Sebastian Vettel Steals Win at British Grand Prix, Extends Championship Lead
After Kimi Räikkönen knocked Lewis Hamilton out of contention for the win, Sebastian Vettel looked set for an easy victory…It was anything but.
The red lights went out and the red cars went forth at the start of the British Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton stumbling at the race's start to gift Sebastian Vettel the lead. Now chasing rather than leading, Hamilton's Ferrari frustrations worsened tenfold in Turn 3 where Kimi Räikkönen's clumsy attempt at a pass punted Hamilton off, and into dead last—with reported car damage to boot. After opening up a six second gap in the first few laps, the race win looked like an uncontested Vettel walkaway, but things proved not to be as simple.
Despite suspected damage to his car's underbody, Hamilton entered maximum damage control mode and dedicated his early race to climbing back into the points. By lap 10, he was already running in seventh, having started 19th, and on this lap, the race stewards slapped Räikkönen with a 10-second time penalty. The Finn would opt to serve this penalty during his first pit stop, which he took after lap 13, leaving with medium tires.
Max Verstappen stopped for medium tires of his own after lap 17, and Charles Leclerc the following lap, but Leclerc reported problems after leaving his pit box, and parked his Alfa Romeo Sauber upon exiting the pits. Stewards agreed to look into an unsafe release after the checkered flag. The next lap saw race leader Vettel stop by for medium tires of his own, coming out behind Bottas, who mimicked Vettel's stop and tire choice after lap 21. Ferrari's blistering front left tires and soon-evident pace on the medium revealed its strategy: reel in Ferrari in the closing laps.
Hamilton made the medium conversion himself after lap 25, returning to the track behind Räikkönen. Red Bull made an unexpected second stop after lap 30, giving Daniel Ricciardo soft tires for the race's later laps, emphasizing pure pace over track position. Whether this gamble was worthwhile may never be known, as Marcus Ericsson lost the rear end of his own Alfa Romeo Sauber at the start of lap 33, skipping across the gravel like a stone on water, and into the tire wall.
Ericsson was unhurt and the medical car was not deployed, but the safety car was, prompting a pit stop scramble. In came Sainz, Gasly, Perez, and Vandoorne for soft tires, but more importantly, so did Verstappen, Räikkönen, and Vettel. Mercedes had no new soft tires left, and could not pit either of its drivers to capitalize on the safety car. They gained track position but did so with the handicap that was the medium tire. The new running order of the top six after the pit frenzy: Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton, Verstappen, Räikkönen, Ricciardo.
On lap 37, the safety car yielded the lead to Bottas, who goosed it away from Vettel. Räikkönen and Verstappen fought for fourth and fifth, exchanging positions until a fresh yellow flag curbed their enthusiasm, caused by a collision between Romain Grosjean and Carlos Sainz. Sainz had Grosjean around the outside, but Grosjean went wide, collecting Sainz in the process. Sainz's onboard footage shows he left room for the Haas driver, and he said Grosjean understeered into him, but Grosjean's own onboard tells the opposite story. Room indeed existed, but the Frenchman made a small oversteer correction that sent him wide into Sainz.
The result was a double retirement and a return of the safety car, pinching the field back together and offering all a renewed chance to make up positions. On lap 41, it again relinquished the lead to Bottas, who bounced away once more, Vettel nipping at his heels. The Finn would hold off multiple overtake attempts by Vettel, aided by softer tires and DRS, once again showing his strength of hardening under pressure rather than cracking.
Räikkönen finally worked his way around Verstappen on lap 44, pulling in behind Hamilton's Silver Arrow to form a DRS train, the top four separated by less than three seconds. Silver-red-silver-red flashed past the cameras for the next few laps, until attention was diverted toward a small spin by Verstappen, who limped back onto the track, his transmission reportedly stuck in fourth gear. Whether this caused or was a result of his spin is unknown, but as he looked for a place to park his car, Vettel's DRS and soft tires gave him all he needed to advance back past Bottas, and into the lead of the Grand Prix. Next lap, Hamilton too would pass Bottas, and Räikkönen would follow a lap later.
Though Hamilton won driver of the day, he would rather have won the race, as he watched Vettel's championship lead crawl from one to eight points abreast of him, and Ferrari's lead in the Constructors' Championship extend from 10 to 20 points. With 10 races down and 11 to go, Hamilton and Mercedes still have plenty of opportunities to flip these leads, but Ferrari in 2018 is more competitive than any year since 2008, and this season is sure to stay interesting to the end.