F1 Held Its Head High Against Tennis & Cricket – Kunal's F1 Blog

F1 Held Its Head High Against Tennis & Cricket

F1 driver Lewis Hamilton is as popular as tennis stars Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and of course, the Cricket World Cup winning England Team
In the best sporting weekend (yet!) of 2019, the British Grand Prix delivered a nail-biting motor-race; one that gave Formula 1 its moment to shine despite the race being pitched against a Federer-Djokovic final at Wimbledon and an England vs. New Zealand final at the Cricket World Cup.

Social media timelines were flooded with fans following all three sports via multiple screens while we chose to focus on Formula 1 by catching up a race screening organised by a local fan club ‘F1 Fan Hub – India.

For those who couldn’t follow Formula 1 due to loyalties to other sports, the result and headlines from the British Grand Prix would make one believe that it was yet another processional race. Mercedes scored their sixth 1-2 finish of the season as Lewis Hamilton claimed his sixth victory on home soil. Sebastian Vettel hit Max Verstappen, one that saw him pick up a penalty, while Charles Leclerc stood on the podium for the fourth race in succession. For the third time in five races, Carlos Sainz Jr. finished 6th. However, the headlines would do gross injustice to the on-track action that kept fans to the edge of their seats for a sizeable chunk of 53-lap race. In fact, the 2019 British Grand Prix might not be too far from being the best race of the hybrid-turbo era.

The Safety Car Intervention

In our view, the British Grand Prix can be classified as ‘Before Safety Car’ and ‘After Safety Car’ – both segments offering different narratives and fights all through the order. On lap 21, Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi beached his car prompting the FIA to bring out the Safety Car to help marshals extract his car from the gravel. The decision to deploy a Safety Car and not a Virtual Safety Car did raise a few eyebrows, but in situations where a crane is deployed for extraction – the use of the Safety Car is understandable. However, the Safety Car did bring to an end 20 laps of intense wheel to wheel action between Bottas-Hamilton and Leclerc-Verstappen. Fans would have hoped for the action to resume with similar intensity since the field was bunched up again by the Safety Car, but that wasn’t the case to be.

Valtteri Bottas clinched pole position, made a solid start and fended off each of Lewis Hamilton’s attacks for the lead in the opening few laps of the race. Those who follow Formula 1 regularly would know that after a couple of attacking moves, drivers would be forced to fall back in line and sit two-odd seconds apart to save tyres. However, the story of the first 20 laps of the British Grand Prix was un-Formula 1 like. Hamilton mercilessly attacked Bottas every passing lap, at one point even managing to overtake him briefly (lap 4), only to be overtaken back at the next corner. Bottas’ driving seemed to be making a statement against his much-celebrated Mercedes team-mate. Likewise in the Leclerc-Verstappen fight, the young racers fought for 3rd position across every inch of the Silverstone Circuit. Fresh from his defeat in Austria, Leclerc was determined to prove his talent and match against the much-regarded Verstappen and did so in a fitting manner.

A Charles Leclerc Advertisement

In the build up to the British Grand Prix, Leclerc had welcomed the FIA’s renewed stance on hard racing (context: Verstappen not being penalised for his aggressive move on Leclerc in Austria) and vowed to raise his aggression when required. In the race, Leclerc was quick to walk the talk as he successfully managed to keep Verstappen at bay with the two young drivers engaging in a battle that was fought hard but fair. The Leclerc-Verstappen battle continued in the pits as both drivers chose to pit on the same lap. Here, it was Red Bull Racing that won the battle of the pit-crews as Verstappen only just managed to jump Leclerc in the pits – both exiting almost side-by-side. However, two corners after exiting the pits, Verstappen struggled for grip, ran wide and was cheekily overtaken by Leclerc. Later in the race, Leclerc pulled off another stunning overtake on Gasly to claim the final step of the podium. In all, the 2019 British Grand Prix was a fantastic advertisement for the talent of Charles Leclerc!

However, in the excitement of the battle with Verstappen and the prospect of a free pit-stop for Vettel under the Safety Car, it seems that Ferrari missed pitting Leclerc at the first available opportunity. Yes, Leclerc-Verstappen had pitted for fresh rubber only six laps before the Safety Car, but to use the free pit-stop to switch to hard tyres was a no-brainer. By the time Ferrari pitted Leclerc (on the next lap), the Monegasque racer fell from 3rd to 6th – losing positions to the two Red Bull Racing drivers and Vettel.

FIA Finally Adjusting To Max Verstappen?

