware of his competitor’s presence – ran wide and Hamilton was through.
The crowd roared and the World Champion repaid their support with his first victory since the Spanish Grand Prix back in May.
Leclerc came home an excellent second for his first podium of the year, with Bottas in third and Norris fourth – the young Briton now impressively moves up to third in the standings.
Daniel Ricciardo in the other McLaren held off Carlos Sainz for fifth and earned his best result yet in papaya. Fernando Alonso took a commendable seventh after his sprint qualifying heroics on Saturday, with Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda completing the top 10.
The Biggest Moment of the Season So Far
This collision had been coming. For months, if not years.
Hamilton and Verstappen have come within millimetres of each other on more than occasion this season.
Generally – throughout their time in F1 – Hamilton has been the one to back out. His approach has more often than not been focused in the long term, on the championship. Verstappen, on the other hand, has usually been in a position where he has nothing to lose.
This time, crucially, those roles were reversed, but Verstappen’s approach remained the same.
This season, Hamilton was shoved wide at the first corner in Imola, and was very accommodating as his rival launched a divebomb up the inside a few weeks later in Spain. He learnt a long while back – and the hard way in 2011 – that staying out of trouble is often the best way to earn titles. But now, with the Red Bull the class of the field recently and Verstappen having opened up a 33-point lead, he found himself in a position to take risks again.
That has not been the case for a long time, and perhaps Verstappen thought he simply had the better of Hamilton. The Dutchman’s approach has always been comparable with Ayrton Senna’s mantra of ‘Either you back out or we crash’.
Here at Silverstone, Hamilton did not back out and they did crash. And it was Verstappen who came off worse.
In hindsight, as the man with the significant points advantage, he should have been more circumspect. But his natural competitiveness and youthful hotheadedness – which has clearly not been totally ironed out just yet – saw him continue to take risks. Twice before their collision, Hamilton had avoided the Red Bull.
At the first corner, Verstappen came back onto the track sharply after running wide and then used up all the track at Brooklands despite entering the corner behind Hamilton.
In the end, a small penalty for car number 44 felt about right. It follows the precedent set by recent incidents where a driver on the inside has clipped the wheel of one on the outside, with an extra five seconds perhaps for the speed involved.
This was certainly not solely Hamilton’s fault. He understeered wide of the apex on cold tyres in a heavy car – he actually had more steering lock on than when hitting the apex during his battle with Leclerc – but Verstappen could also have left more space. Indeed, Hamilton backed out of a very similar situation with the situations reversed in the sprint 24 hours earlier.
The comments made by Christian Horner and Helmut Marko – who claimed Hamilton should receive a race ban – were frankly ridiculous, inflammatory and unnecessary.
Whatever your opinion on the incident, it has undeniably reignited a title battle that looked to be slipping away from Mercedes and likely provided a real spark between the two protagonists. Hamilton lifted the trophy on Sunday, but F1 was the biggest winner.
What Did We Make of Sprint Qualifying?
This was due to be the main talking point until the lap 1 drama unfolded. But it’s still worth mentioning on a weekend where F1 trialled the biggest change to its format for decades.
Personally, I remain unconvinced. It didn’t sit right with me that the fastest driver over one lap didn’t earn pole position. The sprint on Saturday cheapened the regular qualifying session and acted as a spoiler for the main race, revealing certain elements of teams’ race pace and tyre life that would normally remain a mystery until the headline event.
As for the sprint itself, the first couple of laps were, of course, thrilling, but the remaining 15 were something of a procession as those out front were barely seen and a DRS train formed in the midfield. Fernando Alonso’s extraordinary start provided most of the remaining entertainment as he slowly fell backwards after moving up from 11th to 5th in the first few corners.
Ross Brown and co are clearly determined to add more events to the race weekend, but they must be wary of quantity over quality on an ever-increasing calendar.
However, a close friend who has never really been interested in F1 messaged me after the race – initially commenting on Hamilton’s “big ball energy”… – to say that he had been drawn in by the new weekend format, with it sounding more interesting to a casual viewer. So, it has clearly had the desired effect.
If something like this ends up as a special occasion at three or four races a year, that could certainly work. The sprint race itself needs some tweaking. Perhaps a reverse-championship-order sprint for a few points to really embrace the mayhem; although the budget cap means teams are unlikely to go for that. Whatever they choose, for the love of god, just call it a race rather than ‘Sprint Qualifying’. It’s quite clearly a short race, and all the members of the media desperately trying to avoid calling it as such was a bit cringeworthy.
Answering the Burning Questions
Will the Sprint Qualifying format be a success? A disaster? Somewhere in between? See above. Let’s go with somewhere in between.
Can Mercedes get back on terms with Red Bull at one of Hamilton’s most successful tracks? One way or another, yes.
Will their long overdue upgrades make a big difference? The updates certainly seem to have brought them closer. With Verstappen out of the race and Sergio Pérez stuck at the back, though, it was hard to tell.
The Race in 60 Seconds
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