For most of the British Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton was unassailable at the front of the field but Ferrari at least looked like scoring a double podium finish behind him with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel. But it all went away from them in the final five laps of the race.
Raikkonen looked the sure runner-up finisher after a weekend where he had Vettel’s measure, outqualifying him and then running second most of the race even on a longer first stint before pitting to switch from supersofts to softs.
Alas, Raikkonen’s usual sparring partner Valtteri Bottas had gone for the opposite strategy after starting ninth for Mercedes, starting on softs, then switching to supersofts. He was catching him up at least a second a lap for second, if not more, before Raikkonen slowed in the final few laps with a left front puncture.
He pitted, and looked all set to fall off the podium with Bottas up to second and Vettel to third.
But Vettel’s race eroded at almost an identical time frame with an even worse delaminating and puncture on his left front.
This issue occurred shortly after Bottas had got Vettel on his own.
Raikkonen was able to recover back to the podium in third behind Bottas as Vettel and Max Verstappen pitted, but Vettel fell to seventh, and his championship lead plunged to just one point ahead of Hamilton in the process.
Raikkonen was restrained on the podium, telling 2009 World Champion Jenson Button, “Yeah we got more or less the most out of the race. They (Mercedes) were just a bit faster. We were struggling a little bit to go faster.
“The end was an unlucky situation. For whatever reason the front left, not really exploded, but was struggling. Luckily I got back going quite fast. Unfortunately then Seb had the same thing I think a lap later. Not happy, but not the worst.”
Raikkonen was more despondent when speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton in the media bullpen a bit later.
“All was fine. Then it suddenly exploded. The air wasn’t in the tire. A part came off and it was flapping around. It was sudden,” he said. “It was only a few laps to go. We should have been OK.”
Vettel did not visit NBCSN within the media bullpen. His race was compromised early by brake smoke off the line and despite a successful undercut of Verstappen, did tell Sky Sports he thought the tire issues “caught us both by surprise.”
Further investigation about what caused the respective issues will no doubt occur. However, as Vettel’s now been unable to win since Monaco nearly two months ago, suddenly Hungary looms as a very important weekend ahead.
The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.
The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.
Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).
As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.
Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.
Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.
A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016
The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.
Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.
Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.
The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.
And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.
In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.
Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.
In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.
Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari
The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.
Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.
Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.
All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.
Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas
Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.
However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.
However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.
However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.
The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.