British Grand Prix 2016 – An Open Ending

The Union Jack flies high, and Great Britain’s Golden Boy takes the crown at home.

Silverstone circuit was blanketed by a canopy of dense grey, rain lay on its surface in fresh sheets, and the British Grand Prix was opened by a Safety Car start. The pack crept behind for the first few laps – leader Lewis Hamilton prowled with impatience, coming close to overtaking the Safety Car as it weaved around the bends. Perhaps an overtly unnecessary precaution by the FIA – Silverstone is one of those tracks that can largely be counted on to produce a wet race; with water spraying from the tail-ends and challenging the drivers finding the dry line, fans yearn for the wet to see who is able to manage the unpredictability. The rain had stopped falling, the wet tyres were itching to fulfil their purpose: to race.

And sure enough, most contenders — save the first four: Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen and Ricciardo – rushed for a set of intermediate tyres once the Safety Car was recalled. Chaos ensued in the pitlane, with many drivers almost colliding from unsafe releases and the scramble for track position. With so many getting held up in the pit lane, the main beneficiary of the pit lane scramble was Sergio Perez in his Force India, who had managed to climb from tenth on the grid to fourth after the shuffle.

As the skies cleared and the track slowly dried, drivers sought the medium tyres over the intermediates, and Vettel was the first to make the switch on lap 16. Mercedes were now facing a threat in the form of young Max Verstappen, then running in third, whose lap times had started to match that of Hamilton’s, with Rosberg falling short by one second per lap. Soon enough, Verstappen overtook Rosberg on lap 17, just as Jolyon Palmer left his pit box without a rear right tyre, for which he incurred a ten-second stop-go penalty.

Sunlight bathed the circuit, but the remnants of the showers had left behind sporadic puddles that almost claimed the likes of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, and Carlos Sainz Jr as victims when they caught the water and nearly spun out of the race. It was an especially narrow miss for Alonso who managed to partially regain control and avoid the barriers as he skidded across the gravel.

No more pit stops were to be made – everyone was running to the finish on the medium tyres. By lap 24 Rosberg had started to pick up speed, sweeping purple sectors and claiming the fastest lap. The gap between him and Verstappen gradually started to narrow as both his teammate and the Dutchman lost control at the first turn of the 29th lap and ran wide onto the service road. Verstappen put up an admirable defence, but the Red Bull was no match for the power and agility of the Mercedes – Rosberg reclaimed second on lap 39.

Red Bull may have made a tactical error – it might have been worth pitting Verstappen before he was overtaken for fresh tyres to better engage the Mercedes in a fight to the finish. Verstappen would have exited the pit lane just behind his teammate Ricciardo, with Perez too far behind to pose any threat to his race. Verstappen could have easily overtaken Ricciardo on newer tyres (or well, Red Bull could have issued team orders if it came to that), and he would have been back in third place, except with tyres that were much newer and very much more competitive than what both Mercedes were carrying. Verstappen was feeling the stretch of his tyres by the time Rosberg had caught up with him – with his proximity, the state of the tyres, the remaining race distance and the superiority of the Mercedes, Red Bull should have realised much earlier on that holding Rosberg off until the end of the race was an impossible feat. They had nothing to lose, and would have at least gained the chance to challenge the Mercedes towards the end of the race.

Mercedes had come so close to nailing the perfect one-two finish when Rosberg reported a gearbox problem on lap 48. Over the radio, his engineer explicitly instructed him to “avoid seventh gear” and to “shift through it” to prevent any further damage to the car. Immediately, the stewards launched an investigation over Mercedes’ possible violation of the rule prohibiting ‘driver coaching’ – this is only permissible if instructions are given to prevent imminent failure. But Mercedes had decided to run the risk, possibly because the lack of information to Rosberg could have resulted in the German pulling out of the race altogether – in that case, what did they have to lose?

Shrouded in uncertainty, the British Grand Prix ended with a massive twist – clear skies prevailed after an overcast beginning, but with no clear conclusion. As the stewards evaluate the intent and implications of Mercedes’ radio comments to Rosberg, Hamilton awaits the verdict that could finally eliminate his teammate’s four-point advantage. But in the meantime, he can drink in the summer sun and the added sweetness of a home victory.

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