3:52 PM ET
The British Grand Prix was a fairly routine affair for 49 of its 52 laps, but it exploded into life late on after a series of punctures in the closing laps.
One dramatically altered the complexion of the championship fight, while the fear of another prevented Red Bull from snatching a stunning first win of the year.
Here’s a look at why it all unfolded the way it did.
What happened to the tyres?
Nowhere on the Formula One calendar punishes tyres like Silverstone. The lateral loads involved (which are in excess 6G through Maggots, Becketts and Chapel) are mind-blowing and torture the rubber from corner to corner unlike anywhere else.
Over the course of nearly 40 laps, the laws of physics work away at the integrity of the tyres. Rubber sheds from the surface as it is pulled across the track again and again, and the structure deforms each time the driver leans on the outer shoulder through a corner. What’s more, the cars have never been quicker than they are now, meaning Pirelli’s tyres are dealing with forces like never before.
Report: Hamilton wins British GP on three wheels
The apex speed in Copse is up by 11km/h compared to last year, while Maggots and Becketts are up by 12 km/h. Given the tyres are the same as the ones used last year, it’s perhaps no surprise that they were on the absolute limit when compared with previous years. It should be noted that Pirelli has not yet completed its investigation into the failures and is expected to give a more detailed account of what happened by Monday or Tuesday.
However, the wear levels on some of the other cars showed next to no rubber left on the carcass of the tyre. With so little rubber on the tyre, it becomes more and more susceptible to punctures and the leading theory at the moment is that debris ultimately led to a puncture.
“The level of wear is quite high, this is a fact,” Pirelli’s motorsport director Maio Isola said. “Looking at the tyre from Grosjean from the first stint, it was completely worn. I had a look at some tyres from the second stint, and the level of wear is close to 100%, so we have to understand if this is the cause of the failure.
“What is clear is that when you have a tyre that is completely worn, the protection on the tread is less so if there is a small piece of debris on track, it’s easy to damage the tyre. Some chords are visible on the tyre, so that’s why I’m saying the level of wear is close to 100%.”
Why didn’t Hamilton pit?
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Mercedes should have pitted Lewis Hamilton to protect him from the same tyre failure Valtteri Bottas had two laps earlier.
Hamilton nearly missed out on victory as a result of his own puncture and would have lost the lead had Max Verstappen not made his own pit stop two laps from the end (more on that later).
Mercedes discussed pitting Hamilton once he had the gap to Verstappen, but doing so would have meant bringing him in at the end of lap 51 of 52 — something that a team would never do in normal circumstances for obvious reasons. Mercedes was not anticipating Bottas’ failure, but there were more warning signs on his car than Hamilton’s.
That was to be expected given Bottas spent most of the race in Hamilton’s wake, putting extra strain on the tyres as the aerodynamic performance struggles in the lead car’s dirty air, and the data was saying Hamilton’s tyres were in better shape and would survive the final lap. So Mercedes decided to keep Hamilton on track in the belief his tyres would last the distance.
“We had the gap, enough gap to Max [to pit and come out in the lead], but it was only one lap to go so the decision that was taken was not to pit,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “Everything looked fine at the stage, we saw Lewis’ tyre was in a better state than Valtteri’s and it still looked a little bit random and then obviously everything unfolded, the picture of [Carlos] Sainz [with a tyre failure] on the screen and then a few moments later we saw Lewis with the puncture.”
In hindsight, afterwards, probably a pit stop would have been better but at the end we don’t know the root cause of the failure. It could also have been debris. A newer tyre would have had more integrity and rubber and probably protected better against debris so we will learn from that and probably pit if the tyres are in a bad condition.”
The logic behind Verstappen’s stop
On the face of it, its easy to look at Verstappen’s chase of Hamilton at the end and assume his pit stop cost him the victory, given that with that strategy call he was still just five seconds behind Hamilton as the world champion’s car crawled to the finish line. That wouldn’t quite be an accurate summary of how it happened.
Red Bull had called Verstappen in as a response to Bottas’ tyre failure, knowing it effectively meant he could take a stop for fresh tyres and attack for fastest lap, while also effectively inheriting second position in the process.
Verstappen suggested after the race he wanted to go for it and stay out, but team boss Christian Horner said the team risked an identical failure on the Dutchman’s car if they had followed that route.
When asked if he had any regrets about the stop, Horner said: “I don’t know really because the tyre that came off the car had about 50 little cuts in it.
“It had been through debris and if we’d have stayed out we could have lost a second position with the same failure as Lewis, Carlos Sainz and Bottas. So it was right on the limit. We’ll be grateful for what we’ve got rather than what we’ve potentially lost.”
Ahead of the race, Red Bull likely would have taken a second position given how dominant the Mercedes car looked all week.
“You can either look at the glass being half empty or being half full,” Horner added. “We benefitted from Bottas’ issues. “We benefitted from Bottas’ issues, even when they had a faster car today. Very nearly had the same issues ourselves. If Hamilton had had the issue a lap before we’d all be patting ourselves on the back.
“It’s never good to benefit from others’ misfortune but I don’t think we can be upset with what happened today.”
This was a gut-wrenching outcome for Valtteri Bottas. His title hopes were contingent on keeping the pressure on Hamilton at all points and for 49 laps of this race he did a good job of that.
Unlike his below-par performances at the last two races, this was completely out of Bottas’ control. The cost of his puncture was a massive 25-point swing in the championship — Hamilton now leads by 30 points. It’s hard to imagine when Hamilton might give Bottas an opportunity to claw all of that back.
Lady Luck very rarely smiles on Nico Hulkenberg.
News of his sensational return this week as stand-in for Sergio Perez, who tested positive for COVID-19, created a bit of buzz that it might finally offer a chance to break his record-breaking streak of race starts without a single podium finish.
Considering he went from preparing to test a GT car to driving in FP1 in less than 24 hours, it was always a tall order to expect him to be up to speed with Lance Stroll immediately. Racing Point was very impressed with how quickly he had adapted to the situation, although 12th on the grid took some of the excitement out of his return.
The buzz was completely extinguished on Sunday afternoon. The team identified an engine issue and, despite some frantic work in the minutes leading up to the start, a dejected Hulkenberg was soon walking back to the motorhome.
Hulkenberg couldn’t help but see some of the irony in this particular comeback story ending like that.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” he said. “Somehow it fits into all these crazy days that I’ve experienced. But obviously disappointing for me and for the team. “They tried everything, but [because of] some sort of power unit issue, we didn’t manage to start the car and get out there, which is obviously a disappointing problem. We’re looking into why.”
Hulkenberg might well get a second chance at a comeback grand prix if Perez is required to quarantine for ten days instead of seven or doesn’t return a negative test before next week’s race. However, given Racing Point’s underwhelming race day pace, there might be a bit less excitement over his prospects should that be the case.