Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale takes us on a journey through the happenings of the Eifel Grand Prix
Ambient 9° Track 17° Humidity 58.9% Wind 1.3 m/s
Only in the Eifel mountains could it both be grey and bright but the race gods in all their cruelty had concocted a fiendish forecast to taunt the photographers as well as the drivers, a shifting chiaroscuro testing both their mental and physical fortitude to the utmost. And it might rain.
Loads of race day drama, with Norris getting a new PU after Renault detected a problem post quali and frantic attention to the cockpit of Sergio Perez on the grid after the installation lap. But the big story was Hamilton with a loose steering wheel, and the FIA ruling that it wasn't a mechanical fault and therefore not eligible to be repaired under parc ferme....
Cold weather and tyres were also very much on the forefront of everyone's minds as with a lack of Friday running the tyres were a bit of a mystery, albeit one that was likely to have graining as the main suspect. As the teams completed their last minute ministrations and the formation lap approached it was worth noting that pole position at the Nurburgring ranked up there with umbrellas in the Sahara as fairly useless possessions...
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Bottas as it was wheel to wheel through Turn 1, with Hamilton looking like he had the move done up the inside before Bottas kept his foot in it and managed to take the lead back into Turn 2. Leclerc gave Verstappen quite a run for his money as well before the Red Bull asserted it's dominance. Albon lost a place to Ricciardo after a big lockup but it was Ocon the biggest loser at the end of the first lap, having been shuffled back to P9, behind both Norris and Perez.
As the wait for DRS commenced, the top three maintained a very neat, 1 second-ish separation. On replay it looked like Albon's lock up lunge on Ricciardo to regain P5 resulted in a wee bit of wheel to wheel contact, but no damage reported. AS the race carried on, Leclerc was rapidly becoming the cork in the bottle and by lap 5 Ricciardo was well into DRS on the Ferrari, but not able to get the job done on that particular turn of the circuit.
Grosjean was on the radio, complaining that he was hit by some gravel kicked up by Kimi's rallycross moment through Turn 13 and was unable to use his left index finger, thinking it might even be broken. Hamilton was complaining that there wasn't a lot of pace and it was a not unreasonable thought that the tyres might be graining in these difficult conditions.
Lap 8 and Albon had had enough of the Soft tyre and was in for a set of Mediums, out in last place, as the stop itself was a bit balky as he struggled to get away from the box. If it was an attempted undercut, then it was a high risk strategy indeed, especially if the rains indeed came, but closeups of his front left showed the impact of his lockup into Turn 3 had ruined the tyre as his flatspot was down to the canvas. The following lap, Ricciardo finally got the job done on Leclerc, going the long way round through Turn 1 and Turn 2 and pulling ahead decisively into Turn 3.
Lap 10 and Perez had decided to have a go at Norris and it was the McLaren's turn to go round the outside, just maintaining his position ahead of the Racing Point into Turn 3. Leclerc was in the next lap and Vettel lost it into Turn 1, spinning and flatspotting his tyres, telling the team he needed to come in and replace them.
At the back, Albon had already worked his way up to P14 and Vettel had been put onto a set of Hards to try and run to the end of the race. On the same lap, Hamilton, who had been quietly nibbling away at Bottas' lead, went the long way round between Turn 2 and Turn 3 after Bottas had a huge lockup into Turn 1, opening the door. The news got worse as Verstappen was also invited into DRS range and surely enough, the Mercedes was in for some new tyres as Verstappen took P2 in stride and was off in search of Hamilton.
During that excitement Raikkonen had a go up the inside on Russell into Turn 1 and completely lost it, sliding into the rear of the Williams and sending it flying off track, with a puncture and, as it transpired, race ending damage as well. At the front, Verstappen was 4 seconds off Hamilton and Bottas had closed the gap to Ricciardo and was just round him as a VSC was called on lap 16 to recover the car of Russell.
Pitsopapalooza was called and Hamilton, Verstappen and Ricciardo all managed to take advantage on the way in, but Ricciardo got caught on the way out and dropped all the way to P9, just ahead of Albon. That move also effectively crippled Bottas' hopes for the win as it effectively gave the leading duo a 10 second advantage. And then more drama, as into the chicane Kvyat cut the corner and in the process of passing him, Albon clipped his front wing, removing it entirely as they swung round onto the start/finish strait.
Lap 18 and the fun continued as Bottas suffered a loss of power and plummeted down the order as Mercedes talked him through the reset procedure and after another lap with savagely impaired drive, the team decided to retire him. This left Norris in P3, followed by both Perez almost within DRS and then Ocon a further 5 seconds back. MGU-H issue was the call from Mercedes as the definitive cause of Bottas' retirement and the battle for the last podium spot was looking ever more interesting.
Raikkonen got a 10 second dinger for taking out Russell and at the front, it was Verstappen 3 seconds back of Hamilton and Norris gradually pulling away from Perez, notching a couple of tenths a lap on both Perez, and Ricciardo, further back and looking to get track position through infiltrating the pit window of the McLaren.
