Silverstone UK was the venue for rounds four and five of the 2020 F1 season. The teams travelled west, a fortnight after the first triple-header of the year. The teams took stock of their performances in the opening rounds and arrived in Silverstone, some with an upgraded package.
There was a buzz in the air with the 70th anniversary of the sport a week later. However, grim news hit the paddock on Thursday. Sergio Perez, Racing Point F1 driver, was isolated due to an "inconclusive" Covid-19 test. He later tested positive. The Mexican went into self-isolation as per UK quarantine guidelines and would miss the British and possibly the 70th Anniversary GP. He had flown to Mexico to visit his injured mother and believes he contracted the virus during travel. Thankfully, he was asymptomatic.
Racing Point had little time to search for a replacement. Nico Hulkenberg got chosen over Vandoorne and Gutierrez. The German was a part of the sport up until last year and had a 5-year stint with the team. He infamously holds the record for the most number of races without a podium ( in F1 ). Many hoped this would change in the extremely capable Racing Point RP20.
Hulkenberg was allowed into the paddock after a series of Covid-19 tests and a seat fit completed in the Racing Point factory which is next door.
Silverstone is a power-track which offers a fair bit of challenge to general car balance thanks to its fast, flowing corners. This track was the first test of the capabilities of each car on the 2020 F1 grid and the "home race" for Mercedes AMG Petronas, Red Bull Racing, Racing Point, McLaren, Renault, Haas F1 and Williams Racing.
Varying track temperatures would make it a challenge for the right tyre choice come qualifying and race. The tyre selection ( by Pirelli ) were a step harder than the ones chosen for the weekend after. The engineers had their hands full for an action-packed British and 70th Anniversary GPs.
Let us have a quick recap of the British GP weekend!
Bottas was the dominant Mercedes in Q1. Hamilton and Verstappen completed the top 3. The Racing Point cars were 4th and 5th. Russell once again bumped his Williams up into Q2 with a 13th place finish. His team-mate Latifi had a big spin at Luffield in the final minutes of Q1 and brought out yellow flags. Russell set his personal best time under yellow flag conditions ( P13 as mentioned earlier ) and was investigated by the stewards after the session. Raikkonen and Giovinazzi had improved on their times but couldn't get themselves out of Q1. Alfa Romeo Racing F1 was the only team to have not entered Q2 till date, troubled times for the Swiss-based outfit. Magnussen, Grosjean and Latifi were the other casualties. Raikkonen reported his displeasure at being impeded by Ocon and the stewards decided to investigate the incident.
Q2 got underway with a varied tyre choice for drivers. Mercedes, Racing Point, Red Bull and Leclerc chose the medium tyres for their first run. The rest of the field were on softs. Bottas set a new track record whereas Hamilton made a rare mistake at Luffield and got spun around. To add insult to injury, the Stewards decided to halt the session when Hamilton was on a flying lap ( his second attempt ). The marshalls had to clear the gravel off the racing line before the resumption of the session. The seven-time World Champion had a decision to make in the interim. He chose to use his final set of Medium Tyres for his second run in Q2 with eight minutes left on the clock. He set the 2nd fastest time, the move paying off. In the final minutes of the session, Vettel and Stroll exited the pits on a fresh set of medium tyres while the rest of the field ( including the Mercedes ) chose the soft tyres. Stroll couldn't improve on his final run, neither could Vettel. Stroll was the driver under threat in P10. Gasly matched his lap time ( to the thousandth of a second ) but was classified eleventh since Stroll was the first driver to set the same lap time ( as per FIA rules ). Albon was the big casualty of Q2 with twelfth being his best effort. Hulkenberg too was a disappointment in 13th. He believed the car had more pace. Russell and Kvyat were the other eliminations. Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Stroll and Leclerc would start the race on the medium set of tyres, enabling the quintet to go longer than the others ( in Q3 ) before their pitstops.
Low fuel loads, a fresh set of soft tyres and maximum engine performance are the hallmarks of every dry Q3. The final session of Qualifying got underway with some drama in the pit-lane. Stroll had to slam on his brakes after Ferrari released Leclerc in his path. Ricciardo was behind Stroll and had to do an evasive manoeuvre. Stewards decided to investigate the unsafe release. Mercedes pulled a considerable gap to the rest of the field with their banker laps. The order at the top had changed with Hamilton getting the jump on Bottas. He held onto provisional pole after the first runs and set a new track record in the process. Verstappen was the best of the rest in P3, a couple of tenths clear of Stroll and Leclerc. Vettel's lap was compromised after he put a wheel on the dirt at Chapel but managed to get provisional P6. The order would change drastically in the final run of Qualifying though. Hamilton went even faster, by three-tenths of a second, to grab pole at the British Grand Prix. Bottas pushed hard but had to settle for P2. A qualifying masterclass by the seven-time World Champion! Verstappen qualified in P3, a second down on the Mercedes duo. Leclerc produced a stellar lap to qualify in P4, a great place to start for the Ferrari driver. Norris and Stroll completed row three, Sainz and Ricciardo row four and Ocon and Vettel row five on the grid. Vettel's final lap time was invalidated as he had exceeded track limits, a dismal couple of days for the four-time world champion.
The stewards decided to hand Russell a 5-place grid penalty for ignoring double yellow flags in Q1. Russell failed to interpret the "double-yellow" signal and wasn't instructed ( by the team ) to abort his lap ( as per the rules ). He also got three penalty points on his licence for this infringement. There was no further action on the Ocon/Raikkonen, Leclerc/Stroll and Stroll/Ricciardo incidents.
