Lewis faced criticism ahead of the Silverstone race, with some questioning his preparation for his home Grand Prix. But the Brit responded with pole, fastest lap, the win, as well as leading every lap to score his third F1 Grand Slam of the year.
“I think that sometimes you need the right impulse to extract the maximum performance,” said Toto. “That’s an answer to the critics.
“I still don’t understand why the British hero (Lewis) was beaten up before the Grand Prix but it probably made him more determined to show his fans how he can drive.”
Lewis slashed Sebastian Vettel’s championship advantage to just a single point with victory in Silverstone, while the Silver Arrows extended their lead over Ferrari in the Constructors’ to 55 points, but Toto rejects the idea that Mercedes are now favourites for the title.
“I think we shouldn’t talk that much about the favourite,” said the boss. “It’s only half time, 250 points to be achieved. You need to try to extract every inch of performance from the car and the driver. Then in the end we can start thinking about a favourite.
“I would like to feel it but the moment you said that you go to the next race and you are being slapped into your face. It is tricky. Our car is not always easy to setup although we have got much better in doing so with a great team effort in combination with the tyres. But I’d like to see Budapest and how the car works on a low speed high temperature track.”
The British Grand Prix could not have gone better for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas giving the team its second 1-2 of the year as an engrossing season reached its halfway point at Silverstone. Tyre issues for Ferrari meant that Lewis closed to within a single point of Sebastian Vettel in the Drivers’ Championship and the team stretched its advantage in the Constructors’ Championship to 55 points.
It was records all the way for Lewis at his home race, as he equalled Jim Clark’s five British GP poles on Saturday with a stunning lap that gave him more than half a second’s advantage over fellow front row starter Kimi Räikkönen.
“Every time I came through the corners I could see the fans on the left out of the corner of my eye, waving their support,” Lewis said. “It meant the world to me. I could feel it and that energy absolutely inspired me, which is something Nigel (Mansell) spoke about in the past.”
The team was unsure of the root of its superiority around Silverstone, notwithstanding that it was a similar story in 2016 when Mercedes enjoyed a full second’s qualifying margin over Red Bull. There were a couple of theories: first, the former airfield circuit is very open, with a lot of wind, and the Ferrari possibly has greater sensitivity to such conditions. Second, the corners are long and sweeping, meaning that if you have aerodynamics that work well across a range of characteristics, you might be better. But they were only theories…
On race day, it was Mansell’s four British Grand Prix victories that Lewis was able to leave behind – a fourth successive Silverstone win to add to his victory in 2008 putting him level with Clark and Alain Prost, both of whom also won the British Grand Prix five times.
After Valtteri had topped both Friday practice sessions, it was his turn to suffer the disappointment of a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change as Lewis had done at the previous race in Austria. Valtteri adopted the same strategic approach as his team-mate a week earlier, completing Q2 on the prime (Soft compound) Pirelli tyre so that he had the potential to run a longer opening race stint and hopefully gain time in free air before switching to the SuperSoft compound to finish the race.
Again, just as Lewis had in Austria, Valtteri felt that his Q3 pace was compromised by having to switch between the Soft and Supersoft compounds, resulting in fourth quickest time behind Lewis and both Ferraris and translating to ninth on the grid when his gearbox penalty was applied.
“For sure Lewis was really on it, he had a great lap,” Valtteri conceded, “but I know for a fact that the difference between us (0.776s) should never have been that big. He managed to get the tyres to work better than me in the cooler conditions. My main problem seemed to be overall grip, not the balance of the car.”
As the grid formed up, Vettel’s left rear brakes were on fire and the World Championship leader did not make the greatest of starts. As Lewis converted his pole position, Vettel lost a place to Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. That proved significant in the development of his race, as Verstappen resisted strongly and it took an early lap 18 pit stop by Ferrari to undercut Vettel ahead of the Dutchman. By that relatively early stage, he was already more than 16s behind Lewis.
This was an interesting phase of the race. Friday opinion about the optimum race strategy said that it was a close call between one and two pit stops. The team went into the race planning just one stop with both cars – but in the knowledge that it was an aggressive approach. Others planning a two-stop had their minds changed by a Lap 2 Safety Car intervention following a collision between the two Toro Rosso cars, which closed up the pack and meant that the necessary gaps needed to make the two-stop approach viable were not going to materialise. The risk of the one-stop strategy, however, was that it meant extending tyre life to the maximum.
Team strategists also noted that the tyre degradation pattern seen at Silverstone was unusual. Rather than being linear it was sinusoidal – the tyres started fast, then went very slow, then got faster again towards the end of the stint before finally going off. Pushing too hard when the tyres were slow could lead to quite aggressive front blistering.
Mindful of that, Lewis was skilfully managing the pace at the front of the field, just 2.37s ahead of Räikkönen’s Ferrari after the opening 10 laps. He needed to be careful, though, because after 12 laps, Räikkönen was only two seconds away from having the necessary 18s pit stop window over Hülkenberg’s sixth-placed Renault to allow him to attempt an undercut. Lewis therefore upped his pace and extended his lead over Räikkönen to 4s to defend against that possibility.
