HOCKENHEIM, Germany — The rain clouds hovering over the Hockenheim circuit ahead of the German Grand Prix threatened to deliver a thrilling race. The weather gods delivered and F1’s drivers were more than happy to oblige, serving up a wild and chaotic spectacle which will live long in the memory.
At various points it seemed like a handful of drivers could win. The man who did was glad at one point still to be in the running.
Just add water …: The German Grand Prix was the first wet race of 2019 but it was well worth the wait. In a season that has been dominated by Mercedes, a series of rain showers on Sunday afternoon turned the order on its head and provided two hours of solid entertainment.
But the margins between success and failure were wafer thin — something race winner Max Verstappen admitted as he recalled his 360-degree spin in the stadium section on lap 26. Trace the ifs buts and maybes across the race and at least four drivers — Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas — could have won the race given the pace and the track position they held at certain stages. It was also F1’s third thrilling race in a row, which should serve as a timely reminder to a sport that is so often focused on the negatives of its formula.
Mercedes’ « Armageddon » weekend: On a weekend when Mercedes was celebrating its 125 years in motorsport, its F1 team turned in one of its worst performances in recent memory. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong, including both drivers spinning off (one into retirement) and a 50-second pit stop.
The first half of the race seemed to be going to plan, and the cars were running one-two up until a botched pit stop on lap 29. Hamilton put the turning point down to the moment his team called him in from the lead on a wet track to fit slick tyres, but in Mercedes’ defence it was in line with the majority of the field. By the end of that lap he was in the barriers and as he recovered for repairs he passed the wrong side of the pit entry bollard and earned a five-second penalty. Then came the calamitous pit stop in which the front wing and tyres weren’t ready. Given the response time, that wasn’t too much a surprise and given that it happened under the Safety Car, the time loss wasn’t too bad, but from that point onwards Mercedes had handed Verstappen and Red Bull the advantage.
Summing up his feelings less than an hour after the race, team boss Toto Wolff said it had been his team’s « Armageddon weekend ». But, still sat in his 1950s fancy dress, he refused to rise to the bait when he was asked if he had been embarrassed by his team’s performance on a weekend when Netflix had been filming behind the scenes. « You are using the word embarrassing, but no it is not embarrassing it’s motor racing, » he said. « Sometimes you have got to take a hit on the chin and just learn. We have to think about what went wrong today and if things come together, like Valtteri crashing out at the end, which was not great, this ends in an Armageddon weekend for us.
« We were celebrating 125 years here, with all the board here and all the Netflix guys here, that played no role at all. It probably gave them more content than any other weekend. We’ve got to stick our heads together tomorrow and learn. »
But it should also be noted that Sunday’s race was a one-off in an otherwise dominant season. The result on Sunday was down to failing to adapt to circumstances, not a fundamental flaw in the car or the team.
Nevertheless, it will make one hell of a Netflix episode.
Daniil’s redemption: There were plenty of candidates for who would have been the most popular podium finisher at Hockenheim, but Daniil Kvyat was arguably the strongest given what he has been through in his career so far. The Russian driver is enjoying a career revival after being re-signed by Toro Rosso for this year — the previous part of his F1 career saw him unceremoniously demoted from Red Bull in 2016, something he struggled to deal with in the immediate aftermath. At times on his return spell at Toro Rosso in 2017 it was difficult to watch him struggling.
Even without that backstory, the events of the 24 hours before the race made it a spectacular moment. Kvyat revealed in the immediate aftermath that he and girlfriend Kelly Piquet, daughter of three-time world champion Nelson, welcomed their first daughter into the world on Saturday evening.
It seemed the perfect way to cap this part of Kvyat’s life journey.
« It has been an incredible few years in my life, » he said after celebrating on the podium for the first time since the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix. « A lot of realisations in my life because there were sometimes tough times, and I thought maybe Formula One was over for me, and especially podiums, I would never, ever, ever be again. « But life just proves if you work hard and never give up, things are possible. »
Given the fact his podium coincided with yet another difficult display for Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly, who appears to be clinging on to that seat by the skin of his teeth, it makes you wonder if there is another chapter to this wonderful comeback story.
A long time coming: 12 months after crashing out of the lead at this circuit, Sebastian Vettel turned in a much-needed drive to a memorable podium. A lot has been written and said about that moment last year and the list of errors which followed it and it has been hard to escape the feeling Vettel has been struggling to properly process this difficult period.
A redemption drive seemed to be off the table after Ferrari’s car issues in qualifying, which left him starting from the final spot on the grid. But Vettel, who on occasion seemed to be on the ragged edge of the car, was superb. He kept himself in the hunt as others, including championsip leader Hamilton and Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc, did not.
