The 2021 British Grand Prix will reverberate around the paddock for years to come, let’s unpack the race and the clash between Hamilton and Verstappen.
The British Grand Prix had a lot going for it from very early on. It was the first round where the new Sprint Qualifying system would be tested, and the anticipation coming into the weekend was high. The Silverstone circuit was one Mercedes always went well at, and was historically the turning point in Lewis Hamilton’s season when he battled Sebastian Vettel for the title.
Free practice 1 was lively as it was the only session where the drivers could change setup before parc ferme was introduced for qualifying on Friday afternoon. Max Verstappen comfortably topped the session by almost a second from Lando Norris in the McLaren. Early on, it looked to be Red Bull’s weekend to lose.
When qualifying rolled around though, it was Hamilton who came out on top. 0.075sec separated him and title rival Verstappen in the end, with Valtteri Bottas a further tenth away in third place. The scene was set for a memorable first Sprint Qualifying event then, with the title rivals ready to do battle for pole, and three championship points.
Saturday rolled around, and the Sprint Qualifying did indeed deliver. Hamilton and Verstappen battled it out all through the first sector of lap 1, with the Red Bull eventually taking the lead he was not to lose. The star performance though was of Fernando Alonso in the Alpine, who drove the lap of his life to rise from 11th to 7th on lap 1. It was a Saturday to forget for Sergio Perez, with the Mexican spinning off at Chapel, retiring, and ruining his chances of a podium on Sunday.
Then Sunday rolled around, a sunny day at Silverstone with a full grandstand for the first time at a Grand Prix since 2019. It was Verstappen vs. Hamilton on the front row. Both drivers had bolted medium tires on, presumably going for a one-stopper for hards. The lights went out, and the two got off the line very even. They went side by side through Abbey, then Verstappen got ahead.
Out of the hairpin though, Hamilton got supreme traction and they were side by side again, touching at least twice before Brooklands, where Verstappen remained ahead. Out of Luffield Hamilton got brilliant traction again, and they went side by side into Copse. Hamilton’s front-left tagged Verstappen’s rear-right and the Red Bull went spearing off into the tire barrier. Verstappen was out of the British Grand Prix.
The accident sent shockwaves through the F1 community, a crash that would go down in infamy alongside Spain 2016 and Japan 1989, where the title rivals collided. Once it was clear Verstappen was out of the car unharmed, the attention immediately went to whose fault the accident was. The race was red-flagged to repair the barrier, and the finger-pointing game began.
Red Bull’s Helmut Marko and Christian Horner believed Hamilton had no right to be on the inside at the turn, while Toto Wolff of Mercedes believed Verstappen cut across the track. Outside the paddock, the fans were deeply divided over the incident too, but the general consensus is the incident was not Verstappen’s fault. The stewards deemed it the fault of Hamilton, gifting him a 10-second time penalty.
Looking at the replay, it was clear that Hamilton understeered into the Red Bull, who did leave cars width at the apex. It could be argued the incident was the fault of Hamilton, though it was lap 1 and the two were battling very hard for the lead, and crashes like that can happen.
Once the drama was over and the barrier repaired, the race restarted. It was Charles Leclerc who led when the red flag was called, and thus he would start from pole at the restart. He got off the line well and took the lead from Hamilton, with Norris slipping up the inside of Bottas for third. Second time was the charm and the field continued on without issue, with Leclerc leading the way in the Ferrari.
It seemed for the early part of the race that he had the measure of Hamilton, and he controlled the race well, despite power unit problems. By the halfway stage, it looked as though Leclerc could be taking Ferrari’s first win since 2019, on the 70th anniversary of their first Formula 1 win. Hamilton had stopped for a set of hards, taking his penalty in the pit lane, and came out behind Norris and Bottas.
Norris had a slow stop, pushing him behind Bottas, meaning his podium charge was in tatters after Hamilton passed him. Bottas moved over to led his teammate through, and Hamilton was by this point roaring closer to Leclerc, who had also pitted for hards. On lap 50, the Mercedes caught him, and passed him into Copse – cleanly this time – and went on to win the most controversial race in recent history.
Some believe the penalty to be not harsh enough for Hamilton, but it was harsher than the penalties he received for virtually the same tangles with Alex Albon in Brazil 2019 and Austria last year. He just plainly had the quicker car than Leclerc on the hard compound, and as such, won.
The fallout of the race is a continuing story, with Red Bull unhappy with Hamilton, going to the point of wanting a race suspension and hiring a legal team. It won’t change the outcome of the race, as Hamilton is now within striking distance of Verstappen in the title table. The question now though, is the British Grand Prix the first of many times these two tangle in 2021? We will find out at the Hungarian Grand Prix in a week and a half’s time.