British Grand Prix – Ferrari thrived in the heat of England, knocking Mercedes off their perch as kings of Silverstone. It was a track expected to favour Mercedes & Lewis Hamilton – is momentum starting to shift to the Scuderia?
Ferrari’s turn for good fortune
Sebastian Vettel had some fortune smile on him at Silverstone. While his qualifying performance was, without question, excellent considering the amount of pain he was in with a dodgy neck, Mercedes’ race pace and tyre life did look the better of the two front-running teams. Had Lewis Hamilton not had a dodgy start and led from the front, he probably would have had a reasonably comfortable win. Clearing the ‘Formula B’ teams and getting up to P6 on Lap 10, Hamilton was 27 seconds behind Vettel as both began running in clear air. By the time Vettel stopped on Lap 20, that gap was down to 20 seconds. Vettel was pushing hard and his tyres were starting to go, suggesting that Hamilton may have been able to pull away at the front with a clean start.
But that’s not the way F1 works. Had incidents in China & Azerbaijan not negated Sebastian Vettel’s lead in those races, he would almost definitely have won them. Ifs and buts are ten a penny in this sport and, on this occasion, luck went hand in hand with Vettel’s exemplary drive. There was nothing lucky about the way he hunted down Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes – Vettel was the only one of the frontrunners to open his DRS through the fearsome opening corners at a point of the race where a miniscule error would have shuffled him down to P5 or P6 in an instant. Finding the Merc’s weakest point, Vettel pounced on his golden opportunity and, emphatically, took the win with a ‘Champion’s drive’.
It’s an important one, too. Ferrari went to Silverstone not expecting to win and, instead, claimed a 1-3. In their own words, it was a ‘hammer blow’ in the World Championship fight.
Mercedes sore losers as they get rattled by Ferrari
Ferrari’s P1 & P3 finish to extend their leads in both championships clearly wasn’t the narrative that Hamilton & Mercedes had written for themselves at Silverstone. Caught up in the frenzy of Hamilton’s home race in a country currently riding the crest of a wave of elation with ‘It’s coming home’, they clearly expected to have the edge over Ferrari at a track where they have dominated since 2012. On paper, they should have. It was the last scheduled race to use the so-called ‘Mercedes-tyres’, ie. the Pirelli compounds that run less tread in an effort to battle residual heat build-up, believed to suit Mercedes best after their dominant wins in Spain & France. From here on, the tyres are the standard construction and, based on what we’ve seen so far this year, Ferrari are simply better at extracting pace on them while also preserving them better over a race distance.
Nor are Mercedes the clear number one on the engine front. The Ferrari engine, according to Nico Rosberg’s inside information from his paddock contacts, is now the most powerful – a sentiment shared by Red Bull’s Christian Horner. Haas & Sauber are now potent midfield runners and Ferrari themselves are now consistently the quickest through speed-traps. The four year long ace up their sleeve is no more, and the effects of Ferrari’s development pressure is starting to show. A new floor, estimated at being worth around 0.2 seconds a lap, was rolled out by the Scuderia for Silverstone, an emphatic response to Mercedes’ aero upgrades for the Austrian Grand Prix. As I said above, a fully clean race may have still resulted in a Mercedes win but it would have been a lot less comfortable than they have been accustomed to at Silverstone.
At the moment, there is no area where Mercedes are clearly better. Power, reliability, agility – all seem to be to Ferrari’s favour right now. Tyre life, the ever critical race definer, also seems to be in Ferrari’s court. Single lap qualifying is still a Mercedes strength, possibly due to Ferrari needing more time to get tyres up to temperature, but Ferrari’s race starts are nullifying this advantage as they muller the Mercs off the line. It’s coming down to the drivers and this is where the championships will be won. Vettel, Hamilton, Raikkonen & Bottas are all driving exceptionally well and the inevitable clashes are starting to annoy Mercedes.
“All I’d say is that it’s now two races that the Ferraris have taken out one of the Mercedes [Vettel collided with Bottas at Turn 1], and a five-second penalty and a ten-second penalty doesn’t appear to feel… ultimately it spoils the race. It’s a lot of points that ultimately Valtteri and I have lost in those two scenarios. And, of course, it is a race situation. I couldn’t see behind me but we’ve just to work hard to try to position ourselves better so that we are not exposed to the red cars – because who knows when that’s going to happen again.” Lewis Hamilton
It’s the first time in the hybrid era that Mercedes are feeling under pressure and the response hasn’t been particularly dignified so far. Lewis Hamilton’s comments regarding Ferrari’s so-called “interesting tactics” are, by now, well documented but Toto Wolff’s comments are, arguably, more inflammatory. While Hamilton has the excuse of being emotional and frustrated having just climbed out of the car, Wolff’s comments to TV about how James Allison asked him “Is it deliberate or incompetence?” were evasive. It was antagonising but without being directly attributable to himself, instead the words of one of his own employees who wasn’t there on camera. What is unusual is that Allison, in his questioning of the authenticity of the Raikkonen/Hamilton clash, has worked directly with Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in the past and is fully aware of the apolitical nature of his driving. Out of all the criticisms levelled at the Finn over the years, his clean standards and fairness have never been called into question and it reveals the extent to which Mercedes are hunting for scapegoats for their own slight fade from the very top.
Haas need Grosjean to clean up his act
Now P5 in the Constructor’s Championship, Haas should, by rights, be a comfortable 4th. While they have had their own issues, most notably their pit errors in Australia, it’s one of their drivers who is consistently throwing the points away. Romain Grosjean, unsurprisingly, was one of the first to crash through the DRS zone at Turn 1, ruining his and his mechanic’s Friday. A clean qualifying saw him line up behind Kevin Magnussen, showing they both were extracting what’s possible from the car, before a Turn 3 clash scuppered their race. In a virtually identical scenario to the Raikkonen/Hamilton clash, Grosjean & Magnussen made contact. Magnussen was pitched off with some right rear floor damage, while Grosjean had some minor front end damage. Interestingly, there was no penalty for Grosjean, despite how similar a transgression it was to what Raikkonen did at the same point seconds earlier. Both Haas drivers were able to continue, albeit falling out of the points. While Magnussen kept his race clean from there to score valuable points, Grosjean crashed again with Carlos Sainz.
Guenther Steiner has admitted that there is a line in the sand with Grosjean, a line that hasn’t yet been reached, and said after the race: “I think we lost quite a few points. We need to go away and evaluate what actually happened at turn one and avoid this for the future. This is obviously not acceptable because we keep on losing points while having a good car. I think we just need to go sit down and see what we can do to come away better, or at least where we should be.”
There’s a reason that Silverstone has survived on the calendar since 1950. It may be a flat and relatively featureless industrial estate in England but, along with the history, heritage, etc., it’s just a fearsomely fast track that produces great racing. The new section that’s been in use over the last few years was a great amendment, even if we did lose Bridge corner, and the first sector allows for following drivers to effectively attack. The Maggots/Becketts section is just a joy to watch F1 cars fly through and, despite the aero demands, the drivers seem able to follow each other relatively effectively.
With 2019 being the last confirmed race for Silverstone before a contract break due to spiralling losses from the deal made under Bernie Ecclestone in 2009, it appears that Liberty Media are keen to keep this traditional fan and driver favourite on the calendar. Despite rumours of a London street race also being lined up, Sean Bratches from Liberty told Sky Sports News “Silverstone is part of the foundation of this sport. We are a commercial business and we are going to do a deal that makes sense for us and hopefully there’s an opportunity there.”
Isn’t that more exciting than a nondescript street race in Miami?