Sebastian Vettel has achieved many things in his career, but prior to Sunday the Ferrari driver had never won nor led more than a handful of laps at Hockenheim – a venue only a handful of miles from where he grew up. For much of the race he seemed destined to end that barren run.
That was until rain showers swept over the German circuit late on and turned events on their head. Caught out by the slippery track, Vettel slithered into the barriers on lap 52, allowing title rival Lewis Hamilton – who’d started a distant 14th after his qualifying dramas – to make full use of a brilliant Mercedes strategy call to sweep into the lead, take victory and reclaim the advantage in the title race.
A post-race investigation followed, but on the weekend he signed a new two-year deal with Mercedes, the world champion wasn’t to be denied.
Hamilton, who had never previously won from outside the top six on the grid, led home team mate Valtteri Bottas to give the Silver Arrows their first ever one-two on home soil. In doing so Hamilton also equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of four German GP wins, as the seven-time world champion’s former team Ferrari had to make do with third place for Kimi Raikkonen.
Max Verstappen brought his Red Bull home in P4, a gamble to switch to intermediate tyres having failed to pay off, while Nico Hulkenberg took a superbly judged fifth for Renault in front of his home fans.
Haas’s Romain Grosjean pipped Force India’s Sergio Perez to sixth on the final lap, with the Mexican’s team mate Esteban Ocon, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley – all of whom had been out of the points before the rain came – completing the top ten points scorers.
Vettel made no mistake at the start to lead Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen into Turn 1. Behind them fears of opening-lap contact proved unfounded as the field circulated cleanly, with Hamilton, starting on soft tyres, dropping a place at the start before re-passing Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams into the stadium section.
As Vettel held Bottas at arm’s length up front, Hamilton continued to make his way up the order. By Lap 11 the Briton had climbed to P6, but by then he was a full 25s behind leader Vettel and his podium chances looked slim.
Ferrari were the first of the frontrunners to show their hand from a tactical point of view, calling Raikkonen in for a switch from ultrasoft to soft tyres at the end of lap 15. The Finn returned in front of Hamilton in P4, but after Vettel, Bottas and Verstappen had pitted more than 10 laps later, Raikkonen emerged in the lead.
Between those events, Daniel Ricciardo – who’d started on the back row of the grid after Red Bull elected to change multiple power unit elements on his car – pulled over after complaining of ‘losing power’. By that stage the unlucky Australian, who’d started on the medium tyres and has now retired from four of the 11 races in 2018, had fought his way into the top 10.
Up front, Raikkonen continued to lead from Vettel, but with the latter complaining that his tyres, much fresher than his team mate’s, were beginning to suffer in the Finn’s wake, Ferrari soon instructed the 2007 world champion to move over and let the 2018 world championship leader through.
Three laps later, at the end of lap 42 of 67, Mercedes finally called Hamilton in after a mammoth opening stint. The Briton was switched to the fastest ultrasoft tyres, with his team telling him they represented his best chance of catching those ahead – how right they were…
Within two laps of leaving the pits the first drops of rain began to fall at the Turn 6 hairpin. Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Fernando Alonso and Pierre Gasly all gambled the weather would hastily worsen and pitted, the first of the three for intermediates, the latter for full wets.
In reality, a major downpour didn’t transpire and all four would quickly switch back to slicks – but in the slippery conditions, Leclerc was lucky to survive a full 360-degree spin out of Turn 1 and another off-track moment out of Turn 3 which dropped him out of points contention.
As the drivers struggled for grip, Bottas – now right behind Raikkonen – put a pass on his countryman, while Perez was another to spin. But the major drama was to follow as Vettel drew audible groans from the huge crowd in the stadium section as he understeered off at the Sachskurve, his agony obvious in his slapping of his helmet and teary apology over team radio. It was the fifth time in his career he had retired from the lead of a race.
With the Safety Car summoned to recover Vettel’s stricken car, Bottas was called into the pits for fresh rubber and Raikkonen followed a lap later, while Hamilton took a trip across the grass at pit entry having been initially called to do the same only to be told at the last minute to stay out. The stewards took a close look at the incident after the race before deciding on issuing Hamilton with a reprimand.
All of a sudden Hamilton led, and having seen off the challenge of Bottas at the re-start (and then benefitted from the Finn being told to hold station), the four-time world champion coolly reeled off the remaining laps – during which both Williams limped into retirement to join Ricciardo and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne – to complete a thoroughly unlikely victory.
With it an eight-point deficit to Vettel in the championship was converted into a 17-point advantage, while Ferrari’s misery was completed as Mercedes reclaimed the lead in the constructors’ race by eight points.
There is little time to rest as the F1 paddock now heads to Budapest for next weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix on July 27-29.