Moments after the five red lights extinguished to start the 2021 British Grand Prix Max Verstappen knew he was the hunted, and Lewis Hamilton understood he was the hunter.
Max had a relatively poor start from pole position, and in a mirror image from the day before when those two drivers were in the reverse positions for the 17-lap Sprint, second place on the grid launched Lewis away perfectly.
The Mercedes was carrying less downforce and corresponding drag than the Red Bull, being a full 6mph faster through the top-speed trap in qualifying. Lewis was fastest of the 20 cars and Max was slowest… Those kind of fundamental set-up decisions are fully locked in with Parc Fermé rules once qualifying is underway.
Max skilfully went fully around the outside of turn one to hold the lead. Lewis gave him space, but it appears they briefly touched tyre sidewalls. A glimpse of the near, very near future.
Into turn three Max had to defend which put him out of position for the next tight left-hander called ‘The Loop’. Lewis swung around behind him placing his car for a better exit while Charles Leclerc in the fast-starting Ferrari sensibly kept a close watching brief, which allowed Hamilton the freedom. Charles’s patience would soon be rewarded.
Through the left swoop of Aintree and onto the Wellington Straight, Hamilton inevitably had a better exit and the slipstream was powerful. Verstappen immediately swung left trying to break that slipstream and force Hamilton to go the long way round for the fast-approaching Brooklands left-hander.
Hamilton took it, and after playing high-speed dare with each other touching wheels down the straight he was marginally ahead. But Verstappen had the inside line and could judge his braking to be fractionally later than Hamilton to regain the initiative.
Lewis left him space, and it suited him anyway for his counterattack into the next phase. Somehow Max made the corner by slicing across the inside kerb, but once again was fighting to regain the racing line and to defend.
Again Hamilton took the opposing line through the long right-hander of Luffield, thereby turning the corner into a ‘V’ rather than a ‘U’ such that he could power on early. Through the sweeping Woodcote corner, the Mercedes’ speed and slipstream were powerful as they headed towards ‘Copse’, turn nine.
From the Sprint race we all knew that Verstappen had to lead out of the Becketts complex at turns 10 through 14, where his extra downforce would allow him to pull a gap on Hamilton floundering in his discarded turbulent air with less downforce. He would not get that far.
Equally, Lewis knew the only way to take command of the race was to lead out of Becketts and power down the Hangar Straight.
Towards Copse, Max moved reasonably hard right and pinned Lewis, who had initially feigned left, towards the old pit wall perhaps certain in his mind that Lewis would yield as he approached a 180mph corner at an acute angle on the dirty side of the track.
The day before in the Sprint, Lewis had been in a similar situation but on the outside and had to yield, costing him a chance of victory, and he had already decided not to make that mistake again.
I believe he had also decided he had yielded too many times to Max’s aggression such as at Imola and Barcelona earlier in the year, and even the day before. He was 33 points behind in the championship and needed to make a stand against this fearless Dutch driving machine who wants his crown.
Hamilton was momentarily largely alongside before he bailed out of the throttle. Max turned in feeling the corner was his and they touched, spinning him towards the barrier at high speed, finally stopping with the force of 51G. Thank goodness the car did not start rolling over, or a wheel bouncing into the marshal or even crowd enclosures.
Hitting the barrier sideways hurts a lot, your ankles and knees can clatter together and your pelvis, ribs, shoulder and neck take a massive lateral load. Your head slaps into the headrest but thankfully that and crash helmet technology and design is good now.
Red Bull felt it was a professional foul, an intentional accident from Hamilton. They were incandescent, their potential world champion was bruised, their car expensively wrecked in this new cost cap era, and with possible grid penalties to come from any engine and ancillary damage.
They would score zero points from the race and both championship leads would be seriously eroded. I am told by Red Bull there is data to prove Lewis was significantly faster into Copse than at any other time and he would not have made the corner without running wide, and inevitably contacting Max.
