There were so many dimensions to this race weekend and although the dominant one was the lap one collision between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, that was only the crescendo to so many converging factors.
There was a strange energy about this whole weekend, the biggest sporting event in the world since the advent of the nasty virus, the first running of the Saturday sprint race to determine the grid, the huge expectation for Hamilton to deliver in front of his home crowd.
It was a rich old mix and it proved combustible. Hamilton left the circuit having won his 99th grand prix, eight of which have been here at Silverstone. A bruised and battered Verstappen left by medical helicopter to Nuneaton hospital where he would be kept for routine tests and observation.
The incident: you’ve all seen it, probably several times. Right from the start there was a spirit of total commitment to battle from both drivers. All Verstappen had to do was keep Hamilton behind on the first lap and he’d likely pull away to victory, such was his performance advantage – as revealed in the previous day’s sprint event. Hamilton desperately needed to make a pass on this opening lap, before the Red Bull was out of reach.
Their intention for zero compromise was quite clear from the body language of their duel, pure obstinate competitive will
If the Red Bull was faster, how come Hamilton had qualified fastest on Friday, 0.075s ahead of Verstappen?
“Track the time of day and the track temperatures for every time we ran,” said a Red Bull team member, “and see the correlation to our advantage or disadvantage. Then you’ll have your answer.”
If the track temperature dropped below 40-deg C, Red Bull’s front tyres fell below the temperature window. Q3 was held on a track of 37-deg C. Anything above 40-deg C and the Red Bull was faster. The 17-lap sprint was held on a track of 49-deg C, the grand prix at between 46-48-deg C.
Red Bull talked of having set up its car with an eye to the race. Given that the tyre challenge was one of limiting the blistering of the inner right shoulder of the front-right, the suspicion is that Red Bull had taken some camber out of the front wheels. Which would be consistent with a warm-up problem if the track wasn’t hot enough. It also added a chunk of gurney flap to the rear wing, to help the rears, making Verstappen slowest through the speed trap – but still one of the quickest from the start of the straights to the end.
Hamilton’s start was marginally better but Verstappen from pole was on the freer outside line, taking some kerb, kicking up the dust as he maintained greater momentum through Abbey. Their tyre walls appeared to touch as he rejoined still ahead.
Hamilton was tracking him through Village, offset to get a better run onto Wellington straight. Max moved unambiguously to protect the inside at the start of the straight and as soon as Hamilton staked his claim on the outside, so Verstappen came back across on him, determined not to be crowded in at Brooklands, wheels almost touching again.
Their intention for zero compromise was quite clear from the body language of their duel, pure obstinate competitive will, the roar of the crowd only adding to the drama as Hamilton grinded ahead on the run up to Brooklands, going for the outside option but Verstappen retaining enough momentum to stay ahead and cut across his bows to claim Luffield.
Through Woodcote the Honda suddenly derated – its ERS-K was set up to do this here as part of a software strategy to look after the tyres – and the Mercedes made a lot of ground on him.
Mercedes had observed this pattern on the Red Bull throughout the weekend and that knowledge informed the game plan that the first lap was everything. Hamilton was ready for the Red Bull’s sudden reduction in acceleration at that point, giving him the advantage of momentum onto the old pit straight.
As they raced up towards Copse Max had the inside covered – or did he? In the previous day’s sprint Hamilton had tried for the outside here and been fended off and he’d later regretted not trying for the inside. So this time he dummied Verstappen, initially moving for the outside before swooping suddenly into the tiny gap to the Red Bull’s right.
He was alongside but not fully as the moment came to turn into Copse. It was no-one’s corner yet. It hadn’t been won. Both drivers stayed resolutely with their respective plans until it was too late for the collision to be avoided.
At the last moment, as contact was inevitable, Hamilton tried to back out of it, probably minimising the accident. A rear tyre was plucked off the Red Bull before it spun hard into the tyre barriers, the impact recorded at 51g. Hamilton’s wheelrim was damaged and his checked momentum allowed an opportunistic Charles Leclerc to surge past on the inside to take the lead.
It was hard, ruthless racing and given the speed of the corner and the possible consequences maybe there was too much resolute unbending will between the title duellists. But they’d each locked themselves and each other into these positions.
Verstappen and Hamilton collide!
The title rivals come together at Copse, pitching Verstappen into a high-speed crash.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 18, 2021
Hamilton was held to be more – but not wholly – to blame by the stewards and was awarded a 10s penalty. To be taken at his pitstop. This was announced after the restarted race had got underway, as he chased Leclerc who would retain the lead until two laps before the end after a quite brilliant performance, the Ferrari ultimately powerless to keep Hamilton behind.
Its performance was flattered in the opening stint through Mercedes not trying to race it. The game plan in that stint was just to follow in Leclerc’s wake, out of the turbulence zone, just to pull out the maximum amount of time on the pack behind to minimise how many places he’d lose after taking his 10s penalty at the stop.
Only after passing Lando Norris (on the inside into Copse) and Valtteri Bottas would Leclerc then be dealt with – on the inside into Copse. In that chase was seen the true comparison between the two cars – and it favoured Mercedes by around 1s per lap.
Bottas took third, unable to do anything about Leclerc and playing his part in the team victory by moving aside for the recovering Hamilton. Without that, Hamilton would surely have ran out of time in his chase of the Ferrari.
Norris ran the first stint ahead of Bottas but a pitstop delay for the McLaren handed Bottas a free place, Norris hanging on in fourth but unable to challenge. Daniel Ricciardo – lapping in virtually identical times to Norris during Friday qualifying – didn’t quite have the same race pace but fended off Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari to the end for fifth, though the latter was only behind because of a 10s delay at the pits with the left-front. That and his disappointing 10th place start, courtesy of his lap one collision with George Russell in the previous day’s grid-determining sprint.
Fernando Alonso was in brilliant form, never more so than in the opening lap of the sprint, which bought him a seventh place grid spot from an 11th fastest qualifying time. That was the foundation for a distant seventh in the main race, won after a combative pass on Lance Stroll on the out-lap after the Aston Martin had briefly undercut in front. Behind Stroll – once Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri suffered a puncture and dropped three places to 12th – were Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda.
Russell’s truly brilliant qualifying performance in getting the Williams into Q3 again was undone by his collision with Sainz on the first lap of the sprint and the three-place grid penalty that brought. The car sunk down to its natural level, crossing the line 12th.
It was like Silverstone on any number of British Grand Prix days through the years, looking glorious, track scorching beneath clear blue sky, multiple thousands of fans (mainly unmasked) watching on from the grandstands, Hamilton banners fluttering. But there was a notable difference beneath the surface.