Lewis Hamilton justifies price tag as F1 shows its best face
The German Grand Prix weekend started with the news that Lewis Hamilton had signed a new Mercedes contract worth up to £40m a year, and ended with a demonstration of why he justifies that sort of money.
As team boss Toto Wolff put it after the race: “The difference between the best and the very good is that on the very difficult days they are able to make the difference.”
Hamilton did exactly that on a day that started with expectations of damage limitation from 14th on the grid and ended with title rival Sebastian Vettel in the wall and the Briton back in the championship lead.
n between, Formula 1 showed its best face, as Hamilton demonstrated all his remarkable skills – both before and after the pivotal late rain shower – and the race turned into a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride in which chaos was in as much evidence as amazing driving skills and incredible engineering.
That chaos even afflicted Hamilton, as he aborted a decision to pit for tyres during the safety car period following Vettel’s crash amid one of the most bizarre pieces of communication between a driver and his engineer you will ever hear.
The drama was not even over after the race finished – Hamilton’s abortive pit stop meant he drove across the grass to rejoin the track, a move that led to a stewards’ investigation that ended with merely a reprimand.
Wolff felt Mercedes were owed the luck – if we are to call it that – which played a part in the victory after some difficult races, but the old adage that you make your own luck in sport and life has rarely looked truer.
Hamilton in imperious form
Starting the race in the midfield after a hydraulics failure in qualifying, Hamilton said he had exercised his strong religious faith in his hopes of making amends. “I said a long, long prayer before the race started,” he said. “I just wanted to stay collected and stay calm.
“The team did such a great job, the car was fantastic. Honestly, I’m so grateful. I would never have thought you could do something like that today, but I just kept pushing, I kept believing and it happened.
“I really manifested my dream. So big, big thanks to God.”
Whether it was down to divine intervention or not is an individual’s point of view. But while it is true that outside circumstances – specifically the rain – led to the series of events that won him the race, Hamilton put himself in the position to do it with one of the greatest drives of his life.
First, there was his highly impressive first stint.
It was not so much that he fought through the field from 14th to fifth in just 14 laps; the speed advantage the top teams have over the rest of the field has made this relatively commonplace when a Mercedes or Ferrari driver is in that sort of position.
It was that he did so while still keeping his tyres in good enough shape that he was not only able to do a 42-lap opening stint on the soft tyre – his old rival Fernando Alonso in the McLaren managed just 31 – but was still able bang in competitive lap times throughout.
Ferrari played into his hands with a mix-up over strategy that led Vettel, on fresher tyres, to be held up behind team-mate Kimi Raikkonen because of divergent strategies. Vettel grumbled intermittently about it being “silly” he was losing time, before the team eventually ordered the Finn to let him by.
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But the upshot was that Hamilton’s late stop enabled Mercedes to put him on fresh ultra-soft tyres – the fastest – for a relatively short final stint. The team gambled that the rain they knew was coming was not going to be hard or extensive enough to require a change to wet-weather tyres, that the ultra-softs would give the grip he needed, and they were absolutely right.
Hamilton emerged 22.9 seconds behind Vettel with 23 laps to go. It looked relatively comfortable for Vettel but the Mercedes began eating rapidly into his lead.
Three laps later, with rain starting to fall, Hamilton had Vettel’s advantage down to 17.1secs. Three laps after that, as others began to pit in the increasing rain, it was down to 12.1. Two laps after that, Vettel was in the wall at the Sachs Kurve, swearing into his team radio.
A moment of madness
The safety car came out, Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas pitted. Hamilton was now second behind Raikkonen. And then came Mercedes’ wild pit call.
Should Hamilton stay out on his now 10-lap-old tyres, or change to fresh ones, as Bottas and Raikkonen would?
“Box, box, box, box,” engineer Peter Bonnington said. “Kimi is staying out,” Hamilton replied. “Stay out,” Bonnington yelled. “In, in, in, in, in, in, in.”
In the midst of all that, Hamilton made the call himself to stay out, and it gave him the lead. “Hey, man,” he said to Bonnington, who replied: “Sorry, mate. Just go for it.”
“It was the most confusing second and a half,” Hamilton said later. “I thought I was going to stay out. I was happy with my tyres and then they said come in and then I saw Valtteri coming in and I was like, ‘Are they sure?’ And by the time I got in, then they said stay out.
“It was go left, go right and I just trundled over the grass and made sure I rejoined as safe as i could. I think it was still relatively exciting.”
That doesn’t even begin to describe one of the maddest races in memory, as drivers pitted and pitted again, spun, battled, ran wide, places swapped.
By the time it had all settled down, Hamilton was in the lead from Bottas behind the safety car. At the re-start, there was a brief scrap, which Hamilton won the first round of, before Mercedes called it off from the pits.
“If it had been Valtteri first and Lewis second, we would have made the same call,” Wolff said.
“It was important to score the double podium to recover some of the points we lost through bad luck.”
He was referring to the team’s double retirement in Austria and Hamilton being biffed from behind by Raikkonen on the first lap at Silverstone, among other incidents.
He insisted it did not mean Hamilton was now the favoured one in the championship.
“Racing is most important. We always said if the championship goes into the last third or quarter and there is a big difference between the drivers then we might make these unpopular calls. But it is much too early.”
Was Vettel’s error down to pressure?
Vettel is somewhat under scrutiny for being vulnerable to mistakes under pressure – after Baku last year, when he rammed Hamilton in a fit of pique, Singapore last year when he triggered a multiple start-line pile-up, and Baku this year when he ran wide trying to pass Bottas after a safety-car restart and dropped from what would have been a win or second to fourth.
Was this another one?
Hamilton said: “It would be hard for me to answer that. I don’t know. The only way that is possible is if they’ve said: ‘Lewis is this far behind.’ Ultimately the pressure was huge on all of us, particularly in the tricky conditions.”
Vettel tried to play it down. He said: “It was a small mistake with a big impact on the race result.
“It is something I have done wrong and I should have done better but it wasn’t the biggest mistake I have done. It was probably one of the most costly ones but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
He was left to rue the consequences of what had looked like being a comfortable win slipping away through his own error – but then Hamilton was in the same position at Silverstone two weeks ago, when a bad start from pole gave Vettel the lead and led to his collision with Raikkonen.
In the end, Vettel’s mistake was more costly. But he has the consolation that Ferrari are on the crest of a wave of performance at the moment. “We have a strong car,” he said. “So we can be as confident as… more than anybody else, it was a very positive weekend, it was just one of those moments.”
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How good was Hamilton’s drive?
As if Vettel needed reminding, though, Hockenheim provided evidence of the strength of the man he is fighting to become the first of their generation to win five world titles.
How good was Hamilton’s performance in Germany? His former team-mate Nico Rosberg, with whom he is not exactly on good terms after their fractious time together from 2014-16, described it as “absolutely phenomenal”.
Hamilton said: “Every time there is a day like this it is a chance to show what you can do. Driving from the back is always more fun than driving from the front but you never know how far you can go. Sometimes you get the shorter straw. Today I feel like I drove the best I can remember driving.”
In his whole career?
“I have had a lot of other races and there have been other great ones. Silverstone 2008 was pretty great but I went off (on one lap) so it was 99.8%. This one I did not make any mistakes at all, which I’m really proud of.”
At Silverstone in 2008, Hamilton crushed the field, lapping at times five seconds faster than anyone else, in a drive that has been compared with the greatest of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.
That’s how good he felt he was on Sunday. And who is anyone else to argue?