Here’s why why I am not applauding Lewis Hamilton’s comeback drive in Germany. This isn’t against Hamilton alone, it is against comeback drives in this two-tie era of Formula 1.
Lewis Hamilton won the 2018 German Grand Prix, a race that Sebastian Vettel should have actually won. Hamilton’s recovery drive from P14 to the top step of the podium is already being hailed as one of his best wins in Formula 1.
In the case of Vettel, the German driver had a typical Vettel-esque race – starting from pole and controlling the race, until he binned it in the barriers under slippery track conditions. Either way, the truth is that both world champion drivers needed team orders to ensure that their teammates didn’t claim victory. But that’s how it works in Formula 1.
Mercedes and Ferrari rely on team orders
The teams can decide which of their drivers can win the race and this weekend’s race was another display of teams exercising their right. Kimi Raikkonen’s alternate tyre strategy to Vettel saw the Finnish driver lead the race after the first round of pit stops. Vettel, who has a history of asking for and benefitting from team orders, did so yet again; prompting an initially hesitant Ferrari to ask Raikkonen to let Vettel through. While watching drivers swap positions isn’t entertaining, Raikkonen’s radio banter with Ferrari’s Jock Clear asking for the instructions to be clear did make up for it.
In Hamilton’s case, a case of a misjudged pit stop turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the Vettel-induced safety car period ended. Hamilton found himself in the lead, albeit with tyres that were 10 laps older than Valtteri Bottas’ (who was second). At the restart, Bottas attacked Hamilton for the lead, something we haven’t seen the Finnish driver do too often in the past, but was quickly asked by the Mercedes pit wall to ‘maintain position’.
Had Ferrari and Mercedes not used team orders, could a Finnish driver have won the German Grand Prix? Irrespective of who could have won, Formula 1 was robbed of a fight for victory between the fastest four drivers. Again, the idea is not to question the use of team orders, it is legally allowed in the sport, but to hail Hamilton’s win without Bottas’ sacrifice would be unfair.
Hamilton’s 66th career win came at Mercedes’ home race. Like Britain, in Germany too Hamilton had to plot a charge through the field after car issues in Saturday’s qualifying session saw him start in an out-of-position 14th place.
In fact, the debate is still on – did Hamilton’s off-track excursions cause the hydraulic leak on his Mercedes? Or was the hydraulic leak to blame for Hamilton’s off-track excursions? While Hamilton claimed that his car was broken before he went off, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff claimed the reverse. Although it could also have been possible that Hamilton’s off-track excursion further worsened the hydraulic problem his car was already facing. Irrespective, out-of-position fast cars have always made for interesting races and in Germany, Daniel Ricciardo was out-of-position too. He started 19th thanks to power unit penalties.
Hamilton’s easy comeback
However, given the pace differential between the top-three teams and the rest, Hamilton’s charge through the field was more like driving through moving obstacles on track than daredevil skirmishes with mid-field drivers. In just 14 laps, Hamilton was fifth – just behind the lead pack that included Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and Max Verstappen. The lack of defence from the nine drivers Hamilton overtook was proof enough that the mid-field drivers would rather focus on their own races than try and race against Hamilton’s obviously faster package. In view of this, not all comeback drives of this era maybe as memorable as those of the past.
The 2018 German Grand Prix was also this season’s first proper wet race of the season. In typical Hockenheim style, certain parts of the track were bone dry as others experienced rainfall. These conditions caused a lot of chaos for all teams and drivers on the grid, Mercedes included. Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was one of the first drivers to gamble with the intermediate tyres, followed by Fernando Alonso. However, the duo were back in the pits a couple of laps later to switch back to racing slicks.
Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly took his gamble even further when he opted for full wets. The unpredictable weather conditions saw the front running teams risk their drivers racing on a wet track with dry tyres – a decision that eventually saw Vettel lose grip and end up in the barriers while he was the lead of the race.
