By Callum Springall
Before anyone accuses me of bias – which I admittedly made no effort to hide in e182 of the NR F1 podcast – the following couple of paragraphs ought to come with a caveat: Lewis Hamilton drove the perfect race at Silverstone, which is certainly more than can be said for others and therefore is the deserved conqueror of Formula 1’s hallowed ground.
However, Silverstone is one of the circuits most affected by the quality and effectiveness of a team’s overall package.
If we take qualifying as a case in point; 2016 saw the top seven line up in constructors’ championship order – two Mercedes, two Red Bulls, two Ferraris and a Williams – while in 2015, it was near enough to the eventual outcome.
Generally speaking, the cars will line up two-by-two, concurrent with whoever has the best power and best aerodynamic grip in high-speed corners – notwithstanding the more closely-matched midfield, wherein driver skill tends to make up the difference.
This year, the conditions in the early stages of qualifying blurred those lines to a degree. Daniel Ricciardo and Kevin Magnussen found themselves out of position. Other than that, the rule of thumb held true: Valtteri Bottas didn’t get it together in Q3 so lined up fourth, behind two Ferraris; Max Verstappen was behind him in the sole-surviving Red Bull and Nico Hulkenberg’s surprise performance stood out – putting him ahead of both Force Indias.
McLaren and Haas would have hoped for better from Fernando Alonso and Kevin Magnussen, whose team-mates got into the top 10. Were it not for constantly developing track conditions in Q1 and Q2, more could be read into the results. Otherwise it’s partly ifs and buts.
Nonetheless, the determining factor tends to be engine power and overall downforce. Regarding the former, Mercedes have always held their rivals’ power units at an arm’s length since the start of the V6 era, and gains made in the latter department since the start of the European season have stood them in good stead. The only barrier to further victories has been tyre warm-up issues in Monaco and Russia.
Barring these mishaps, Ferrari’s now meager points advantage would not hint at a deceptive lead, as had been the case for much of the season.
The reason for the championship lead is that Sebastian Vettel is no less than a miracle-worker. Someone who – when the car is on his wavelength – manages the most subtle of four-wheel drifts that allows him to squeeze every bit of grip the tyres have to offer.
On top of this is his almost unparalleled consistency. In only Canada and Silverstone has he not been in contention for the win. In Montreal it was a first-lap love kiss with Max Verstappen that forced him into the pits and out of the picture as far as the top step is concerned.
In Silverstone, well that can come later.
The only other grand prix in which he was off of the podium was Azerbaijan, where his petulance cost him a certain victory and a less perilous buffer going into the part of the season where Mercedes are expected to stretch their legs.
Contrast these to Hamilton’s off days and there appear some dents in the armour.
Having built up a reputation while Jenson Button’s team-mate as being the most adaptable driver with a niche for circumnavigating technical defects, Hamilton’s mantle seems to have been taken up not only by Valtteri Bottas, but even Nico Rosberg in the three years previous to this.
When both Mercedes were hit with brake-by-wire failures at Canada in 2014, it was the German who finished second. Hamilton? Nowhere.
At the 2013 British Grand Prix, the Brit was one of the first to fall foul of the Pirelli tyre blowouts – paving the way for Rosberg to win. At last year’s European Grand Prix, Rosberg figured out his engine was in the wrong mode – as was Hamilton’s – which led to a few laps of sustained pressure from behind, before correcting the matter to take a routine win on a day when his rival floundered.
This year, such dents have grown deeper and reach further than an inability to compensate for lost power. They suggest in a few races that the three-times world champion has lost his penchant for overachieving in a car not set-up to his liking; first appearing in the season opener in Melboune where he was pushed into an early stop due to his lack of pace. He was unable to make use of the undercut, which put him into the sights of the new kid on the Mercedes block.
And in Sochi Hamilton was comparatively average against Bottas, who had the same problem and managed to win the race. Monaco yielded the same order of merit.
On that front, 2017 has a similar feel to 2012 when Vettel and Fernando Alonso did battle in vastly differing machinery. There was the Red Bull: the fast, one size fits all car in which the German had an array of off-days, such as those in Malaysia, China and Monaco where he finished behind Mark Webber, before overcoming set-up misdemeanors to win a succession of grands prix later in the year to secure the title.
It’s a path Mercedes are currently being led down with Hamilton. In contrast, Vettel now emerges in the shadow of Alonso’s consistency that put him on the podium for much of the season in an inferior car.
Oh how ominous it is, that the faster car won out on that occasion.
In other news, Valtteri Bottas has staked a further claim for his championship credentials and is now within a race win of the summit, albeit one that will edge away if he doesn’t find a level of raw speed that he hadn’t obtained before Austria.
Even so, going from ninth to second in the current formula is nothing to be sniffed at. So there’s every chance he could emerge the victor in a fight that will most likely be swayed by non-scores.
On Vettel’s lack of pace and his rare absence from contention for victory, it was a couple of tenths he lacked in qualifying that signified a line of deficiencies, which in turn summed up his weekend.
From a disgruntled third on the grid, the 30-year-old spun his wheels and went nowhere, relative to Verstappen who shot ahead and hung on to the final podium spot until the end of the first stint. By that point Vettel’s race had been ruined by the Dutchman’s stubborn – and justified – defence. And that forced the championship leader into an early attempt at an undercut, which wore out his tires and meant he would never get within touching distance of his team mate to at least beg the question whether team orders could feature.
In fairness to Kimi Raikkonen, he had the pace all weekend and looked every bit the equal of Vettel, who could have finished second to minimise the damage done by the Mercedes’ pace; instead the wound is there for all to see, and the championship lead is odds-on to be surrendered at the next round if history is anything to go by.
Aside from its usual drama, the British Grand Prix gave up some real gems of performances from the drivers. Nico Hulkenberg showed what he hasn’t quite boasted since leaving Sauber and got the absolute maximum out of his Renault to comfortably beat the Force Indias, even mixing it with the Red Bulls – if not lurking in the background.
Sixth place doesn’t necessarily signal a leap forward in car performance, as much as it does a stand out individual performance – but the consistency with which the former GP2 champion displayed his pace is certainly promising.
Likewise, Daniel Ricciardo got the best from his car and had a race that almost certainly put a smile on the face – if it’s even possible – of Helmut Marko, who had said that seventh would amount to a good race.
So surely fifth place, despite overtaking half the field twice and pulling off a double overtake at Village as well as a number of passes at Stowe and one at Copse, is a certifiably great race. Or at least, so says the public who voted him Driver of the Day.
On the topic of overtaking, there seemed to be a general ability to follow another car through Maggots and Becketts in order to pull off a move at the end of the Hangar straight, which led to some gripping scraps – Vettel on Verstappen being the most memorable. That said, most found it all too easy to pass another driver before Stowe, so perhaps the DRS was a touch overpowering.
Still, when processions like Monaco and Barcelona reappear on the calendar year on year it’s good to know the future of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone is safe for years to come.
♦ Callum Springall is a member of The NR F1 Podcast crew. You can follow Callum on Twitter @callumspring18