Presumably, that will be made publicly available and if Red Bull feel they have ‘new evidence’ they may well make an appeal to the FIA as to their perceived degree of fault and leniency regarding Hamilton.
Watching Lewis over the decades it’s clear that he’s not a fundamentally dirty driver, although of course, he has had a couple of left-front against right-rear skirmishes with Red Bull’s Alex Albon in more recent times.
Max is super aggressive, and we love him for that, but Lewis decided he was going to counter that aggression. This incident was only a matter of time.
Unfortunately, it happened at Copse corner, one of the world’s fastest. We have seen many key overtakes here over the decades, always needing bravery, skill and some risk. But just as at some of the scariest of corners like Eau Rouge at Spa and the old 130R at Suzuka, it’s not out of bounds for an overtake as Hamilton ably demonstrated 50 laps later when he seized the lead from Leclerc at the very same spot. It was that kind of race.
Mercedes-Benz felt that under agreements made regarding driving infringements, and demonstrated on a simple document of unclear origin, that Lewis was sufficiently alongside to have owned the corner.
However, the Stewards decided Hamilton was ‘predominantly’ to blame for the contact and gave him a 10-second penalty to be served at his next pit stop. This means likely 70/30 to blame but not wholly.
The main reason was because they felt he could have pulled a tighter to the right-hand apex. He can be seen fully in the middle of the track post-contact but his steering wheel would have had a forced straighten-up at high speed in the process.
I have been through Copse many thousands of times in every type of racing car since 1977, and you cannot see it until you turn in. It is a brilliant if scary high-speed corner.
It would have been super high risk for both drivers if Hamilton did that on purpose, and it looked to me more like two great racing drivers fighting very hard for a world championship.
Max was not at fault although for his own race and championship campaign he could have left a little more space on the inside given Hamilton was bound to be compromised on that line, and perhaps have been less convinced that Lewis would yield.
But that’s with calm hindsight. With a 33-point championship lead and the fastest car he possibly took too many risks after that tardy start, but that’s why he’s a championship contender.
The four levels of in-race penalty available to the Stewards are five seconds added to the next pit stop (or elapsed race time if no further stops), the 10 seconds they chose, a ‘drive through’ which would have cost 19 seconds on the day, or a 10-second ‘stop and go’ which would cost around 32 seconds at Silverstone by the time you have pulled in and out of your team pit area.
Even after we knew Max was ok my heart was still heavy because I was so looking forward to those two drivers slugging it out for 52 laps. We have an amazing championship on our hands which is every bit as dramatic and powerful as the Senna/Prost days, along with others.
It was a little uncomfortable hearing the Red Bull and Mercedes team managers and team principals endeavouring to influence the situation by lobbying the race director but that seems to be the communication system in place, and which we are broadcasting for first time this season. Michael Masi, the race director, quite rightly pointed them towards the Stewards, and I can imagine a future revision on this process.
Through all this Leclerc drove beautifully to lead much of the race until Hamilton passed him with a couple of laps to go having recovered his 10-second penalty.
What a great drive from the young Monegasque despite some engine-cutting issues, and good to see Ferrari are on top of their tyre issues and showing decent race pace again.
I thought the new Sprint format showed a lot of promise, and I could not help but think when I was out on track Saturday morning seeing the swathes of enthusiastic fans that ‘we have got a race for you today rather than cars trying hard not to be near each other for a qualifying lap’.
The 17-lapper had some key moments even at the front, and fears that drivers would not be bothered about risking it all for a grid space or two unsurprisingly turned out to be wrong.
It would not work at street circuits of course, and we must stop pretending it’s not a race because it is. Also, to avoid confusion ‘Qualifying’ should generate pole position whether it’s on Friday or Saturday.
It was wonderful to see and hear the fans back, and for Silverstone to look so magnificent whilst generating thrilling high-speed action yet again. They saw Hamilton take his 99th F1 victory and eighth British GP in a race which will be argued over for years.
There is so much more to say about the weekend but I have used up 1680 of my 1000 words…