Verstappen storms to sensational win in extraordinary rain-hit German GP
Hockenheim delivered an absolutely superb race in 2018 – but it was nothing compared to the absolute humdinger the iconic German track produced this weekend. And it was the large contingent of travelling Dutch fans that left the happiest as Max Verstappen mastered the rainy conditions to clinch victory on a day when many of the other big guns quite literally hit trouble…
But Verstappen’s victory was just one storyline in what will be remembered as an all-time classic Grand Prix. Behind the Red Bull driver, Sebastian Vettel completed a sensational comeback from 20th on the grid to second, while Daniil Kvyat was a surprise third as Toro Rosso scored just their second ever podium. Runaway chanmpionship leaders Mercedes, meanwhile, suffered a nightmare in their 200th race, with Bottas crashing out and polesitter Lewis Hamilton having multiple offs on his way to P11.
And to think, Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner had his head in his hands at the start, as both Verstappen and team mate Pierre Gasly got handfuls of wheelspin to drop way down the pack. But that was just the first of series of twists and turns as the rain came, and then eased, and then returned, before the track finally started to dry out in the closing stages.
Starting second, Verstappen and Red Bull mastered the strategy, taking a gamble to switch to mediums first, then realising their mistake and diving back into the pits. The Dutchman pitted five times in total, but made the right calls at the right time to emerge at the head of the field.
Vettel crossed the line second, the German making up seven places in the last 15 laps to cap a marvellous comeback, after starting dead last having not set a time in qualifying. And he would be joined on the podium by a tearful Daniil Kvyat, the Russian securing a shock podium for Toro Rosso after the Italian team pitted him for fresh boots at the perfect time.
Lance Stroll briefly led the race in the final stint, after Racing Point rolled the dice and put him on dry tyres. The move proved inspired and while he battled bravely, he eventually succumbed to Kvyat and Vettel to take fourth, ahead of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, who at one stage was as low as 14th.
Alexander Albon survived contact with Pierre Gasly on the final lap to take sixth in the other Toro Rosso, ahead of the Alfa Romeo duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, with Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen banging wheels but escaping unscathed to complete the top 10.
What of championship leader Lewis Hamilton? He pitted six times, led the race for large chunks but a spin at the penultimate corner spat him into the barriers, breaking his front wing. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc’s race ended there, too, just when he had hauled himself into victory contention from P10 on the grid, while Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg were also casualties when running in P3 and P4 respectively.
AS IT HAPPENED
The forecast showers failed to materialise on Saturday afternoon for German Grand Prix qualifying, but the meteorologists got it bang on come race day, with rain falling throughout the morning and into the afternoon at Hockenheim, prompting the formation lap to take place behind the Safety Car, with the whole field on full wet tyres.
They completed three tours before the FIA F1 Race Director Michael Masi deemed the conditions good enough for racing and a standing start. Hamilton skated away cleanly from pole, while Verstappen was sucked back into the melee behind after picking up handfuls of wheelspin. That allowed Bottas to snatch second and a fast-starting Kimi Raikkonen to slip into third in the Alfa Romeo.
Just four laps into the race, the first round of pit stops were triggered when Sergio Perez’s crash brought out the Safety Car. Hamilton was the first in, followed by Bottas as Mercedes delivered a cracking double pit stop in double quick time. Much of the field followed suit, opting to ditch the full wets for the intermediate tyres. Those who chose not to rued their mistake a few laps later at the conditions improved.
When Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault engine let go in dramatic fashion, the French manufacturer suspecting an exhaust issue, the Virtual Safety Car was called into action. That gave Leclerc the chance to pit for fresh intermediates – he was one of only two cars to do so – and that gave him an advantage that allowed him to rise up into fourth.
Kevin Magnussen was the first to roll the dice and take dry soft tyres, with Vettel following suit a lap later. Verstappen was soon in, too, but he went for the mediums and he struggled to switch them on, spinning dramatically through 360 degrees in the stadium section before rejoining still in third behind Hamilton and Bottas.
