If you want to know about the see-saw nature of the 2014 F1 season, take a look at Lewis Hamilton’s stunned expression after qualifying sixth for the British Grand Prix and compare it with the sheer joy that came 24 hours later after winning at Silverstone.
Hamilton had been favourite all the way through two days of practice and right up to the final minute of qualifying. In the closing seconds, his name plummeted from the top of the times as he backed off, believing the track was too wet to allow a faster lap.
Five other drivers pushed on and found more than a second in the final three corners of the 5,9km lap. To make matters even worse for the distraught Hamilton, it was his championship rival and Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, who now occupied pole position. Given that Hamilton was 29 points (more than a clear victory) behind, this was the worst possible news.
The weather during qualifying had set the scene for a dramatic race, not least because the Williams and Ferrari drivers found themselves in the rear quarter of the grid after a mix of poor tactical decisions and bad luck when attempting to second-guess the intermittent showers.
Exciting it may have been but the potential hazard of having fast drivers come through a crowded first lap were demonstrated when Kimi Raikkonen, surrounded by backmarkers, ran wide onto the grass, kept his right foot buried and snapped out of control on a bump when attempting to rejoin. The front of the Ferrari was torn off by a ferocious impact with the barrier, Felipe Massa being an innocent victim as he tried to spin his Williams but clipped the back of the Ferrari while attempting to avoid smashing straight into it at 150mph.
Raikkonen was fortunate to get away with bruised ankles. But the luckiest driver was Max Chilton when a wayward wheel from the Ferrari smashed into the front of the Englishman’s Marussia and flew past his head. The race was stopped and a delay to replace damaged barrier meant the restart came 65 minutes after the original, the field lining up in the order at the end of the first aborted lap.
That meant that Hamilton, having passed two cars, re-started fourth behind Rosberg and the McLarens of Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen. By lap 4, Hamilton was second, five seconds behind Rosberg. Game on!
The Mercedes were in a league of their own, lapping an incredible two to three seconds faster than anyone else. But when the gap between the leaders remained constant between three and four seconds, it was clear that, once again, tactics would be the decider in this 52-lap encounter.
Rosberg stopped at one-third distance but, when Hamilton stayed out for another six laps, the strategic choice was very different, particularly when Hamilton took the harder tyre – and immediately lapped much faster than Rosberg who was on a soft tyre that was supposed to be quicker. Suddenly, Rosberg’s lead had shrunk to 1.9 seconds. By lap 24, Hamilton was in the lead. The championship leader was in trouble in more ways than one.
“There had been a problem with the upshift after about lap 20,” said Rosberg. “After the pit stop, it got worse. There was nothing I could do about Lewis and I was looking to get the car home and take whatever points I could. We tried a number of things to sort the gearbox but it made no difference and I had to stop.”
In fact, no amount of fiddling with the settings would have got him going, Rosberg’s first retirement of the season having been caused by a mechanical (rather than software) problem deep within the gearbox.
It left Hamilton comfortably ahead of Valtteri Bottas, the Finn producing the drive of the day as he sliced his Williams through from 14th on the grid and ran 10 seconds ahead of another impressive performance from Daniel Ricciardo. Starting eighth after a disappointing qualifying, the Red Bull driver chose a risky strategy by making just one stop as early as lap 15 and then running a marathon 37 laps on the hard tyre, the Australian just holding off a late charge from the two-stopping Button.
The Red Bull and McLaren were clear of a massive fight between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, the former world champions adding further spice to the day by complaining bitterly over the radio about each other’s tactics when, in truth, one seemed as bad as the other.
In the end, Hamilton had no complaints. The relief was palpable as he savoured his second win at home and a championship table that shows he is now just four points behind Rosberg with 10 rounds to run. The next is Rosberg’s home race in Germany on 20 July. Game on indeed.