Lap 24 and Ocon was in after slowing dramatically, loss of brakes and gears which was almost always a sign of a hydraulic issue. Another tragedy as he was running fairly well in P5 and Renault was left with Ricciardo on a wrong footed strategy. Albon got a 5 second spot for stealing Kvyat's wing and in the interval had again managed to flat spot his tyres having a go up the inside on Turn 1 on Gasly, locking up and sending the Alpha Tauri wide. Red Bull called their junior driver in and voila, another retirement as the cold was perhaps claiming victims left and right.
Lap 26 and Norris was the next sacrifice to the racing gods, as a sensor issue cost him a second a lap, but not as dramatic as the issue which ended Bottas' race. The pace drop left him almost a second slower than Perez, and as they made their 28th lap of the circuit, the Racing Point was just about in DRS on the McLaren.
Perez was in the following lap to undercut Norris, and Macca covered him off by pitting Sainz behind, which left Ricciardo a nice stretch of free air and a bit of pace over Norris. The following lap, Lando was in and out just ahead of Perez, but behind Leclerc. But Perez was well in DRS and at the end of lap 31, just before the chicane, the job was done and he was off chasing Leclerc, 2 seconds up the road. It seemed that Norris' power issues continued to assert themselves intermittently, and he was facing a long road of constantly resetting his PU.
By lap 33, Perez had worked his way into DRS and into the chicane he got ahead of Leclerc who then pursued him down the straight and retook the postion. At the end of that lap, once again, Perez made the move at the same place, but this time pulled ahead through the final corner and the knife was firmly in. That battle cost him 3 more seconds, and he was looking up the road Ricciardo, in P3 and 15 seconds up the road. Leclerc was in for his second stop, and out on another set of Mediums which he was struggling to heat up. By time he got them settled he was in P9, behind Raikkonen. Which was not a place which he spent very long, as he was back by the Finn on lap 39. Norris, meanwhile, was having an even busier race, as the team was now telling him that he needed to default 3 after EVERY CORNER...mental, but he was maintaining a pace sufficient for P6 despite the added brain burden.
Lap 40 and Perez had knocked 2 full seconds off the gap to Ricciardo and behind, Hulkenberg efficiently passed Raikkonen and was officially into the points. Leclerc made a hard pass on Vettel and was up to P7, and looking at Norris who was doing his best but piloting an ailing beast. No sign of a pit and chase from Renault and it was going to be a defensive battle for P3 as Perez was on a push in clean air and taking nearly a second a lap. Lap 42 and P9 for Hulkenberg, by Vettel whilst the maths were not looking good for Norris, losing a second and a half a lap to the Ferrari. Vettel was brought in lap 43 for another stop and was at P15, ahead of just Kvyat on a set of Softs.
Lap 44 and Norris parked it up on the exit of Turn 6 and it was the Safety Car this time, as Norris' sidepod began to look rather toasty as his car awaited recovery. Hamilton, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Sainz, Gasly, Hulkenberg, and Raikkonen all chose to grab new tyres, which left Perez with track position on Ricciardo, but on old tyres versus the Renault driver on new Softs. Behind it was madness, Grosjean P7 on 17 lap old Hards, and Magnussen and Giovinazzi both on older Mediums. Oooh and Racing Point changed their minds and brought Perez in, just getting him out ahead of Sainz, but now on an equal footing with Ricciardo ahead.
The top drivers were all desperate to be set loose as the Safety Car dawdled around, trying to get the pack together and lapped cars through. Hamilton and Verstappen both radioed in their concerns but procedures were procedures and on they went...Lap 48 and the lapped cars were sent round, again giving them a bit of an advantage in getting their tyres up to temperature.
Verstappen was again on the radio, saying the Safety Car needed to come in and the FIA continued to ignore him and another lap they went as the decision was made to let the lapped cars rejoin at the back before bringing in the Safety Car. The top 5 were all on new tyres but behind it was vintage tyres down to P8 and Gasly. Lap 50 and the race was on, Hamilton backing them up all the way down the backstrait and he was off into the chicane getting a good jump on Verstappen who just managed to hold off Ricciardo through Turn 1. That put Ricciardo into the jaws of Perez who did his utmost to rock around the Renault, with the Aussie just managing to pull out the position through the exit of Turn 4. Behind, Gasly nabbed Leclerc easily with his hot tyres, and Grosjean was down to P9 which was certainly expected. Behind, Magnussen in P11 was within DRS on Giovinazzi on equal tyres and it was going to be a 7 lap sprint for the final championship point.
Hulkenberg had also carved his way to P8 and as lap 54 approached was inside DRS on the Ferrari and lap 54 saw Vettel by Latifi through Turn 1, and immediately into DRS on Magnussen ahead. Ahead, the Renault of Ricciardo was beginning to assert its dominance over the Racing Point, eking out tenths as the laps left dwindled. A magnificent battle then erupted for P11, as Kmag missed the chicane and Vettel took the position through Turn 1. Magnussen then stuck round the outside through Turn 2 and Vettel took him properly off the track. Not impressed, Magnuusen kept his foot in, rocked up the inside, and promptly took Vettel right back off on the exit of Turn 4, the difference being that Vettel was able to maintain his position. On replay, it looked a bit naughty as there was some contact and it did rather appear that Vettel opened the steering a bit.
