LONDON – Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes read the winning list of this season’s Formula One world championship but any fear of a sweep vanished at race five thanks to Max Verstappen and Red Bull.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper said the Dutchman winning the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday was “just the fillip the season required, ending four consecutive wins for a Mercedes team who were beginning to look invulnerable.”
“I didn’t see it coming,” said a thrilled Verstappen after his ninth career win.
Neither did anyone else beforehand but afterwards the dots could be connected. Red Bull took a chance, Mercedes were – perhaps – just a little complacent and circumstances conspired perfectly.
Mercedes still lead the constructors’ standings by a street and their driver Lewis Hamilton, who finished second, retains his 30-point advantage in the drivers’ championship – albeit now from Verstappen rather than team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
In the long haul of even a coronavirus-shortened season, it is hard to see Mercedes being beaten overall or Hamilton not clinching a record-equalling seventh world title.
The potential for a surprise is everything though even if taking a chance, as Red Bull did, will not always succeed by the very nature of it.
But next weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, in potentially sweltering Barcelona, will surely have Red Bull rubbing their hands again.
“We knew that in certain conditions we weren’t as competitive as we would like to be and that caught us out today,” said Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff.
“It’s a combination of hotter conditions, a high-downforce car, softer compounds and higher tyre pressures that meant that we didn’t have the fastest car today and we were blistering our tyres far more than the others.”
The foundations for Sunday’s victory were built on Saturday when Verstappen qualified on the hardest tyre to Mercedes using the medium compound. The high temperatures and the high speed Silverstone track left the usually fastest soft near useless.
“After taking a risk in qualifying yesterday and electing to start on the hard tyre, Max made it pay dividends with great race pace in the first stint,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
“To our surprise and encouragement, when Mercedes pitted for new tyres we still had better pace on our used hard set.”
It still needed Verstappen, starting P4, to get an immediate jump on Nico Huelkenberg’s third-placed Racing Point which he did and then deliver a smooth performance.
That went so well he even had to be warned off ruining the plan by getting carried away early and wearing his tyres as he found he could chase down Hamilton even when on tougher rubber.
“This is the only chance of being close to a Mercedes, I’m not just sitting around like a grandma,” Verstappen told his engineer.
Mercedes have dominated the hybrid era and improved one of their weaknesses, aerodynamics around twisting street circuits like Singapore, but another glitch in their armour seemingly remains.
High temperatures have led to struggles in Austria and Hungary in previous years though Bottas and Hamilton split the wins between them this season.
“It was a massive challenge,” said Hamilton. “Congratulations to the Red Bull team and to Max. Look at their tyres – they don’t have the problems we had today.
“It is definitely unexpected to have the blistering as hardcore as we experienced it.”
Bottas, who started from pole but finished third, was bitterly disappointed in missing the chance to close the standings gap to Hamilton.
“Very frustrating, obviously, starting from pole and finishing third is not ideal,” he said. “I think as a team we were sleeping at some point when Max managed to get ahead of us, and my strategy was far, far from ideal so, lots to learn from today I think.”
Mercedes will reflect and adapt, that is in the nature of world champions.
“We have a handful of days to … come up with solutions, test them on Friday in Barcelona and then hopefully have a better race on Sunday,” said Wolff.
“It will be challenging, but we’ve had these days in the past and came out stronger and I am really looking forward to Barcelona. These days where we lose are the days where we learn the most.”