A Mercedes on pole for the eighth time in 10 races. The world champions’ seventh front-row lock-out this season. So it’s same old, same old at the British Grand Prix after the excitement of Austria? Not so fast.
Silverstone has been full of surprises this weekend. From Lewis Hamilton losing out on pole position here for the first time in five years; through the unexpected pace of the Ferraris – or one of them, anyway – and Red Bulls; to the fact that this might – just might – for once not be a race in which drivers make only one pit stop.
In short, the chances of Formula 1 distracting attention from the competing attractions of England v New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup final and Federer v Djokovic at Wimbledon are good.
- Bottas on British GP pole position
- How British GP qualifying unfolded
- Vettel on Ferrari, mistakes and the future of F1
After the blip of Austria, where a combination of high temperatures and altitude took Mercedes out of their car’s cooling window, forced them to run their engines de-tuned and left them struggling for pace, the silver cars were expected to return to dominant form at a race Hamilton has more or less made his own over the last few years.
But it has not quite worked out that way.
Sure, Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton will line up on the front row together, but Ferrari and Red Bull have been closer than expected and it is far from a given that the Mercedes will run away with the race.
Even if they do, there is plenty at stake.
After a strong start to the season, Bottas has had a bit of a dip in recent races. Clawing back a few points on Hamilton after the Briton’s errors in Austria was useful. But the Finn is still 31 points behind as the season reaches more or less its halfway point. So pole at Silverstone – albeit by just 0.006secs – was a decent next step.
He knows that the next few races are critical – not just because of his need to claw back some ground in the title race but because of the need to convince Mercedes boss Toto Wolff that he deserves a new contract for 2020, with rumours around Max Verstappen and Mercedes continuing to swirl as the driver market silly-season gathers pace.
“The championship fight is still on,” Bottas said. “I am chasing but there are so many races to go. It is a lot up to me and my performance and every single opportunity I need to get those and if I don’t Lewis is going to be far away.
“So this race is super-important but so is the race after and the race after. I will do everything I can to keep that lead.”
Hamilton, though, is chasing a sixth British Grand Prix victory – which would be a record. Victory on Sunday is very important to him.
And while he was not happy to lose out to Bottas, he emphasised that a slight dissatisfaction with his performance was at least partly down to a car set-up that he had chosen because it was better for the race.
“It’s a long race,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got a great crowd here and hopefully I can do something good for them.”
An unexpectedly strong Ferrari
Ferrari arrived in the UK playing down their chances at Silverstone, emphasising that they did not expect to be as competitive as in Austria two weeks ago.
This was despite the fact that they have an advantage on the straights, and Silverstone is now even more power-sensitive than it already was because the first two corners of Abbey and Farm, and the super-fast right at Copse are now all flat-out in qualifying, making those sections effectively straights.
In fact, Ferrari – or rather Charles Leclerc – have looked competitive over one lap all weekend. So after the 21-year-old topped final practice and second qualifying, third on the grid looked a slight let down, even if he was only 0.079secs off pole.
But Leclerc said he thought third was the best he could hope for, emphasising that Ferrari were still struggling with front-end grip, and indeed the final sector was where lap time was bleeding away for them.
On Friday, Ferrari were tearing their tyres apart through Copse and Becketts, and shedding huge amounts of time in the final sector. Things improved on Saturday, but they are concerned about race pace.
“If we look at the race simulations on Friday,” Leclerc said, “I think it is going to be very difficult to fight with the Mercedes. At least Lewis’ race run was very, very strong. We need to work on that.