It got worse for Magnussen, as then Raikkonen, taking advantage of the loss of momentum from the HAAS, and promptly put himself ahead as Magnussen found himself all the way down in P13 after looking like he had a chance to make it a double points finish for his team. Lap 59 and Abiteboul's tatto loomed ever closer as Ricciardo seemed to be managing the pace quite nicely and then the real surprise, Giovinazzi was making no headway at all against Grosjean in a solid P9....
Onto the last lap and it was Vettel in DRS on Giovinazzi for P10 and Gasly on Sainz for P5... and as the flag flew, it was status quo ante, Hamilton tying Schumacher's record as Ricciardo returned Renault to the podium and Verstappen continued to take the Red Bull beyond it's capabilities, albeit with the significant help of his championship rival Bottas. Hamilton not the only one with a record, as Raikkonen made it the most starts over even good old Barichello, something else for the team to celebrate along with Giovinazzi's singular championship point.
Massive result for Hamilton, after not being able to take the lead at the beginning, just putting the pressure on and a win for the team to boot, along with a record long thought to be unbeatable fully in sight, though tempered by the retirement of Bottas. Post race there was not a dry eye in the house, as Mick Schumacher gifted Hamilton one of Michael's race helmets as he was being interviewed for the podium....
Verstappen sneaking the fast lap from Hamilton at the end was just a little hot sauce as Red Bull will be celebrating yet again their ability to pull results out of the magic hat, though again tempered by the retirement of Albon after a stone punctured his sidepod and took out a radiator, a fatal blow. Without that the battle for 3rd looked possible from a distance, but it was a scrappy race at best for the driver who has endured questions about his seat pretty much from the start of the season...
The happiest team award was up for fierce debate but frankly the winner had to be Renault, who despite the loss of Ocon with hydraulic issues, was finally able to put Ricciardo on the podium after an epic defense from Danny Ric on the Safety Car restart. Happily, that also puts him 10 points up on Perez and in sole possession of P4 in the Driver's championship. Of course, with Ocon in P5 and also potentially in position to take the podium before his retirement, it was strong confirmation that they have made a major breakthrough with their car. Given how close the pair were in qualifying the fact that they are now just 2 points back of McLaren for 4th place and 6 back of Racing Point for 3rd place in the Constructor's will be warming the cockles of boardroom hearts as Abiteboul's promises of joining the top three look like they are now within reach. At least as long as Ferrari remain mired in the midfield.
The closest runner up might well be HAAS, who, incredibly by one stopping Grosjean took P9 and two more championship points for a team that was basically being run on leftover parts from the closet, though still 2 behind their Alfa Romeo rivals for P8. Certainly going to be the best ROI with regard to design effort invested of any team on the grid.
Racing Point will take their loss of a podium easily in stride as they take sole possession of 3rd in the Constructor's, especially with the last minute drafting of Hulkenberg into the seat after Stroll fell ill. The fact that he went from 20th to 8th was the icing on the cake as they fulfill the investment made by Papa Stroll and set up a delicious end to this season.
Not bad for AlphaTauri either, as with another strong finish from Gasly in P6 they continue to push forward after a very middling start to the season. Even though Kvyat finished dead last, with Albon sending him in for an extra pitstop they won't be losing much sleep and will be looking ahead to improving their position in the championship as the races left in the season dwindle.
You'd think after managing to finish Carlos Sainz P5 after the tragic retirement of Norris with PU issues from what looked to be an untouchable podium spot, would be some consolation for McLaren but post race it seemed the opposite was the case. Apparently after both drivers having run the latest updates (this week was Sainz' turn) there was agreement that the new bits were not working as anticipated, which led to a race long struggle with poor balance and front graining for the Spaniard, though the lack of running on Friday certainly would have exacerbated the issues.
Joining them in the doldrums were Ferrari, who after a fairly brilliant qualifying, helped by the cold temperatures, proved unable to sustain their pace over the course of a race. Which is not, perhaps, a big surprise if you grant that the colder temps aided their combustion in the PU. Once you run a couple of laps no amount of cold air is going to matter that much and that will be the issue that keeps engineers up late at night in the Scuderia as choices are made for the 2021 season.
Raikkonen's record starts are perhaps cold comfort for losing the lead on his teammate in the Driver's and overall Alfa continue to do just enough to stay ahead of HAAS, though for longtime followers of the team they do seem to be in a similar pattern to HAAS, just hanging out around the back and waiting for the new regs to kick in, with the albatross of a Ferrari PU round their neck and weighing them down this season...
Which leaves Williams and with Russell's untimely exit engineered by a wildly out of control Raikkonen, well, Latifi finished P14 which wasn't dead last.
The next race is in two week's time at Portimao, a new track and somewhat warmer temperatures should be fun for all after the ice bath of the Eifel GP. The battle between Racing Point and Renault should be epic and of course, should Hamilton win he will take sole possession of the record for most wins, though no doubt both Bottas and Verstappen will be wanting to have their say. And with no tyre data to work with perhaps another unexpected result awaits.....