No Formula 1 driver has enjoyed such constant success at their home race as Lewis Hamilton has at the British Grand Prix.
But Hamilton’s eighth home win in 2021 would prove by far his most controversial of all – and may well see the season-long duel between he and Max Verstappen take on a new, more tempestuous tone for the second half of the year.
It’s easy to forget just how much momentum Verstappen had carried into his rival’s home round. So much, in fact, he could’ve missed the race entirely by quarantining himself all weekend away from the estimated 140,000 people in attendance and still emerged with the lead in the championship.
Verstappen may have ticked off four wins in the last five races – with Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull only taking the other thanks to Verstappen’s Baku tyre failure – but even he recognised how vulnerable he was to Mercedes’ raw speed around the Silverstone circuit.
“It seems like we are quite quick through corners, they are quick on the straight this weekend,” he admitted after Saturday’s new sprint qualifying round. “So that’s why we have to make up our time in the corners.”
If Verstappen was to extend his championship advantage even further, then slipping out of DRS range in the early phase would prove to be a vital objective.
For the second time in just under 24 hours, a sun-baked capacity Silverstone crowd stood in anticipation of watching an F1 start unfolding before them.
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In the inaugural sprint qualifying, Hamilton’s sluggish start had proved the difference between pole position and settling for second behind his rival.
On Sunday, when the lights went out for the first time that day and the second time that weekend, Hamilton and Verstappen’s brief but brutal duel played out like a heavyweight bout.
Attack – Hamilton draws level on the run to Abbey and holds the inside.
Counter – Verstappen sweeps around the outside, takings the inside line through Farm to hold the lead.
Attack – Hamilton switches to the outside of Village and takes a much wider line into The Loop to get more drive along the Wellington Straight.
Defence – Verstappen cuts off the inside line early, leaving Hamilton to draw alongside to his right heading to Brooklands.
Attack – Hamilton tries to sweep around the outside of Brooklands but is rebuffed.
Counter – Verstappen hugs the kerb through Luffield as Hamilton positions himself again for a run down Woodcote.
Defence – As the Mercedes grows in his mirrors through Woodcote, Verstappen goes defensive to the right in a bid to close off Hamilton.
Counter – Hamilton commits and pulls to the inside anyway, the pair side-by-side as they scream towards Copse.
Defence – Verstappen is outside and refuses to yield.
Attack – Hamilton is inside and refuses to yield.
Of the thousands in the grandstands who instinctively cheered their approval when Verstappen’s Red Bull was sent skidding onto the gravel, many ceased upon witnessing the ferocity with which the championship leader met with the barriers.
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While the title implications were severe, the violence of the collision was even more so. The force of the impact prompted the immediate deployment of the Medical Car as well as the Safety Car.
Unsurprisingly, emotions ran high as both sides held the other responsible for the sickening scene that had unfolded.
“He just turned in on me,” Hamilton protested over radio. “I was ahead going in there, man. I was fully alongside – it was my line.”
The race was red flagged to allow Verstappen’s destroyed Red Bull to be safely recovered and the tyre barrier repaired. Verstappen was able to climb out of his car and walk to the ambulance unaided, but the magnitude of the crash had left him in need of hospital evaluation.
“It’s the biggest accident of his career,” Christian Horner later explained. “A 51G incident. So I’m just grateful that it was not worse than that.”
As both crews sought to put the scary scene they had just witnessed out of their minds for the restart, the reality was that with Verstappen out, Hamilton now had a genuine opportunity to do damage to his rival’s formidable advantage in the championship – even if the circumstances were contentious.
As both Red Bull and Mercedes bombarded race director Michael Masi with diatribes and diagrams over where blame did or did not lay for the crash, the 19 remaining drivers prepared for their third attempt at a grid start of the weekend.
Amid the drama, the race had acquired an unlikely leader in the form of Charles Leclerc, who had dispossessed Valtteri Bottas of third place at the start. Only a handful of races removed from a dismal French Grand Prix where he and Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr had plummeted down the race order, the year-high temperatures and open tyre choice as a result of sprint qualifying rules and the red flag threatened to make Leclerc a major factor in the restarted race.