The Virtual Safety Car was required again when Lando Norris pulled off track, citing a loss of power. Leclerc reacted again, this time taking the softs and hauling himself into victory contention – but then he lost the rear end at the penultimate corner, slid off track and into the barriers, beaching the car in the gravel, cueing a series of expletives on team radio.
Safety Car driver Bernd Maylander was needed again, neutralising the race while the pit lane became a hive of activity once more. Verstappen pitted, this time for inters, and Vettel followed him in. Meanwhile, there was drama a few metres away as race leader Hamilton lost his car at the penultimate corner and hit the barrier, but unlike Leclerc, he had enough momentum to return to the track, albeit with a broken wing.
He dived into the pits, but he was beyond the bollard denoting the last point in which you can enter and that meant he incurred a five-second time penalty. His team were caught unaware, rushing around to find the tyres and secure a new nose. Fortunately, despite the huge time loss, he still rejoined fifth.
Back on track, Verstappen was now in the lead ahead of Nico Hulkenberg – who has never reached the podium – and Bottas. When the Safety Car pulled in, Hamilton set about making up for his mistake, passing Albon – racing his first-ever wet F1 Grand Prix – and Hulkenberg to take third. Maylander had barely had time to stretch his legs when he was called out again.
This time, Hulkenberg was in the same barriers that Leclerc and Hamilton had already got up close and personal with, leading to a groan among his home fans in the grandstands. Verstappen was back in the pits again, this time for inters. Vettel took them too while Hamilton was in and took his five-second time penalty, dropping him to the back – but Racing Point rolled the dice and opted for softs for Stroll. It would prove to be inspired.
A dry line had formed, the track was improving quickly and further rain was unlikely, prompting the rest of the field to pit several laps later. Stroll, meanwhile, was flying and rocketed up the order as his rivals pitted. All of a sudden, he found himself in the lead of the Grand Prix.
Verstappen made short work of the Canadian to retake P1 and push clear. Stroll was still second, though, ahead of Kvyat, Bottas and Sainz – who had risen up the order from 14th after a spin. Kvyat then passed Stroll to take second, the Toro Rosso looking immense. It wasn’t going so well for Hamilton, though, the Briton spinning at Turn 1, and while he survived the 360, his tyres were done, forcing him back into the pits again.
Stroll was doing a fine job of defending from Bottas, with the Finn ultimately pushing too hard at Turn 1, losing the car at the same point as Hamilton had done five laps earlier, but this time hitting the barriers and tearing off the front corners of the car. Back out came the Safety Car, and this allowed the rest of the field to bunch up and set the stage for a thrilling finale.
On resumption, Vettel made light work of Sainz, then passed Stroll and Kvyat to take a sensational second, making up in part for his qualifying disaster, while Kvyat comfortably had the pace to take third. Stroll crossed the line for fourth, leading to back pats and handshakes all round on the Racing Point pit wall.
Sainz was fifth – his best result of the season – while Gasly looked like he was going to snatch sixth from Albon only to get caught out when the Thai driver moved to defend and the two collided, breaking the Frenchman’s front wing and sending him sailing off down the escape road.
Albon continued to take sixth, a career-best result, while Raikkonen – who ran as high as third at one stage – scored points for the fourth race in succession with seventh. Antonio Giovinazzi scored a best-ever eighth, while the Haas of Grosjean and Magnussen collided for the second race in succession, leading to headshaking from Team Prinicpal Guenther Steiner on the pit wall, but they both continued to score points, ending a four-race pointless streak for the American squad.
Hamilton crossed the line 11th, finishing a race outside of the points for the first time in the hybrid era – the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix was the last time he failed to score – and with Bottas crashing, it means Mercedes depart a Grand Prix without any points for the first time this season.
It’s not the way they would have wanted to mark their anniversary weekend, as Mercedes-Benz celebrated 125 years of motorsport, but they do still retain a comfortable lead in the constructors’ championship, while Hamilton is still clear of Bottas and the rest of the pack in the drivers’ standings.