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F1: putting the fast guys at the back makes for brilliant racing

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Some months ago, we produced a series of our views of some of the ways that Formula One could be improved to avoid it becoming a high-speed procession around circuits that are, often, not very interesting from a spectators' point of view. One of those was a system where the fastest drivers were rewarded for being fastest but started at the back. In the past few races, without the incentives, that's what we've seen and yesterday's German Grand Prix demonstrated why it's such an excellent concept, even when the stewards act to spoil it.

In recent weeks, we've seen Vettel, Ricciardo and Hamilton all start from lowly positions or, as a result of contact on the first lap, be close to last at the beginning of the second lap. And in each case, we've seen storming drives through the field, proving why (with the exception of Ricciardo) they are World Champions. Yesterday, as Vettel threw his chances of victory away spearing a tyre barrier, Hamilton had already worked his way up two thirds of the field and was poised for an attack. On ultra-soft slicks, fitted far later than anyone thought possible, he had hot sticky tyres where others had worn out rubber. As rain fell, some went in for intermediates, one (why, no one seems to know) for full wets and some stayed out, assessing that the rain covered only about 20% of the circuit and going slowly in that bit cost less than the compromise of a wet-set on the other 80% which was still very hot tarmac. Some of those who changed were back in the pits after one or two laps, fitting whatever slicks they still had in stock. Those with a set of the purple-lined ultras were the winners out of this particular game of tyre poker (as commentator Steve Slater used to call it).

After Vettel had what was, in degree, a fairly minor shunt, driving head first but not (in the great scheme of things) very fast into a tyre wall, the stewards called out the safety car. Hamilton had, by that point, built up a decent lead over third place man, his Mercedes team-mate Valteri Bottas, and Kimi Raikkonen was fourth. They were all elevated one place by Vettel's crash. Vettel was obviously unhurt (although he has a recent history of neck trouble) and he was out of the car in moments. His car was on a crane and in the air with great alacrity. But the stewards decided to deploy the safety car rather than the virtual safety car and that almost cost Hamilton the race, although in another way it helped him for second and third placed Bottas and Raikkonen both pitted, put on new ultra-softs and cruised up behind the lapped cars that would soon be put out of contention. Fourth place man was more than 40 seconds behind. As the back markers un-lapped themselves, the safety car slowed to what seemed like walking speed. Hamilton struggled to stay behind it and complained that, because of the damp, his tyres were cooling. What he didn't say was that the laps behind the safety car also gave extended life to tyres that might have, otherwise, been in serious trouble by the end of the race. The pace of the safety car was shown by the fact that, by the restart, fourth place was under six seconds behind and had made that up, behind the safety car, in two laps.

Hamilton hared off as soon as permitted, Bottas, on far fresher tyres that hadn't even had a full heat cycled, chased him down and for half-a-lap they battled. Bottas was clearly the faster of the two but Hamilton defended like the Champion he is. Eventually, a message from the pit wall apologised to Bottas and asked him to hold station. He wasn't happy but the fact is that the conditions that had put Vettel out were still present and a close, hard battle could have easily put both of them out with the smallest unexpected slide. Raikkonen, who had also been the victim of an order to let is team-mate go, was still seething at the end of the race: he had been at the front, seemingly with a decent chance of a win, when Ferrari told him to surrender to the German.

The race right up and down the field was superb: even towards the end there were battles with three or even four cars in the same corner, all looking for grip and all looking for a tiny improvement in exit speed and line. Karting in F1: who'd have thunk it?

We've now had a series of superb races. The drivers still whine that they don't have enough grip when they come up behind another car, they still moan that some drivers are all-to-often on exactly the part of the track they want to be. Alonso still starts in the middle, battles up the grid and then either finishes in the points or sinks like a stone.

But even as Hamilton won, there was uncertainty: a communications cock up saw him enter the pit lane and then told not to so he went over the grass and back onto the track. His lead at that point was so great that there was no danger to any other vehicle but it was an inherently risky move. It all started when the team told him to pit as the safety car was announced, then changed their mind. Radio messages were full of shouts and contradictions. Eventually, Hamilton "went around," to use pilot-speak. Bottas then dived in a few seconds later and was fitted with new ultra-soft tyres.

But eventually, after an hour and a half of consideration and representations, the stewards affirmed Hamilton's win.

It's number 44 for the driver of car 44 (but not all of them have been with that number! )

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