Vettel, who is otherwise known for his wet-weather racing skills, admitted that a small mistake led to huge implications in his title battle with Hamilton. If Hamilton made a mistake on Saturday, it was Vettel who made his mistake on Sunday. In Formula 1, it is largely believed that a driver is allowed one mistake per season, let’s hope that both our title protagonists have made theirs. For those looking for a balance in the championship equation, both Hamilton and Vettel now have a ‘Did Not Finish’ against their names.
For a brief moment post-race, it seemed like Hamilton could lose his race win thereby leading to a reduction in his 17-point lead over Vettel. The chaos that ensued during the safety car period saw Mercedes radio Hamilton to pit for fresh tyres only to reverse their decision at the very last minute (or last second, in this case). Hamilton, who was already in the pit lane entry, drove off on the grass and rejoined the race. The FIA summoned Hamilton-Mercedes post-race to explain their actions but decided against a penalty and issued a reprimand instead. Like with most post-race decisions that include subjectivity, this decision too was deemed controversial.
However, the indecision from Mercedes showed that even the best can get caught out by changing situations mid-race. Here, it isn’t still clear whether Mercedes decided to not pit Hamilton as a part of their strategy or because of Bottas’ botched pit stop that could have further delayed Hamilton. In lieu of this and the point about the pace differential mentioned earlier, Bottas still managed to finish second and Mercedes scored a 1-2 finish at their home race.
Ferrari’s Raikkonen scored yet another podium (third) – his seventh of the season. While the Iceman’s worst finish has only been sixth and has scored points each time he has finished a race, Ferrari and Raikkonen would be wondering what could have been of their weekend had a mistake in qualifying (at Turn 12) and in the race (while battling Bottas for second) not occurred. It is a delight to see Raikkonen fight at the front, especially if 2018 could be his last season in Formula 1, but the repeated mistakes are certainly costing positions that he and Ferrari are otherwise capable of scoring.
Missed Stories Of Heroics
While chaotic races are fun and make for great television, a downside is the loss of possible stories of heroics from drivers that finish in the points and the ones that don’t. Nico Hulkenberg finished fifth despite pitting thrice. In fact, had the rain persisted or returned, Hulkenberg was the highest placed driver on intermediates and could have challenged for the win when the top-four drivers would have been forced to pit.
Romain Grosjean finished sixth – a string of such results will cause Haas much headache if they are forced to offer a drive to Leclerc in 2019. Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson finished ninth, scoring two valuable points for his team while Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley claimed the last available point (thanks to a post-race penalty for Carlos Sainz Jr).
Force India’s drivers finished seventh (Sergio Perez) and eighth (Esteban Ocon) on a weekend the team definitely wouldn’t label as a standard. Ocon was eliminated in Q1 (his worst performance of the season), while Perez spun mid-race thanks to the changing track conditions.
Eight of the 10 participating teams scored points, with Mercedes and Force India being the only teams to have scored double points. The two teams that failed to score points despite the chaos were former world champion teams McLaren and Williams.
After winning races in China and Monaco in the early part of the season (they were gifted the win in Austria), Red Bull Racing seem to have lost their speed to challenge Ferrari and Mercedes. This could be down to Renault’s power unit deficit and reliability problems or even down to Red Bull’s upgrades not delivering up to potential. In Germany, Verstappen finished fourth, which saw him jump to within one point of Ricciardo in the Drivers’ Championship, who lost fourth place to Bottas in Germany.
In the Constructors’ Championship, Red Bull Racing are nearly 100 points behind the new leaders, Mercedes. The 1-2 finish in Germany helped Mercedes leap ahead of Ferrari. There was a change in the mid-field as well – Force India classified as fifth after tying for championship points with Haas.
In just 11 races contested yet, Hamilton and Vettel have exchanged lead in the Drivers’ Championship four times already. Their battle has been so evenly fought that in these 11 races, Hamilton and Vettel have held the lead in five races each while being tied for points once.
This battle for top honours is only going to intensify as the season progresses. The winner of the 2018 Hungarian Grand Prix in the coming weekend will definitely hold a psychological edge going into the summer break in August. Also for the first time in the hybrid-turbo era, Ferrari seems to be the class of the field and not Mercedes. However, write off either driver or team only at your own peril.
This post was first published on Firstpost