After Nico Rosberg’s retirement from the British Grand Prix many expected him to be at the top of his game in Germany to make up for the loss of momentum. Our expectations were met, and then some, when the German stormed to pole position and an easy win over Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. However, no one could have anticipated the troubles Lewis Hamilton encountered during the weekend, troubles that ultimately cost both him and everyone watching a potential duel to the checkered flag.
Instead of a Bahrain- or Spanish Grand Prix-esque fight to the finish between the two Mercedes drivers we saw one of the most eventful recovery drives in quite some time. Having started 20th after his crash in qualifying and a gearbox change, Hamilton then avoided the turn-one chaos to begin his charge through the field.
He was very decisive in his maneuvers through the slower cars, making good use of his soft tires at the same time. He was firmly in the top-10 when he made his first stop on lap 26. By then, his main rivals (Rosberg, Bottas and maybe Alonso and Vettel) had already made their first stops and were more than several laps into their second stints. Hamilton switched to another set of soft tires at his first stop with the aim of making his final stop for supersofts to take him to the end.
On lap 30, however, a costly misjudgment while negotiating a pass on Jenson Button in the turn four hairpin damaged his front wing and ultimately cost him a better result in the race. Hamilton was on his new tires at this point and closing in on his former teammate quickly. The Mercedes driver’s aim was to make the move on the inside, but mistook Button’s wide line through the turn as an invitation through. The pair clashed on the exit, thus damaging Hamilton’s wing significantly.
This meant that Hamilton’s car was not only unbalanced and more difficult to drive, but was compromised such that front tire wear would increase. With the left front tire the limiting factor on what was a cooler day than those previously during the weekend, this was a serious problem. The task of making his supersoft tires last at the end of the race would now be even more difficult.
Hamilton was up to second thanks to Bottas, Alonso and Vettel stopping on lap 40, 33, and 34, respectively. He ran for two more laps before he also made his second stop. With his damaged front wind, Hamilton could only manage 16 laps on his set of soft tires compared to 26 laps in his first stint. Mercedes had no choice but to split his final stint into two runs on the supersoft tire to get him to the end.
When Vettel pitted for his final stop on lap 45, Hamilton was in fourth and closing in on Alonso quickly for third. He made the move on the Spaniard on lap 49 to move back into a podium position. While before his costly clash he was on target for second place behind Rosberg, Hamilton was now in danger of finishing behind Bottas, who was one of few to be comfortable on a two-stop strategy. What was looking like a clear-cut 1-2 for Mercedes was no longer a sure thing.
When Adrian Sutil spun at the first corner thanks to his engine cutting out, Mercedes had no choice but to call Hamilton into the pits, thus shortening his stint. This would make the crucial, final stint all the more crucial.
When Alonso made his final stop on lap 55, Hamilton just had Bottas in his sights who, after Hamilton’s final stop, had been 16 seconds up the road. On fresh supersoft tires, Hamilton immediately slashed Bottas’ advantage lap by lap. However, he has to drive a little cautiously if he was to make his tires last the remaining 17 laps of the race. This meant his charge was compromised from the outset.
Bottas’ ability to keep Hamilton behind was remarkable. At some points in the final stint Hamilton was more than two seconds per lap faster than the Finn. With such an advantage, one would think overtaking an easy task. But Williams made fantastic use of the hybrid power of its Mercedes engine to keep Hamilton at bay for the final seven laps of the race when he was right on Bottas’ tail.
The clash on lap 30 cost Hamilton the chance to make the perfect comeback. Instead, the 2008 World Champion made a respectable charge to take a well-earned podium. Given that this event could have been avoided and that Rosberg eased to another win and extended his championship lead by another 10 points, you can understand why Lewis Hamilton looked so disappointed on the podium.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic