A rain-hit Hockenhiemring delivered a thrilling German Grand Prix in an action-packed 64 laps featuring four Safety Cars, five cars landing in the barriers, seven drivers unable to finish, teams scrambling over suitable tyre strategies plus steward time penalties in what is being called “the most incredible race we have seen in a long time”.
Not even the commentators could guess who would be on the podium in the last five laps as chaos reigned to the finish line, calling for the uncertain Hockenhiemring event to stay on the Formula 1 calendar in 2020.
While a tough race for many, all teams can learn from how the front-runners handled the pressure of the unruly conditions. Who were the winners and losers from the weekend?
The Dutch driver had a shaky start from the front row of the grid that saw Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner with head in hands but as the twists and turns of the weather unfolded, Verstappen held third position through the first half of the race. Five pit stops and a 360-spin one corner before the bend that took out Leclerc, Hülkenberg and Hamilton was a mere blemish on the sound performance of the 21-year-old.
Red Bull’s skilled strategy of switching to fresh intermediate tyres and Verstappen’s expert read of the conditions gave him the charge he needed in the last stint to pass Racing Points’ Lance Stroll to take P1. Putting the power loss scare that disrupted his opening run in the second qualifying session behind him, Verstappen missed the chaos of the last five laps and with a 7.3-second lead, he claimed his second win of the season.
“It was amazing to win, it was really tricky out there to make the right calls, you had to be focused. I made a nice 360, I enjoyed that,” he said post-race. “It was about trying to not make too many mistakes. You learn over the years I’m very happy with the result.”
Verstappen is third overall in the championship standings but 63 points adrift of Hamilton and 22 behind Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
Everyone remembers his disastrous exit from German Grand Prix 12 months ago and there was danger of history repeating itself after starting dead last having not set a time in qualifying. But that is now a distant memory as the German produced a remarkable comeback progressing to P14 by lap two and then P7 on lap 22.
Ferrari fans erupted as the four-time World Champion moved up seven positions in the last 15 laps and made light work of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, then passed Stroll and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat with less than five laps to go.
Just a few miles away from his home town of Heppenheim, Vettel crossed the line in second place earning 18 more points in a reassuring performance.
“It was a long race at some stage it felt never ending. It was very fun, it was tough with the conditions and tough to read what was the smartest move,” Vettel said. “Before the last Safety Car, it was straight-forward, I was fast and could time it right and people were being cautious into the first corner and I had DRS and I could get the moves in the back straight.”
Kvyat secured a shock P3 podium finish for Toro Rosso after the Italian team sent him to the pits for fresh tyres under the Safety Car period that resulted from Hülkenberg’s crash, which turned out to be perfectly timed. Qualifying fourteenth and dipping as low as P19 in the early stages of the race, Kvyat passed Stroll in the final stint to take second place but could not hold off a charging Vettel. The Russian driver returned to F1 this season after being dropped from Red Bull Racing in 2017 and claimed his third career podium and Torro Rosso’s second in their F1 history.
“It was amazing to be back on the podium. Incredible with Toro Rosso to bring a podium back to the team is amazing. I’m really happy. It was a horror movie with a black comedy,” he said, summing up the mood of the entire race. “At some point in thought the race was done, but it was incredible, a rollercoaster, just like my career.”
To add to personal accomplishments, the 25-year-old announced the arrival of his first child the night before the race.
The Brackley team’s drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas will be wanting to forget this year’s German Grand Prix. After leading the race for the first 30 laps, Hamilton skated off the track under Safety Car conditions, sliding into the barrier and ripping off half of his front wing. A quick-thinking Hamilton dove straight into pit lane, albeit too fast for his pit team, who scrambled to fix his wing and find the right tyres for the championship leader. Then to add insult to injury, once back on track in fifth, the stewards handed Hamilton a five-second penalty for going around the wrong side of the bollard when entering pit lane.
In true Hamilton fashion, it only took 8 laps for the Brit to regain a podium finishing position after overtaking Niko Hülkenberg to sit in third. After Mercedes’ decision to not change the British drivers tyres after Hülkenberg’s crash to serve their penalty, with 18 laps to go and a track drying out, Hamilton went to the pits a lap later than Verstappen and Bottas and rejoined in 12th place.
Pushing to make up ground, Hamilton then had a massive spin at Turn 1 with 11 laps to go, requiring him to stop again for fresh tyres. Crossing the line in 11th place, Hamilton received a post-race revision to ninth due to Alfa Romeo driver’s Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi having 30 seconds added to their race times.
Bottas was desperate for a podium but pushed too hard and smashed into the barriers at the first corner to bring the Safety Car out for the fourth and final time late in the race.
“It’s been a bad day, a bad weekend. Probably the worst day in the office for a long time,” said Hamilton. “I don’t really know what happened today to be honest, but I’m glad that it’s over.”
Renault endured a double-whammy disappointment at the Hockenheimring with Daniel Ricciardo retiring after barely a dozen laps with an exhaust problem and disaster struck later in the race for Nico Hülkenberg. Qualifying in P9, Hülkenberg had made strong progress through the field and judged the conditions well to change tyres at the right time, and that put him second at one stage, but was passed by Valtteri Bottas and then Lewis Hamilton to sit fourth. The German driver slid into the barriers at Turn 16 in the midst of chasing his first ever podium finish, retiring at his home race for the first time in his career, holding his head in his hands post-race.
“I lost the car for one moment in the wrong corner, in Turn 16,” he said. “The Tarmac next to the normal track is not the normal asphalt, it’s some sort of ice skating track. Once I was there, I couldn’t control the car. You saw the result, I slid into the wall.”
Leclerc was holding Ferrari’s slim hopes of a chance of victory, qualifying 10th after mechanical issues brought him undone in Q3 on Saturday. Leclerc made great progress in the opening laps looking likely to challenge Hamilton for the lead when the Ferrari star lost control at the penultimate corner of Turn 15 on Lap 28, just after gambling on dry-weather tyres on a drying track. Leclerc admitted that the incident was his fault but also slammed the level of grip on the track.
“It doesn’t make anything better for my mistake but, first of all, I think the tarmac in the last two corners — it’s just unacceptable we have that on a Formula 1 track when it’s wet,” Leclerc said.
Next up and only a week to wait is the Hungarian Grand Prix. It is a track where Hamilton has always dominated and where Mercedes will be strong. It will have to do a lot to live up to the thrills of Hockenheim.
Images via Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, Red Bull Content Pool, Scuderia Ferrari