Asked if second position felt like a win in the circumstances, the four-time world champion said: « Well I know that Max finished first, but I think with the race we had from starting last, I think we can certainly be very happy recovering.
« It’s certainly a tough time for us at Ferrari with days like yesterday, we have things we have to sort out and do better, but I think in this period it’s very important that we keep the morale and the support in the team. From the inside that is happening, from the outside I hope that is happening as well.
« I know the Tifosi are behind us but sometimes the headline can shift either way so it’s important that we keep the support because I think things are moving, we are working very hard, and when it comes to passion we put a lot of effort and a lot of hours in, people are very determined and impatient as everyone else to get the results finally. But it will take a little while.
« We know what we have to improve and that’s what we are working on, but in the meantime I hope that people are a bit patient and give us patience and time. So in that regard it feels like a small victory.
Ferrari needed something to feel good about given the way this weekend looked like it was unfolding — making it doubly special was that it was Vettel who delivered it against the odds.
A massive missed opportunity: While the Mercedes team will be collectively kicking itself on Sunday evening, no one will be as gutted as Bottas. He knows he needs to be faultless to beat Hamilton to the championship this year, but on Sunday an unforced error saw him drop at least 12 points (more likely 18) and throw away Mercedes’ last chance at salvaging something from the weekend.
When the chequered flag fell, the German Grand Prix was only the fifth time Hamilton has failed to score a point in the last five years and Bottas squandered the opportunity to take a chunk out of his teammate’s 39-point championship lead. Making matters worse for Bottas was that a post-race penalty for the Alfa Romeo drivers elevated Hamilton to ninth, meaning Hamilton will lead by 41 when the Hungarian Grand Prix takes place in seven days time.
Unless he can mount a remarkable turnaround in the last 10 races, Bottas will likely pinpoint Germany as the moment when his best chance of a Formula One championship finally faded away.
Hulkenberg bottles it…again: Nico Hulkenberg has the unenviable record of having the most F1 starts without visiting the podium. The moment which ended his German Grand Prix was a good insight into why that is.
As the circumstances of his home race fell into place around him, the German driver seemed well placed to put that streak to end once and for all. As the drama unfolded he found himself running in the top five — and, at the second Safety Car restart of the day, in second position. On that occasion he very soon fell behind the two Mercedes drivers, but the conditions were still uncertain and as the rest of the race proved, there was a huge opportunity for a big result.
On lap 40, Hulkenberg ruined that chance, aquaplaning off the circuit and into the wall at the final corner.
Hulkenberg’s career is remarkable to look at. In the junior categories he was all-conquering and he seemed destined to be the next big thing when he arrived on the grid, but, despite winning the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2015, time and time again in F1 he’s failed to seize these sorts of moments — when at Force India with Sergio Perez, it was the Mexican driver who made a habit of snatching podiums when they presented themselves. Hulkenberg memorably crashed out of a promising position at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2016 — what happened on Sunday afternoon at Hockenheim felt worse than that.
You can’t help but feel team boss Cyril Abiteboul will go to bed this evening wishing the Renault engine which failed had been on Hulkenberg’s car, and that Daniel Ricciardo had been the man looking to see what he could do in those crazy moments we saw in the second half of the race. In the same situation, there wouldn’t be many in the paddock who would not have made a cheeky bet on Ricciardo finishing the afternoon by swigging champagne on the podium from his yellow and black race shoe.
Lance gets the job done: We’ve been critical of Lance Stroll in this column previously — but we’ll always give credit when credit is due and the Canadian driver is owed a lot after that performance, coming from nowhere to finish within a whisker of a second career podium.
A few eyebrows were raised when Racing Point called him in to make the switch to dry tyres ahead of the final Safety Car restart but it was a stroke of genius, promoting him to the lead of the race for the briefest of moments. A brave strategy call needs everyone involved to nail it and Stroll did his part, although he was left ruing one mistake which ultimately cost Racing Point its first podium since being purchased by the Canadian’s father, Lawrence.
« Initially I didn’t have very good pace on the slicks, but once everyone settled in, I had quite good pace, and we were in the hunt for a podium, » Stroll said afterwards. « Unfortunately it slipped away from us today. I made an error in Turn 8 on my second or third lap on slicks, and that allowed Kvyat to overtake me. If only that wouldn’t have happened, I think we had the podium today. But it’s still a great result, P4. »
The result promotes Stroll above Racing Point teammate Sergio Perez in the championship, which isn’t quite reflective of the one-sided nature of that battle this year. But that table is the only thing that counts at the end of the season…