When the lights went out for the third and final time, Leclerc pulled out into the lead in far more convincing fashion than Verstappen had the first time around. Behind, Bottas surrendered another position on an opening lap, allowing Norris into third.
Hamilton was nowhere near as close to the back of Leclerc as he had been to Verstappen, giving the Ferrari an untroubled run down the Wellington Straight. Sebastian Vettel tried to prevent Fernando Alonso from driving clean around the outside of him at Luffield, but spun his Aston Martin in his eagerness to try and keep ahead, dropping him to the back.
With all runners bar pit-lane starter Perez on medium tyres, the race soon developed a similar vibe to Saturday’s sprint.
Hamilton was pursuing Leclerc but was not able to get close enough to seriously trouble the leader. What might have seemed an open goal for Hamilton and Mercedes during the red flag was looking more difficult now the race had resumed – and made a magnitude more difficult by the news that the stewards had awarded Hamilton a 10-second time penalty for the crash that had removed his championship rival from contention.
After a poorly-timed spin in the sprint qualifying race, Perez in the sole remaining Red Bull was making steady progress up the field having taken the initial start from the pitlane and was running in 12th. In contrast, Bottas was failing to recover third from Norris, while Hamilton was building up what could be a very important buffer over the McLaren driver.
Ferrari looked in genuine contention for a win for the first time since the 2019 season, but a strange problem on lap 15 caused nerves to flutter in the cockpit as well as the pit wall.
“No, the engine’s cut!,” Leclerc alerted his team. “The engine stopped,” Then: “It’s going again. Tell me what’s happening?”
Hamilton was immediately told about the leader’s potential handicap and began to close up behind the Ferrari, putting him under pressure for the first time since the race had restarted.
Despite having to cope with absorbing the pressure from a chasing Mercedes while fiddling with ‘driver default’ settings on his steering wheel, Leclerc managed to keep his cool and made the necessary adjustments to alleviate the problem and keep Hamilton behind him in the process.
After sprint qualifying had proved the medium tyres could last at least 17 laps under a British summertime heatwave, the main strategy concern came down to when best to make the move onto the hard tyres for the second stint of the race.
The answer appeared to be around lap 20, with Daniel Ricciardo the first of the front runners to make the switch at that time. But when McLaren team mate Norris pitted a lap later, he was held in the box for six agonising seconds as the team struggled to replace his right rear wheel – a cross threaded wheel nut later revealed to be the culprit by team principal Andreas Seidl.
Norris’ delay opened the door for Bottas, who was able to comfortably resume ahead of the McLaren in third after he stopped on the following lap.
With Hamilton facing a 10-second delay to his stop, it became vital to extend his first stint to be able to give him the best chance of pushing on the hard tyres to make up the positions he would inevitably lose. Mercedes left it as late as they dared before bringing in Hamilton on lap 27.
Penalty served, Hamilton rejoined in fourth between the two McLarens of Ricciardo behind and Norris ahead. When Leclerc pitted on lap 29, the deficit separating Hamilton from the leader that he would have to make up to win the race was 12.8 seconds over 22 laps. With the W12 coming alive after his switch to hard rubber, it soon became clear the hunt for victory was on.
First, Norris. The McLaren driver had proven a difficult obstacle for Bottas to overcome in the first stint, but Hamilton would have much less trouble. In just a handful of laps Hamilton was already sitting behind Norris as the pair navigated the first sector.
Unfazed by the consequences of his first attempt to pass up the inside of Copse corner, Hamilton pulled right as he and Norris approached the 280kph right-hand sweeper. His rival offered little resistance, allowing the Mercedes through and into third place.
It took Hamilton far longer to reach the back of team mate Bottas, but once he was within range on lap 40, Bottas proved even less of a challenge to dispatch than Norris had been.
“Team order – do not fight with Lewis,” came the simple instruction to Bottas over the radio. “We invert the cars into turn 15 [Stowe] this lap.”
