British Grand Prix – Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton heads into Sunday’s race at Silverstone facing the prospect of an attack on all fronts from the two Ferrari drivers, as he lines up on pole position ahead of the two Prancing Horses.
Despite Ferrari’s resurgence in final practice on Saturday to all but match Lewis Hamilton’s fastest time over a single lap, the British driver was pretty peerless throughout qualifying. Making it comfortably through the first two segments, despite the variety in the weather conditions, Hamilton stuck it on pole by half a second over Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen – quite a margin over the Ferrari, considering that the SF70H is no slouch. Silverstone is a circuit that plays very nicely into the hands of Mercedes. It’s a track that’s uber-fast, rewards cars with excellent mechanical grip and, ultimately, horsepower. While Ferrari have undoubtedly made huge gains in every area for this season, the slight pace advantage that Mercedes still appear to enjoy is exaggerated here. The slightly longer wheelbase on the W07 allows for a tad bit more stability through the sweeps of Copse, Maggotts & Becketts and, coupled with Hamilton’s affinity for his home track, pole position for the local boy was always a likelihood.
It’s been an odd week for Hamilton. He came under some heavy criticism going into the weekend, particularly from the British media, because of his failure to attend the F1 Live event in London on Wednesday. The entire sport took over central London for the evening, performing street demos and a stage show for the enthralled crowds that gathered. The entire sport, that is, apart from Hamilton. Every team, and the other 19 drivers, all showed up. But Hamilton chose to stay away and remain on his short holiday in Greece, away from his adoring home crowd. The criticism is understandable, but harsh. As his boss Toto Wolff said on Saturday, trying to tell a three time World Champion how best to prepare for a race weekend after a few consecutive trying events is silly, and the wrong way to go about managing his star driver. Hamilton’s duty to his team, outside of contract obligations, is to deliver the best on track performance, and dominating qualifying justifies that Lewis knows best how to manage his own head. Ultimately, beating everyone else on track to take yet another pole position in a tight championship battle will please his fans more than seeing a few casual donuts in central London.
The weekend’s work isn’t complete just yet though. Ferrari, and particularly Vettel, felt there was more in the car in Q3 and that they failed to extract the best from themselves. With Ferrari usually strong on race pace, and their long runs on Friday suggests they are close to Mercedes in that area, Hamilton could find himself under a two prong attack from both Raikkonen & Vettel throughout tomorrow’s race. He can’t rely on nearby support either, as Valtteri Bottas has to start from P9 due to a gearbox penalty after qualifying P4. The weather forecast isn’t clear on whether it’ll be a wet or dry race, adding to the uncertainty ahead of lights out.
Unhappy times for the other British driver?
Renault’s Jolyon Palmer is a man fighting for his career at the moment, despite his seemingly worry-free outward disposition. Halfway through his second season as a full time F1 driver, he has scored just a solitary point, and none in 2017. New teammate Nico Hulkenberg has scored 18 in just 9 races. The German driver has been one of the heroes of this weekend so far, consistently in the top ten, and finished P6 in qualifying. Palmer? Eliminated in Q2 and 0.8 down on Hulkenberg. There are a lot of rumours circulating about who might end up driving the Renault, should they choose to get rid of Palmer. Robert Kubica has re-entered the F1 consciousness recently, and would be a mighty addition in terms of goodwill and marketing, considering the story behind his possible return. The Polish driver is set to drive an official 2017 test in Hungary in a few weeks, and it appears to be a final evaluation of his skills and physical capabilities ahead of the second half of the year, despite Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul downplaying the test on Friday.
Another contender for the seat may have just entered the fray, and it’s possibly even more mouth-watering. Auto Bild are reporting that they’ve learned Red Bull are ditching Carlos Sainz from their roster. This, presumably, is for political reasons, as Sainz has been largely very impressive during his time with Toro Rosso. However, Sainz and his famous father, Carlos Senior, have been critical of Red Bull for the way they’ve handled his and teammate’s Daniil Kvyat’s career, and team management are looking to release him and promote another junior driver, Pierre Gasly, up to Toro Rosso. Sainz was a hot ticket on the driver market over off-season, even linked to a possible Ferrari drive to replace Kimi Raikkonen. Sainz/Hulkenberg would be a very promising line-up for the Renault team, who are slowly but surely solidifying their position in the upper midfield as they build up their works team status again. You could say it’s the more conservative choice over a Hulk/Kubica line-up but, given Kubica’s time away from the sport and the question marks over his physical prowess, Sainz would be the safer option on paper.
Red Bull reliability a concern
Red Bull aren’t having a particularly phenomenal season so far, despite Ricciardo’s win in Azerbaijan. Max Verstappen retired yet again last time out in Austria, ostensibly from a first corner collision, but appeared to have already suffered a mechanical problem prior to the start. It’s one of a spate of recent mechanical retirements for the Dutchman, and Daniel Ricciardo appears to have been given his car for this weekend. A gearbox change on Friday meant Ricciardo headed into qualifying with a grid penalty, before a turbo problem during Q1 left him broken down at the side of the road while P1 on the times.
While not quite as smiley as usual after the session, Ricciardo was still in jovial humour with the press. He laughingly spoke about his plan to team up with fellow back row starter Fernando Alonso to ‘team up and take every driver out one by one and draft our way to the front’, but his frustration was still clear. At a time when Ferrari are looking to the future beyond Kimi Raikkonen, Ricciardo himself brought up the topic of ‘musical chairs’ at the Scuderia at the end of this year. Commenting on the abilities of F2’s Charles LeClerc, Ricciardo said that he felt it was possible the French driver could take the Finn’s seat but said that, ‘either way’, he felt change was coming at the end of this season. Laughingly avoiding the question of his commitment to Red Bull beyond this season, it felt like a veiled clue that there are possibly negotiations going on behind the scenes. Red Bull are not in a mess right now, but nor are they able to match Mercedes or Ferrari. Despite their size and recent success in F1, they are a customer team. With the Renault F1 team inching forward, at what point does Ricciardo decide that he needs to be with a full works team?