Yesterday I said this race would be spicy, and spicy it was. McLaren was fighting wheel to wheel with Ferrari and Red Bull on the opening laps. Lewis Hamilton fought for his grid drop from 5th to 2nd at the flag, and a major blow diminished Max Verstappen’s title hopes.
A promised strategic battle between Mercedes and a resurgent Red Bull team, with Verstappen at the fore, was cruelly taken away. The Honda engine cut out as he was sitting pretty in 2nd. In a season of unknown length, this will be a bitter blow. But a slew of retirements, culminating in Kevin Magnussen’s brake failings, brought out the safety car. With it, the two Mercedes were brought line astern to battle for the chequered flag.
After the restart Sebastian Vettel was in the wrong place at the wrong time yet again. Carlos Sainz was battling Charles Leclerc. As he went to do the switchback on the Ferrari at turn two, Vettel locked up and spun, tagging the very man who is due to replace him next season.
While the German was running around in 14th, struggling to pass George Russell’s Williams, Leclerc was pinned between two McLarens. Young Lando Norris ahead, future teammate in Sainz behind. The last time we had McLaren and Ferrari on equal race pace was when we were racing with V8 engines.
Another safety car was brought out at lap 52 as Russell pulled off with fuel pressure issues, the 6th retirement of the day. Meanwhile, the Mercedes advantage to the chasing pack of over 11 seconds was wiped out. Both cars had been warned multiple times that they had gearbox sensor issues. This was not on the wish list from the leading two.
The restart did not last long. Kimi Räikkönen’s front right wheel decided to go straight on, while he turned right to take the restart, and ended up parked up on the pit-straight. The 7th retirement of the race.
The next restart went off with yet another bang. Alexander Albon judged the restart to perfection and was battling with the world champion all round the track. Until corner four.
Albon swept round the outside but tagged Hamilton just as he was about to take the position, who spun out and ended up in last place. Onboard footage showed Hamilton was turning right the whole time and didn’t straighten up. Both were put under investigation by the stewards and Hamilton was given a five second penalty.
Gloves off all round. Hamilton and Bottas traded fastest laps, Norris and Sergio Perez traded paint for 4th, and Daniil Kvyatt’s rear-left blew up, leaving the rookie Latiffi in 11th with one lap to go. Norris pulled out the fastest lap of the race on the final go-around, snatching 3rd from Hamilton by 0.198.
Leclerc took 2nd in a result that may be undeservedly flattering for Ferrari given the amount of cars ahead of them that retired. Next week may well be when reality sets in for the Scuderia.
It’s been the longest wait for a race in F1 history at 217 days. The wait was well worth it.
Next week’s rematch at the same circuit has a lot to live up to. But with the cars up and down the field looking a lot closer together than in recent years, this could be an unmissable championship.