Memories of Bottas being somewhat less than accommodating in similar circumstances at the Spanish Grand Prix were quickly forgotten when Bottas duly obliged, blending out of the throttle at the end of the Hangar Straight and allowing Hamilton up to second place with no time lost. With just 13 laps remaining, the gap for Hamilton to overcome to inflict maximum damage on Verstappen’s championship lead was now 8.5 seconds.
Out front, Leclerc had looked every bit the driver who had impressed so much in his first season for Ferrari with a car capable of competing for victories. But with Hamilton closing on him at a rate of over eight tenths a lap, it was looking like an almost impossible prospect for him to hold on for a remarkable Ferrari victory.
Hamilton was already within DRS range of the leader by the time they crossed the finish line on the Hamilton Straight to indicate three laps remaining. He would only need the first one to complete his mission.
Once more, Hamilton used his Mercedes’ straight-line speed through Woodcote to tuck into the Ferrari’s slipstream and pull to the inside on the approach to Copse. As the Mercedes pit wall held their breath, Hamilton turned into Copse for the second time in the race with a car to his outside – only this time successfully making the apex.
Leclerc used his momentum to keep ahead around the outside, but could not keep his car on the track, running wide and off onto the Tarmac run-off. Hamilton was through as thousands of fans roared in support. After riling up their Red Bull rivals by hitting Verstappen and taking him out of the race at the start, Hamilton had followed it up by striking the heaviest championship blow he could.
Red Bull were able to deny him one point. With Perez languishing at the bottom of the top 10 following a disappointing recovery drive from the rear of the field and contact with Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, Red Bull called their second driver in for soft tyres to at least prevent Hamilton and Mercedes from taking an additional bonus point for fastest lap. It cost Perez his point for 10th, however.
As Hamilton crossed the line to take his eighth victory at Silverstone and 99th career win, it seemed that the majority of the British fans in attendance were too concerned with celebrating Hamilton firmly re-establishing his place in the championship fight than any controversy over how it had been claimed.
But while Hamilton and Mercedes celebrated, Red Bull and Christian Horner could feel nothing but disgust.
“I can’t see how Lewis can take any satisfaction out of a win when you’ve put your fellow competitor and driver in hospital,” said Horner.
“We’re just lucky today that fortunately after a 51G accident that there wasn’t somebody seriously hurt. And that’s what I’m most angry about, is just the lack of judgement or misjudgement and desperation in this move that thankfully we got away with today.”
Horner’s impassioned commentary did not appear to move the race winner.
“I don’t really have anything to say to Christian. It doesn’t feel hollow,” Hamilton said.
“Of course that’s never the way that I ever want to win a race or just in general to race but these things do happen. I just hope he’s OK and I look forward to many more races.”
For Leclerc, finishing a strong second for Ferrari was a result he could not be satisfied with after leading the vast majority of the race.
“It’s difficult to enjoy 100 percent,” he said. “Of course, it’s been an incredible race, I gave not 100 percent, but I gave 200 percent. I gave all of me.”
Bottas took third having played his part in assisting in the team’s victory and putting them almost level on points in the constructors’ championship with leaders Red Bull, who failed to score on this most bitter of days.
The two McLarens secured fourth and fifth for Norris and Ricciardo, ahead of Carlos Sainz Jnr. The second Ferrari driver was badly delayed by a slow pit stop, without which McLaren would have lost even more ground to their rivals in the championship.
Fernando Alonso converted his outstanding sprint qualifying performance into seventh place at the chequered flag, while Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda completed the points-paying places.
After yet another impressive qualifying, George Russell once fell out of the points in his Williams. But he dismissed any suggestions that his sprint qualifying penalty had cost him a chance at first points for Williams in front of a home crowd.
While Hamilton and Verstappen had never been compelled to like each other, they had both been obliged to give each other space on track.
That two of arguably the most naturally gifted practitioners of the art of wheel-to-wheel racing the sport has ever seen would eventually clash was never an inevitability – but an inherent danger all the same.
Neither driver’s legacy will likely be defined by what will likely become a historic moment in the lore of Formula 1, it may well come to define how the second half of this season plays out between these two championship contenders.