Lewis Hamilton Performs Rain Dance to Win German Grand Prix
On a damp day in Deutschland, indecisive rain threw everyone but Mercdes off their game.
The twenty-car field settled into position at the start of the German Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel eight points and 13 positions ahead in the championship. Vettel rained on Lewis Hamilton's parade at the British Grand Prix, but with Hamilton starting 14th, the odds of the Brit returning the favor were slim at best.
Five red lights yielded the Hockenheimring to Vettel, who rocketed away to a lead in excess of one second over the first lap—Hamilton gained but one place. Vettel soon built a gap of around four seconds to Valtteri Bottas, which he could maintain rather than expand. Hamilton made steady progress, making up a total of four positions of his own in the first four laps, arriving in contention for points to control the damage Vettel would do to the championship with a win.
Rain was expected at some point in the race, but the pit wall was unsure precisely when to make the call for intermediate or full-wet tires. Kimi Räikkönen first reported rain on his visor in the race's opening laps, but no consequential downpour was expected until the race approached half distance. Clouds approached as Hamilton made studious use of his Mercedes to knife through the field, surging ahead of Kevin Magnussen's Haas on Lap 14. He would start the next lap with a face full of Ferrari, as Räikkönen made an early pit stop to ditch his ultrasoft tires for softs. Hamilton, who was driving on an older set of the same tires, lacked the ability to attack Kimi.
On Lap 20, Daniel Ricciardo achieved his recovery into the points, passing Charles Leclerc for 10th despite medium tires that resisted coming up to temp. The same lap, the first of the weather-responsive tire gambles was made by Haas, who pulled in Magnussen for a set of medium tires, banking on a dry track until the end of the race.
Vettel, with a cozy lead, dropped his own ultrasoft tires after Lap 26, making a less committal switch to soft tires, which suggested a two-stop strategy in expectation of rain. Pirelli expected only a 35 lap life from the soft tires, and 41 remained, forcing Vettel either into a role of tire management or another pit stop if rain were to arrive. Bottas followed suit two laps later, exiting the pits on the same compound, and Ricciardo crept to a halt on the grass, complaining of power loss. The other Red Bull, driven anonymously by Max Verstappen in 4th for the race so far, stopped for soft tires of his own a lap later.
Lap 33 saw both Ferrari drivers complaining of rear tire issues, with Vettel feeing his were a tad too warm and Räikkönen reporting heavy blistering. Vettel hinted over team radio that Räikkönen was holding him up, insinuating team orders. He soon doubled down, claiming he could pick up a second per lap if released, and followed up a lap later with more complaints of tire overheating, and a request to be waved past. In the leading car, Räikkönen played dumb about Ferrari's politically correct team orders, forcing Jock Clear to issue the position switch order over the radio, on live broadcast. Räikkönen complied on Lap 39.
A lap later, Bottas' race engineer predicted rain to be eight minutes out, and another two laps after, Hamilton reported he had just a lap left in his soft tires, which were already 20 percent beyond the 35-lap lifespan Pirelli predicted. He was waved in for a set of ultrasoft tires, which Vettel proved could handle the remainder of the race—provided the track stayed dry enough.
A dry track began to look unlikely, with downpour starting on Lap 44, soaking the Turn 6 hairpin. This beckoned the first switch to wet weather tires, with Leclerc and Alonso popping in for intermediate tires after Lap 45, Gasly with them for full wet tires, and Verstappen for intermediates a lap later. Gasly returned on Lap 48, full-wets proving a poor choice, though his short stint ensured for but a moment that all the tires available for the race weekend shared the track at once: Ultrasoft, soft, medium, intermediate, and full wet. Leclerc and Verstappen also returned to the pits, throwing away intermediates for ultrasofts.
Vettel received word that rain would again lull, but the track remained wet, and Räikkönen lost position to Bottas as the two struggled on the slick surface to snake their way around a blue-flagged Magnussen.
Soon thereafter, the home turf hex of 2018 would strike again. Ricciardo's penalty in Australia, Leclerc's brake failure in Monaco, Stroll's crash in Canada, Ocon and Gasly's collision in France, and Hamilton's spin in Britain—all part of a miserable trend affecting drivers in front of their home crowds. In Germany, its victim was Vettel, whose minuscule overestimate of traction going into Turn 12 on Lap 52 caused a small rear lockup, whose correction carried Vettel across the gravel and into the wall, crunching the front wing and beaching his SF71H. With disappointment and frustration with himself, Vettel apologized over radio, voice wavering.
The crash prompted an appearance by the safety car, which Bottas and Räikkönen utilized to stop for ultrasoft tires, emerging from the pits without loss of position. While Räikkönen's tires were swapped, Sergey Sirotkin skidded to a halt, white clouds pouring from his Williams. Stroll's car would retire the following lap, wheeled back into the garage.
Lap 57 saw the safety car take its leave, relinquishing the final ten laps of racing to four tightly-packed frontrunners. Hamilton had track position but the oldest ultrasofts, while Räikkönen had fresh tires and a fast Ferrari, but two Silver Arrows standing between him and a race win. Verstappen had DRS, a hope, and a prayer. Bottas challenged Hamilton initially on the restart but was instructed to back down so as not to jeopardize a Mercedes one-two in Germany. He obeyed.
Lewis Hamilton took the win, his first starting outside the top six, earning him 25 points, a healthy championship lead, and effectively nullified the transmission failure Hamilton suffered in Austria, where Verstappen won. Fans nominated Hamilton as driver of the day.
If the season's home race curse is anything to go by, then Vandoorne, Sirotkin, and Perez are on the hook for ill fortune in from of their home crowds. Stranger still is the jinx surrounding next weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix, the winner of which has not gone on to win the championship since 2004. Whoever wants to be the title winner may want to settle for P2 in Hungary, lest history repeat itself again.
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