Posted on November 18, 2020.
Report by Tony Cotton with analytic input by Nigel Bland
Lewis Hamilton won a totally deserved and dominant 7th World Championship on Sunday with a great drive from a relatively lowly grid position. He has broken records along the way for wins, and much has been written suggesting he is GOAT, an acronym I hadn’t heard until recently, but which means Greatest of All Time. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest even if a driver missing Ferrari on his CV is clearly not complete. However, all of the proposals of greatest are based on statistics and despite a life in numbers I do not believe they can tell the whole story.
Greatest to me implies a supremacy of talent and application. The problem is that victory in any sport, and motor racing more than most, does not come about for a single reason. The opposition, the equipment, the rules in play at the time and, on a sombre note, the loss of a driver before his career could play out to the full. Who could say what Rosemeyer would have done had he not been taken by a pointless record attempt? Or, closer to home, Villeneuve trying to prove a point? Or Jim Clark if he hadn’t been entered in a needless F2 race? In fact Jim Clark illustrates my point perfectly. Like Hamilton and Schumacher, he ensured he was driving the most competitive cars. Unlike them he was forced by that choice into cars which had a reputation of fragility. To choose a Greatest of All Time is to choose between Beethoven, The Beatles, Elvis and Mozart. The only thing we can say with confidence is that Lewis is on a very short list.
If further proof were needed of the injustice of basing plaudits on statistics, look at pole in Turkey – Lance Stroll by 0.3 seconds from a hard-trying Verstappen, nearly 5 seconds ahead of Hamilton in 6th and no Ferrari in the top 10. Is Stroll a supreme talent? What happened there?
As with most things the process started well before the event itself. The first element was that the circuit was resurfaced and hadn’t been run-in by other racing. The oil was still on the surface and combined with wet, cold weather, even the best tyres wouldn’t have ideal grip. But they didn’t have the best tyres because nobody had told Pirelli about the resurfacing, which considering the track is the only thing the tyres touch would seem to be a substantial oversight.
RedBull initially looked as though they were going to make Turkey their own. They had done a dramatic promotional video with an RB and an AlphaTauri crossing the Bosphorus, which of course means an F1 car driving from Europe to Asia. In practice sessions Verstappen had been dominant, and in Q1 he and Albon were the only ones under 2 minutes. Q2 put the Dutchman fastest, Hamilton was 3rd, a full 2.5 seconds slower. What could possibly go wrong for them? Let us rewind to the start of qualifying.
The conditions of Q1 were initially wet, not raining, so times were set on inters. But then it rained and with 7 minutes left the session was red flagged as dangerously wet. After a 40 minute gap, a beached Grosjean stopped the restarted session with another red flag. With just one flying lap possible, everybody tried hard resulting in several offs. Seb and Charles both got through with times of 2’03”356 and 2’04”464 respectively, Magnussen grumbled that double yellows were ignored and Lando crossed the Dane off his Xmas list as he was demoted 5 places.
One of the offs in Q1 was Latifi. He was the last to be recovered and the message to race control was that the recovery vehicle would be off track by the time the cars reached it. It wasn’t, and for the sake of hitting a timetable which was already about an hour behind, race controller Michael Masi had released the cars. Seb, with poor Jules Bianchi in mind, said “I think we are all humans, and mistakes happen but this mistake has a zero tolerance.”. Masi compounded the error by not apologising and blaming a subordinate. Clearly “the buck stops here” is not a phrase which enters the mind of Race Controllers.
All the cars were out on extreme wets, the only exception being the two McLarens. Seb and Charles continued to put in the laps but struggled more than others to get the tyres up to temperature and thus failed to get into Q3. Vettel’s best of 1’55”169 put him 12th and Charles’ time of 1’56”696 meant he was 14th. Both drivers were scheduled to start from the dirty side of the track which, given the problems with the surface, was seen as a further handicap. Some penalties moved them to 11th and 12th, so at least Seb started in a clean spot.
With Q3 looking like a shoe in for Red Bull the question was who would be next? Unfortunately the domination stopped when it mattered. Racing Point’s set up was perfect for the drying conditions. Stroll put inters on towards the end and edged ahead of his team-mate for pole on 1:47.8, Perez having set 1:49.3. Verstappen tried with a mighty effort but succeeded only in splitting them, while his team-mate was in 4th. Ricciardo was 5th, split from Ocon by an unusually subdued Hamilton. Alfa reached the heady heights of Q1, with Raikkonen in 8th ahead of a lacklustre Bottas, and nearly 5 seconds (the same as the gap from Raikonnen to pole) ahead of Giovanazzi.
With the most exciting qualifying for a long time surely the race could only be an anti-climax? It wasn’t.
The race began sedately for a Grand Prix. As old friend Winston D’Arcy said to me “A decent hillclimber on Avons would beat all of that lot away”. This comment applied especially to the RedBulls, again failing to deliver as they, or perhaps their computers, were engulfed by the pack.
