“What a day, love you Silverstone.” The feeling was mutual, 141,000 through the turnstiles to witness Lewis Hamilton drive into history. Any questions about his patriotism, about his Britishness, seemed utterly out of step with the affection washing over the pit straight as he celebrated an unprecedented sixth British Grand Prix victory. That’s one more than Jim Clark, two more than Nigel Mansell.
Among those paying their respects were James Bond, aka Daniel Craig, Sir Mo Farah, Gareth Southgate and Mauricio Pochettino. Not bad support for a bloke supposedly struggling to win friends and influence people. We are not just talking about a British grand prix great here but arguably the greatest British sportsman of all time.
His 80th grand prix victory takes Hamilton to within 11 of Michael Schumacher’s record, a total once thought unreachable. Mathematically, he could get there this season. After seven wins this term and a 39-point championship lead there is no compulsion to go mad. Nevertheless, if he needed to win every race in the second half of the year to prosper you’d fancy his chances.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am. So many flags out there. You’d think you get used to something like that. Let me tell you it feels like the first time,” Hamilton said. He was speaking to Jenson Button, one of many British former drivers enjoying a turn in the broadcast media. Button won the world title in 2009. In a 17-year career he won 15 races. Damon Hill, also a pundit with Sky, won the world title in 1996. He ended his seven-year career with 22 victories. Mansell’s 31 wins were worth one world title in 1992. Hamilton is heading for title No 6. He says he is good for a few years yet. When he does call it a day, the evidence suggests he will bow out in a class of his own. “One of the best days I can remember,” he said. “I remember my first win here 2008. The feeling I had coming out of Brooklands and seeing the crowd...It was so reminiscent of that today, the happiness and joy I felt was exactly the same, just as amazing as that first win. It is great to be part of this team, breaking down walls and records.”
Again the absurd question about his attachment to Britain arose in the post-race huddle, the reluctance of those to accept his testimony at odds with the emphatic statement he made on his in-lap, trailing the flag of the union from his cockpit.
For the hard of understanding, he had this to say: “It is the greatest single moment of any athlete to raise the flag or the gold in their own country. I come here and have this fantastic support. You just want to deliver for them so much. One day I will have a picture of me in the car with that flag and I will be able to smile until my dying day.”
In a period of increasing uncertainty for the sport, Silverstone delivered a classic. Just two races ago Formula One was in crisis, a soporific French Grand Prix highlighting the elements that too often kill the spectacle. Austria did much to restore our faith, courtesy of the Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc show. The latter lost out in Spielberg. Here he gave his response. The ding-dong between the two over the opening 20 laps was as riveting as anything we have seen in the hybrid era, Leclerc bang on the limit to keep Verstappen in his mirrors.
Antonio Giovinazzi’s exit broke the spell, forcing Leclerc in for an unscheduled stop for hard tyres and dropping him to sixth. He would need team-mate Sebastian Vettel to lose his marbles to gain the podium he ultimately deserved. The outcome was rubber-stamped by the appearance of the safety car, which played clean into Hamilton’s hands. His Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, pictured, who led from pole, pitted before Giovinazzi spun off to trigger the safety car. Hamilton had set a fastest lap and might have undercut Bottas anyway. The safety car ended the argument.
Vettel slammed into the back of Verstappen 15 laps from the end. Vettel had been running third thanks to the safety car. Verstappen swept past him through Stowe. Vettel overcooked his response into Vale, missing his breaking point and punting Verstappen sideways through the air into the gravel. Vettel was done, wrecking his nose and dropping to 17th. Verstappen survived but could only finish fifth.