While Leclerc’s error was down to Ferrari, Bottas faced tough luck as he lost the lead to Hamilton for no fault of his own. After pitting for a fresh set of medium tyres on lap 16, Bottas was committed to a two-stopper race and one would have expected Hamilton to pit on the next lap and the Mercedes drivers maintaining status quo. However, Hamilton was able to stretch his opening stint by a few more laps – one that gave him a strategic advantage when the Safety Car came out. Instead of pitting for the medium compound, Hamilton chose the hard compound, a decision that allowed him to race till the chequered flag on a one-stopper, if he wanted to. Did the Finnish driver eat up his tyres more while defending against Hamilton (a la Kimi Raikkonen, 2018 Italian Grand Prix) on the opening laps? In the end, Hamilton clinched victory at home and in front of a near 150,000 fans – all of whom would have been delighted with the pre-race news of Silverstone’s extension as the host of the British Grand Prix till 2024.

However, the final laps weren’t without drama as Mercedes decided to pit both their drivers as a precautionary measure against possible tyre failure. While Bottas obeyed his team’s decision to pit, Hamilton defied orders and continued on-track. After the race, the reigning World Champion explained that the process of completing an almost unnecessary pit-stop was what made him decide against pitting. Ironically and on the last lap of the race, Hamilton claimed the point for the fastest lap on 32-lap old hard compound tyres.

Sebastian Vettel’s Fault. Again.

Elsewhere, Pierre Gasly allowed Max Verstappen to pass and chase down Vettel for third. After the Leclerc-Verstappen battle, fans were relishing the prospect of a Vettel-Verstappen battle – given how unusual it is for Formula 1 to offer us multiple high-profile battles in the same race. After a few laps of defending, Vettel was finally overtaken by Verstappen only to find himself with a half opportunity to win back position at the next corner. However, Vettel misjudged his braking after Verstappen moved across the inside to tighten the line and increasing braking distance. As a result, Vettel rear-ended Verstappen leading both drivers to collide and spin into the gravel (a collision that brought back memories of the Ricciardo-Verstappen crash in Baku, 2018). The duo rejoined the race (surprisingly!) after losing positions to Leclerc-Gasly. The FIA found Vettel guilty of the collision and awarded him a 10-second time penalty and two points on his racing license. He finished a distant 15th.

This mistake was one more in Vettel’s growing list of questionable moves since 2017. After Leclerc-Verstappen battled cleanly, one expected the much-experienced and four times Formula 1 World Champion behave in a similar manner. However, Vettel’s mistakes are similar in nature to Ferrari’s strategy errors – they don’t seem to end! While the senior Ferrari driver has confirmed interest to see out his Ferrari contract till 2020, one wonders if the accumulation of such incidents every other Grand Prix weekend could trigger an early retirement. At the moment, Vettel’s mistakes and struggles are damaging the image of a precise and ruthless racer that he built for himself during his days of racing with Red Bull.

For the second race in succession, drivers were able to use different tyre strategies throughout the race. The top-10 finishers were split between one and two stoppers, even though the high-speed nature of the circuit and new track surface raised concerns with regards to high degradation. The medium and hard compound tyres were the preferred race tyres and this is also why Ferrari’s decision to start both their drivers on the soft tyres made one wonder if Ferrari had made their first strategic blunder pre-race itself. In the end, the decision didn’t cost either Ferrari driver track position, but it did dent their early race progress.

Carlos Sainz Jr. Again.

In the mid-field, Carlos Sainz Jr. started 13th and benefitted with a free pit-stop under the Safety Car to jump his rivals and finish sixth. Kimi Raikkonen, who started 13th, finished in the points for the third race in a row in eighth place while the Renault duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth and tenth respectively. Despite being eliminated in Q1 of qualifying and starting in a lowly 17th place, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat raced well and made good use of the Safety Car to finish ninth.

The British duo of Lando Norris (Mclaren) and Alexander Albon (Toro Rosso) would be disappointed to have not scored points at their home race despite qualifying in the top-10. As with Racing Point, the team whose factory is just outside the gates of Silverstone, who failed to score at home and have scored only once in the last six races. Lastly, the saga continued for the Haas F1 Team with pre-race headlines being that of a disgruntled (and crazy!) title sponsor only for the two drivers to hit each other in the opening lap of the race leading to early retirement. This was the team’s seventh no-points finish out of the ten races contested this season.

FIA Loves The 5-Second Time Penalty

In the Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton leads Bottas by 39 points while Leclerc is only three points away from Vettel in fourth place. Gasly, with 55 points, is in a lonely sixth place while Sainz Jr. has pulled out a 13 points lead over Raikkonen for seventh and best of the rest position. The German and Hungarian Grands Prix are upon us before Formula 1 shuts down temporarily for its summer break. If the Austrian and British Grands Prix have been anything to go by, the racing will be fun even if it is the usual suspects claiming top honours.

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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