Valtteri, by this stage, had fought his way into fifth place on the Soft compound tyre. He passed Pérez and Vandoorne on the opening lap, Ocon’s Force India on lap 5 and Hülkenberg’s Renault on lap 7, closing to within 3s of Vettel, who was still trapped behind Verstappen.
The team strategists figured that the Soft compound tyre was good for around 32 laps and Vettel’s early lap 18 stop to undercut Verstappen meant that the Ferrari was going to have to complete the remaining 33 of 51 laps on the yellow-walled Pirelli. Now in free air, Vettel was matching Lewis’s pace and was 16s behind Valtteri in third place. It was now that Vettel was forced into lapping faster than he may ideally have liked on his fresh rubber.
With Valtteri instructed by the pit wall that this was “a critical stage of the race,” the W08, on its used Softs, and Vettel on his fresh ones, proved very evenly matched, as Valtteri tried to open the necessary 18s pit window to come back out ahead of the Championship leader when he stopped for SuperSofts.
Lewis’ lone pit stop on lap 25 slightly complicated the picture as he emerged just in front of Valtteri, costing him 1.5s to Vettel on lap 26. The team immediately instructed Lewis: “If you can’t pull away from Valtteri, let him pass.”
“I’ll pull him along with me,” came the response as Lewis’s new Softs came up to temperature and he became comfortably the quickest car on the track.
By the time of his lap 32 pit stop, Valtteri had been unable to open the required 18s pit window over Vettel and pitted out 5s behind the Ferrari, which was now just 4.5s behind team mate Räikkönen.
Räikkönen was 12s behind Lewis once they had both completed their pit stops and, seemingly unable to make any impression on Lewis, the probability was that Ferrari would switch its drivers around in the best interests of the Championship. Valtteri’s goal, therefore, was to catch Vettel as soon as possible. On his 35th lap he set comfortably the quickest lap of the race to that point, closed to within 3s, and forced Vettel to respond over the next five laps. With 10 of the 51 laps remaining though, Vettel’s tyres started to drop off.
Valtteri attacked hard on lap 42 and attempted to go around the outside of the Ferrari at Stowe but Vettel ran him out wide. Valtteri stuck with it, the pair side-by-side into Vale, with Vettel hanging on but at the cost of a smoking, locked left front tyre. With hindsight, that may have been a contributory factor to the eventual tyre failure that Vettel would suffer, with issues exaggerated by reduced rubber left on the surface of the tyre.
Next time around Valtteri got a better exit from the awesome Maggots / Becketts / Chapel section and swept by into third place on Hangar Straight to the delight of the crew, not to mention Lewis, who had time to watch via the circuit spectator screens as he continued his imperious progress to that fourth successive Silverstone win!
“We saw some really good moves today,” enthused team boss Toto Wolff, “and I really enjoyed it between Valtteri and Vettel.”
With eight laps to go, Lewis had a 12.6s lead over Räikkönen’s Ferrari, with Valtteri a further 8s behind once he had disposed of Vettel. Five super-consistent high-speed laps from Valtteri laps brought Räikkönen’s margin down to 4.3s with three laps to go and, on lap 49, the Ferrari suffered a tyre failure as Räikkönen accelerated down towards Copse Corner. His left front tyre remained inflated but started to delaminate, Valtteri passing at Becketts as his fellow Finn was forced to pit.
Lewis and Valtteri were now first and second and, for a few fleeting moments Vettel looked like claiming the final podium position until he, too, suffered a left-front tyre failure. His slow lap to the pits dropped him to seventh in the final classification, behind the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo, and Hülkenberg’s Renault.
High-energy Silverstone, not for the first time, had given rise to tyre issues, with Pirelli launching a full investigation immediately post-race that was expected to take some days to arrive at a conclusion.
For the Silver Arrows, though, a perfectly executed race by both Lewis and Valtteri had rewarded the many staff from the team’s local Brackley and Brixworth Headquarters who attended.
Despite the general scenes of jubilation and a crowd-surfing Lewis, Toto did not want to say that Silverstone proved that Mercedes had the fastest car and now a slight edge over Ferrari in the Championship battle.
“I’d like to feel that,” he smiled, “but the moment you say that, you go to the next race and get slapped in the face! It’s tricky – our car is not always easy to set up and we have become much better at doing it, so a great team effort in combination with the tyres. But I’d like to first see in Budapest how the car works in low-speed, high-temperature conditions.
“It’s only half-time and there’s still 250 points on offer, so we just need to extract every bit of performance from our car and drivers, minimise mistakes and let the points add up. I wouldn’t like to say that we are favourites. Heading into the summer break with a lead would be nice, but wouldn’t mean anything for the final outcome.”
Despite Lewis having won the Hungarian GP five times and liking the Hungaroring circuit characteristics, nobody is taking it for granted that with the 2017 specification cars normal rules will apply! Silverstone proved once again that when limits and boundaries are pushed, anything can happen…