Hamilton bagged the 91st pole position of his career. It was also a day of milestones for both driver and team!
More on that here :
Mercedes were the class of the field on Saturday again. Verstappen was their closest challenger, albeit a second behind. McLaren and Racing Point hoped to have better race pace than the Ferraris while Albon had his work cut out for Sunday afternoon. Renault would be in the mix too. Duels in the front, midfield and at the back awaited fans on Raceday!
Albon resumed his charge up the field by passing Raikkonen and Latifi on laps 40 and 42 respectively. Verstappen held the point for the fastest lap after it changed hands between Hamilton, Albon and him. There was excessive tyre wear on both Mercedes cars. Bottas reported vibrations and decided to conserve his tyres till the end. The gap to Hamilton started increasing steadily. Raikkonen was relegated to P17 and last when Grosjean overtook him on lap 45. Albon closed in on the duo of Giovinazzi and Russell in the battle for P12 and passed them on lap 46. Vettel in the Ferrari was next, seven seconds adrift. Stroll moved under braking while defending from Ocon on the Hangar Straight and got served a Black & White Flag for unsporting behaviour. It was job done for Ocon on lap 47 who was up to P8. Albon was taking chunks out of his deficit to Vettel and set the fastest lap of the race.
Hamilton's lead to Bottas now extended to 6.5 seconds while Verstappen reduced his deficit to less than 9 seconds. McLarens were also reporting issues of blistering and Norris was coming under pressure from Ricciardo. Raikkonen's miseries didn't seem to end when he suffered a front wing failure and a left front puncture on lap 48. He limped to the pits and rejoined after a fresh set of tyres and front-wing swap. Gasly overtook Stroll for P9 on lap 49 and Albon was honing in on Vettel for P11.
No scriptwriter could have imagined the drama that unfolded in the last three laps of the race. Bottas suffered delamination on the left front tyre going wide at turn 1. Verstappen was up into P2! There was more action further down the field with Albon overtaking Vettel for P11 and Ricciardo going past Norris for P6. Bottas had already begun his lap when the tyre mishap occurred and would have to tip-toe around the entire length of the circuit, losing a lot of time to those behind him. He pitted on the penultimate lap, got a set of soft tyres in a 6.5 second stop and rejoined in P12 behind Vettel. Disaster for the Finn!
Verstappen also pitted for a fresh set of tyres, Red Bull aiming to bag the point for the fastest lap. It was a guaranteed P2 for Verstappen who had a comfortable buffer to Leclerc. Mercedes had the option of pitting Hamilton to mitigate the chances of tyre delamination. They chose otherwise. Hamilton had a thirty-six seconds cushion after Verstappen's pit-stop and instructed to exercise extreme caution with his tyres.
Albon's recovery drive continued with an overtake on Stroll for P9 on the final lap. There was more drama further up the field. Sainz was next on the list of casualties from tyre delaminations. The Spaniard's left front tyre gave up the ghost, losing P4 to Ricciardo. He pitted and rejoined in P16 and out of the points.
Lewis Hamilton, the Race Leader, was halfway through the final lap when he too suffered delamination on his tyre! Mercedes had made a tactical error by not pitting him when they had the chance. It was a nerve-wracking time for the six-time World Champion. There were continuous changes to the settings ( on his dash display ) to manage a car that was limping around on three wheels. Verstappen was informed about Hamilton's predicament and kept pushing till the end. The gap reduced drastically but Hamilton limped over the finish line, less than 6 seconds clear of a late-charging Verstappen. Leclerc came home in 3rd after putting in another flawless drive. Ricciardo equalled his best finish in Renault with P4, Norris was P5 for Mclaren and Ocon P6 for Renault. Gasly, Albon, Stroll and Vettel completed the top 10. Bottas put Vettel under intense pressure but couldn't pull the move off at the end. A dismal end to such a promising weekend for the Finn. Giovinazzi was P12, another good drive put in by the Italian for Alfa Romeo. Russell, Latifi, Sainz, Grosjean and Raikkonen were the rest of the finishers.
Some experts believed that Red Bull blew the chance of victory by pitting Verstappen on the penultimate lap. However, Team Principal Christian Horner refuted the claims by saying that Verstappen had cuts on his tyres and would have suffered the same fate as the Mercedes duo had he not pitted. Mercedes had a bitter-sweet day and rued the missed opportunity of another 1-2. Hamilton and Mercedes seem unbeatable even under duress. Ferrari is having a challenging 2020 but will be encouraged by a strong showing on Sunday. Alan Permane, Renault's Track Operations Director, completed a milestone of 500 race weekends on Sunday. P4 and P6 by his drivers is quite a tribute for his dedication to the team's cause. McLaren also had a mixed day at the office with Norris getting P5 and Sainz being denied a points-finish at the end. Gasly put in another strong weekend for Alpha Tauri in P7. Albon once again proved his skill to fight on a Sunday. Stroll and Racing Point had a forgettable British GP and will look to bounce back the next weekend. Hulkenberg seems destined for another round of racing next weekend with Perez restricted to the confines of his room. Vettel was frustrated after a trouble-ridden weekend but will have a second shot at it. Williams is improving with each passing weekend while Haas F1 and Alfa Romeo seem lost at sea.Grosjean got a formal warning from the stewards for his unsporting defensive manoeuvres in the race.
Pirelli promised a thorough investigation of the tyre delaminations at the end of the race. Their findings will be critical since the dry tyre compounds chosen are a level softer with higher track temperatures forecasted for the 70th Anniversary GP.
The 70th Anniversary of F1 is nigh. The teams will return to Silverstone this weekend for a second bout. A special event awaits one and all.