The spell is broken. There would be no British Grand Prix record for Lewis Hamilton, no fifth win on the spin. But if Carlsberg did second places…
Sebastian Vettel was the one raising an index finger to express how he felt about winning at Silverstone for the second time, and maybe in defiance of the idea that Hamilton is the driver of the age. In return, Hamilton demonstrated why he might indeed be the driver of the age with an arresting charge through the field after blowing pole position and then being Kimi Raikkonen-ed all the way to last place.
It was not the opening lap of dreams the 140,000 devotees packed into the old airfield had come to see. In these heightened times of World Cup nirvana, they no longer do defeat. Yet here was Hamilton, the weekend banker after Kyle Edmund relieved Britain of interest at Wimbledon, punted into the gravel at turn three for what seemed like the longest second in F1 history.
It appeared Hamilton’s Mercedes was permanently beached, then, first with all the alacrity of a Walrus dragging its tonnage across the sand, then like a thief running from the police he returned to the race. Raikkonen was awarded a ten-second penalty for his trouble, which was at least double the sanction given to his team-mate Vettel for wiping Valterri Bottas a week ago but nowhere near the handicap suffered by Hamilton.
The blow was so obviously not a racing incident. For a driver as long at an F1 wheel as Raikkonen it was the kind of shocking misjudgment that has conspiracy theorists, led by Mercedes, screaming, well, conspiracy. Vettel, who had assumed the lead into the first corner following Hamilton’s leaden getaway, was the clear beneficiary. And so for the second week running, the quickest car, Hamilton’s was not the one leading the race.
“I think my car’s broken,” Hamilton said on the team radio. Nonsense boy, get your foot down was the essence of the reply. And get it down he did. There is joy to be taken watching Hamilton caning the asphalt bearing a grudge, or, put another, way taking more than a second a lap out of his Ferrari bogeyman Raikkonen. Within ten laps he was running in the top-ten, within 15 he was snorting into the top-five.
Hamilton’s arm wrestle is against Vettel, of course. This Hammer-time Sunday at Silverstone was, therefore, about limiting the damage, the scale of which was understood when Vettel returned to the track after his first pit stop a place ahead of Hamilton on lap 21. Mercedes left out Hamilton a further four laps, slipping him back into the field behind Raikkonen in sixth. What Hamilton needed was a random safety car. On cue, Marcus Ericsson lost it through Abbey on lap 33. Ferrari, as is the custom, whipped Vettel and Raikkonen straight in. Mercedes rolled the dice positively, as opposed to last week, by keeping Hamilton and Bottas on the circuit. It was one stop or nothing for them.
Hamilton was not convinced. “I have no chance of competing against fresh tyres,” he said. “You’re have the quickest car by a mile,” he was told by race engineer Pete Bonnington. “Don’t give up.” He still wasn’t convinced, once again questioning the value of his tyres. “The numbers look good to me,” came Bono’s response.
We would have to wait for the safety car retreat seven laps later for the numbers to add up. Bottas had a lead to defend, Hamilton was running third, Vettel the red meat in the Mercedes sandwich. The safety car went in, the safety car came out. This was F1 hokey cokey, Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean coming together around Copse to trigger an immediate return of the flashing light.
The race had shortened to an 11-lap sprint, 11 laps for Bottas to keep Vettel in his mirrors and Hamilton to keep Raikkonen, who went past Max Verstappen’s fading Red Bull around Stowe, off his tail. With five laps remaining, Bottas lost his rear through Brookland’s and Vettel was through. With four laps to go Hamilton rounded his team-mate, whose rear tyres, four laps older the Hamilton’s, had lost meaningful traction.
Thus Hamilton had three laps to make second stick and cap the deficit in the championship at eight points. In F1 folklore as written by former McLaren leader Ron Dennis, second was always first of the losers. Despite the ill feeling towards Ferrari over the nature of the Raikkonen hit, and the one taken by Bottas in Austria at Vettel’s hands, to Hamilton it felt like a win.
“Our team did an amazing job this weekend, we have so much support and so much pressure for us all,” he said. “Interesting tactics I would say from their [Ferrari] side, but we will do what we can to fight them.”