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Maximum Verstappen Delivers Pace, Strategy & Radio

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Formula 1’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix saw Maximum Verstappen in action – on-track and on radio. 

Would Mercedes win all races in the 2020 Formula 1 season? After the opening four races, the question seemed fairly legitimate to ask given Mercedes’ performance advantage. It was also fairly legitimate to assume that if anyone could beat the Mercedes car, it would be Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen. After all, they’ve been the closest to Mercedes’ performance than everyone else. It was at Formula 1’s landmark 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone where Red Bull-Verstappen overcame the Mercedes challenge to score their first win of the season. Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal, summarised his team’s win by saying that they beat Mercedes fair-and-square – on pace and on strategy.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas claimed second and third for the reigning world champions – this after qualifying first and second on Saturday. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc scored a fine fourth place and was followed across the finish line by Alexander Albon, the second Red Bull Racing driver. The two Racing Points cars of Lance Stroll and Nico Hulkenberg finished sixth and seventh followed by Renault’s Esteban Ocon, Mclaren’s Lando Norris and Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat picking up the final three points scoring positions.

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Maximum Verstappen

Even though Bottas beat Hamilton to claim a fantastic pole position on Saturday, all eyes were on Verstappen given his alternate tyre strategy in Q2. Among the grid of 20 drivers, it was only Verstappen who chose to set his fastest lap in Q2 on the harder tyre – one of the several factors that aided his victory on Sunday. Come race day, the Dutchman overtook Racing Point’s super-sub Hulkenberg at the start – another key moment of the race. In fact, Verstappen’s start has to be lauded, too. After all, he was the only hard tyre starter in the top-10; all others had the grippier mediums.

After dispatching the only driver who could have been in between himself and the Mercedes duo, Verstappen put in a mega first stint on the harder tyre. Given the obvious tyre life advantage, he was expected to go longer than the Mercedes drivers – and he did.

Verstappen’s hard tyre lasted for 26 laps while Hamilton and Bottas’ medium tyre had to be replaced on lap 14 and 13 respectively. In his first stint, Verstappen kept up with the Mercedes cars and suffered from lesser tyre degradation despite being on older and harder rubber. His faster pace in this stint pushed Mercedes to go faster too – one of the other reasons why their rate of degradation was higher.

By now, Mercedes knew that the Verstappen challenge was for real. Likewise for Red Bull Racing, they knew that they had a genuine shot at victory. In fact, at one point while Verstappen chased the Mercedes cars, Red Bull Racing asked their young prodigy to pace himself and manage his tyres – a request he refused in typical manner. In the fight between the two teams, Mercedes had the advantage of fighting for the race win with two cars. After Verstappen bettered Bottas’ challenge by the second round of pit-stops, Mercedes switched Hamilton (who was in 3rd) to a different strategy. They let their world champion driver stay out for 9 more laps and pitted him for a fresh set of hard tyres with 11 laps to the end. The intention was clear – chase Verstappen for victory.

While Hamilton overtook Leclerc and Bottas with much ease, he ran out of laps to narrow the gap and mount a challenge to Verstappen. After the race, Verstappen exclaimed, “It’s a great day and I’m very happy with the result as we did everything really well as a team. The race showed we had the right strategy after our decision to qualify on the hard tyre and I’m pleased it paid off. I think the length and pace of our first stint was the key to being competitive as the mediums don’t last that long, so starting on the hard was definitely the right call. We can see the car works well on softer compounds, especially in the race, and it looks after its tyres. When you are able to overtake and pull away from a Mercedes it is really satisfying.”

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Bad luck Bottas

After out-qualifying Hamilton, Bottas made a decent start and was leading the race comfortably before his Mercedes started to chew its tyres at a rate faster than their rivals. It was plain bad luck for Bottas that Mercedes had to switch priorities mid-race. Given their troubles and Verstappen’s pace, Mercedes had to go from backing their better-placed driver for a win to fighting a rival for a win – basically choosing team over driver. It just happened to be that Hamilton was in a position to try a different strategy since he hadn’t made his second stop yet.

