There is a rule in Formula 1. It’s not an official rule, rather, an unspoken yet cardinal rule. It is the absolute NO-NO of the sport. Today, it was broken in quite spectacular fashion.
In qualifying Hamilton had put himself on pole with a fair measure of comfort, significantly quicker than Rosberg. The Mercedes front row lock out wasn’t a surprise, but the two Red Bulls (Ricciardo, then Verstappen) lined up behind them, outpacing the Ferraris. After two previous poles and two poor starts, Hamilton made a better getaway this time, but Rosberg still sneaked around the outside of him at turn 1, and kept ahead through turn 2 and turn 3.
Coming out of turn 3 and entering the straight, Rosberg was uncharacteristically slow, and Hamilton bore down upon him rapidly. Attempting to squeeze in as they approached the right-hander at turn 4, Hamilton got his front wheels alongside the rear wheels of Rosberg’s cars and was visibly quicker. Rosberg moved to close Hamilton off and the Englishman ran out of track, tripping over the grass and losing control of the car. Still carrying a lot of speed, Hamilton slid sideways into Rosberg as the German slowed for the corner, sending them both off the track into the gravel, and out of the race.
(Hamilton and Rosberg have blamed each other for the crash)
In the midst of the chaos the two Red Bulls (with Ricciardo leading) were suddenly one-two, and the Toro Rosso of Sainz (who enjoyed a brilliant start) was third. An early safety car to clear the two Mercedes away was a temporary lull – once it pulled in, an absorbing strategic battle would begin.
The Ferraris soon cleared Sainz, and set about trying to catch the Red Bulls. The pace of the Ferraris was such that they would close on the Red Bulls, but the track is such that high-speed and mid-speed corners would play into the hands of the Red Bulls, keeping them just a little bit ahead of the Ferraris at the key DRS zone on the main straight. Vettel trailed Verstappen and Ferrari hoped to use the undercut at the pit stops to get ahead, but Red Bull were wise to their efforts, with their own stops being beautifully timed and managed.
At the second round of stops, both Red Bull and Ferrari would split their strategies, with Daniel Ricciardo darting into the pits around lap 28, signalling that he was going for a three-stop race. This was curious, as simulations had led teams to believe it would be slower than a two-stop race. Moments later, Vettel too pitted – both he and Ricciardo now on the soft compound tyre.
Verstappen led until around lap 35, before he too pitted, and Raikkonen pitted shortly after. Both of them were on the medium tyre, and would seek to get to the end of the race on it.
Inevitably both Ricciardo and Vettel pitted again, though Ricciardo left it a bit later for his final stop – and by the time he’d done so, was behind Vettel by a few seconds, but on tyres six laps fresher. Up front, Raikkonen was slowly reeling Verstappen in, whilst Vettel was slowly gaining on Raikkonen, but not as quickly as Ricciardo was gaining on him.
It was Red Bull vs Ferrari, with Raikkonen getting to within DRS range of Verstappen and applying pressure to the young Dutchman, whilst Ricciardo was doing the same further back to Vettel. On a track famously hard to overtake on, neither Raikkonen nor Ricciardo could quite get close enough to make a move, though Ricciardo did try – earning an angry radio response from Vettel, who felt the move was too risky and nearly caused an accident.
(the two got very close to each at one stage)
Verstappen, aged just 18, would hold off Raikkonen over several laps, not at all phased by the presence of the Ferrari in his mirrors, to take his first ever F1 win, the first win for a Dutchman in the sport, and to become the youngster ever F1 winner. His win, in his debut race for Red Bull, may have come about through opportunism (the Mercs wiping each other out, and the strategy call for Ricciardo and Vettel), but his mature, calm head saw him drive perfectly, despite at one stage being followed closely by Vettel, and then later, by Raikkonen (both world champions).
There was already a buzz around Verstappen, which will only heighten now. It’s unlikely he will suddenly challenge the Mercedes duo for the title, but might he win again this year? You wouldn’t rule it out.
Next time, Monaco!