Racing Point continued their wet weather form, settling into a 1-2 for 35 laps (tyre changes excepted). But the Wet Curborough in Autumn award for best start has to go to Seb. While Ricciardo and Bottas spun off at turn 1, Seb calmly went from 11th to 3rd by the start of sector 2 and then spent 8 laps fending off the RedBulls who had passed Hamilton. I hate to say it, but this was the start of a very mature “wait, watch and pounce” strategy for the Brit. Seb’s defence lasted until his lap 8 pit stop. Afterwards, he was a solid 4th until lap 32.
Charles, meanwhile, suffered from the wrong side of the grid and dropped to 14th. Being in the pack lost time, so on lap 6 he came in for intermediates to replace the wets. Within 5 laps he was in the top 10, a performance that prompted many to follow suit with the switch to inters.
On lap 17, Verstappen showed conclusively why he is still the young hot-head and not yet, in his 6th season, a great driver. He tried to pass Perez, but flat-spottingly spun his position away to Seb and Ham. Re-joining after a tyre change, he joined the queue and eventually got up to 3rd.
By lap 32, Stroll and Perez still led, while Albon had got past Seb. Charles had just pitted for his second set of intermediates – a slight delay at the right rear – and was ninth ahead of Lando Norris in the McLaren. On lap 34, Seb pitted for new intermediates, rejoining ahead of Albon but losing places to Hamilton and Verstappen. On lap 40, Seb passed Stroll for fourth place but shortly after, he had to give best to Charles who was coming back at a stronger pace on newer rubber.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was doing nothing spectacular but doing everything supremely smoothly and well, and as a result was benefitting from others’ mistakes. A spin by Albon let Hamilton into 3rd, but his trump card was that he managed his inters supremely well and argued to stay out on them. The drying conditions aided him as the wear converted the soft treaded tyres to slicks which were probably grippier than the real thing. When Stroll pitted for new tyres Perez inherited the lead for a lap until, on lap 37, Hamilton DRS’d into the lead to eventually finish over 31 seconds ahead of Perez. Greatest of all time? I can’t say. Greatest on Sunday? Undoubtedly.
Meanwhile, Charles caught and passed Verstappen who then pitted for a 4th set of tyres, which handed fourth place back to Seb. In the closing laps the Scuderia pair rapidly closed on Perez in the Racing Point. They pounced on him on the very last lap. Perez made a mistake at turn 11 and Charles got past but Checo stuck with him and tried to get the place back. As Leclerc defended by braking late he went wide at turn 12. Sebastian made the most of the scrap to get ahead of his team-mate, crossing the line just three tenths behind Perez with Charles fourth.
Sainz came home 5th after a very tidy pass of Albon. An apparent over-use of the tyres by Verstappen seemed to lead to his final position of 6th. A wasted and over-hyped weekend for RedBull. Albon was 7th, Norris 8th and sadly, Stroll was 9th. The car just didn’t seem to work after his last pit stop. “You’re leading by 10sec then you finish ninth, I don’t understand how that happens.”, he said disconsolately. After the race, some damage was found to his front wing. RP tweeted: ”One of the strakes on the underside of the front wing had come loose and lodged itself in such a way that the blockage caused a significant loss of front downforce. The resultant loss of front downforce contributed to increased levels of graining.”
“Reliable Ricciardo” completed the top 10 while the most disappointing performance was 14th for Bottas after at least 3 spins and being lapped by his team-mate.
The top 5 places went, in my opinion, to the intelligent drivers who made fewest mistakes, certainly no serious ones, and adapted well to the conditions which changed constantly in the race. To quote a rally enthusiast and to annoy my circuit racing friends, “it was almost as if the top 5 were rally drivers – Sebastian Loeb would have done well in that race.”
Emotions ran high after the race, in a good way. Seb was one of the first to congratulate Hamilton, which was a nice gesture. Perez will never be “a great”, but on Sunday he showed maturity and sense. Despite my previous jibes, I must accept he is doing things right these days more often than not, being 4th in the championship, 3 points ahead of Charles. He deserves the second seat at RedBull. For the benefit of some of my scribe-colleagues to whom a RedBull seat means punishment, I do mean that as praise.
A 3rd and 4th for Ferrari was arguably the best team performance of the race and marks a return to form, albeit in very strange conditions. Seb showed that he’s still got it with that first lap run followed by scarcely a foot wrong. The facts show that Charles was 4th when he was so close to 3rd. After the finish he was beating the steering wheel in anger at himself. “I messed it up in the last corner and there’s not much else to say really, because in the end it’s the result that counts.” I don’t agree. I can only suggest that he was thinking for the team; if he hadn’t tried to keep the place, the Scuderia would have had a 3-4, which they got anyway. He was fighting for a 2-4, or perhaps 2-3. Possibly that wouldn’t help Charles’ mood.
However, perhaps he might be consoled by the thought that a last lap error while fighting for a higher podium place is just the sort of error Gilles would have made, and for that we love him. That may be opinion, not fact, but I suspect many will agree.