“That was a frustrating race today. It’s never great to start from pole and finish P3. I think we were pretty much on the backfoot from the moment I lost track position to Max. We potentially could have gone longer in the second stint, the way Lewis did, to be able to push more towards the end of the race on fresher tyres,” summarised a dejected Bottas. To make matters worse, Bottas lost second place in the drivers’ championship to Verstappen.

Hamilton’s luck continued to shine on him at Silverstone. Last weekend, he pushed his Mercedes to victory on three wheels. This weekend, he was lucky to be in a situation where he could benefit from Mercedes’ switched strategy. And of course, his driving was as superlative as it has always been as he scored his 155th podium in Formula 1 – a record he shares with Michael Schumacher. Hamilton kept Bottas honest in the opening stint and worked well with his race engineer on the radio to extract maximum performance from his Mercedes despite the excessive blistering. At one point, it seemed as though they might attempt just one-stop in the race. Hamilton explained post-race, “The team will work hard now to identify our tyre problems. Pirelli had tyre failures last week. And then the pressure (tyre pressure) on them goes up and up and up so they’re like balloons, you know? I’m not sure anyone else struggled with blistering like we did so we’ll look into it.”

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Ferrari’s Leclerc focus

After last weekend’s surprise podium, Leclerc scored a fine fourth place in the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

“Today feels like a victory, which is not something we like to say when we finish fourth,” said an honest Leclerc. But truth be told, Leclerc is making a habit out of pushing his Ferrari to finish in positions higher than the car would deserve. Among the top-5 finishers, Leclerc was the only driver to have made a one-stopper strategy work – something that not many agreed would be possible given that Pirelli had brought compounds that were a step softer than last weekend. The Monegasque climbed up to fourth place in the drivers’ championship.

However, it was the other Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel that appeared to have not found a solution to its ongoing troubles. The former world champion couldn’t make it to the top-10 in qualifying and was relegated to fighting in the slower half of the mid-field. To make matters worse, Vettel suffered an opening lap spin, a driver error that saw him tumble down the order. Later in the race, he accused Ferrari of messing up his pit stop. Vettel finished 12th in the race and is now 13th in the drivers’ championship – his worst classification since the 2008 European Grand Prix.

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Hulkenberg’s comeback

After failing to start the race last weekend, Hulkenberg drove an impressive race this weekend. He shocked the paddock after claiming P3 in qualifying and followed it up with running in the top-5 for the majority of the race. Embarrassingly for the team’s regular driver Lance Stroll, it seemed that Hulkenberg had the measure of him despite not having a racing contract for the current season.

“I’m happy to have scored points for the team. P7 is a good result, especially when you haven’t raced for nine months. It wasn’t an easy race, and it was tough physically, but first of all, it was important that I made a good start and got through the first lap because once the race settled down, I could use my experience of managing tyres and driving these types of Formula 1 cars,” said Hulkenberg.

Did Racing Point overreact by pitting Hulkenberg for the soft tyre eight laps to the end? The team-driver claimed that heavy vibrations forced them to pit. At the time, Hulkenberg was running in 5th place – ahead of Stroll (6th) and Albon (7th), with the Red Bull Racing driver on a faster stint. Hulkenberg’s third stop demoted him to 7th and he couldn’t chase the extra point for the fastest lap either. Three laps to the end, Albon overtook Stroll and Racing Point had to settle for 6th and 7th places.

Out of the five races contested till date, four races have seen seven out of the ten teams score points – an indication of just how competitive the mid-field is. Unfortunately, the team that scored victory in the first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone 70 years ago – Alfa Romeo, had to settle for 15th and 17th places for Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi respectively. Up next is the 2020 Spanish Grand Prix – let’s see if Mercedes can be troubled yet again.

This post was first published on Firstpost

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