Come November, when the 2018 Formula One Drivers’ Championship is proudly held aloft and the inquest begins into where the season was won and lost, the German Grand Prix will probably be regarded as the turning point.
With around twenty laps remaining of an otherwise uneventful Hockenheim race up until that point, Sebastian Vettel was in control of proceedings. Having reclaimed P1 following a reshuffle of pit-stops, the Ferrar was being guided home by his team-mate Kimi Raikonnen, who loyally gave up his own race-winning ambitions to let the four-time World Champion extend his Championship lead over rival Lewis Hamilton, The Briton was running in P3, having superbly risen from a starting place of P14, and was looking likely to stay there unless a series of remarkable events unfolded.
As F1 would have it, a series of remarkable events did unfold in alarmingly quick fashion. Rain that had threatened to drench the circuit from early morning finally arrived at the furthest end of the circuit, over the Turn 6 hairpin, which caused a mild panic for drivers who had to navigate the slippy turn with dry tires. The rest of the circuit remained bone-dry, so a decision was needed: stick or twist; go for wets or see out the rain and hope it’d pass quickly.
What followed was a mixed-bag of strategy. Charles Le Clerc pitted twice in a matter of laps, first to install intermediates, and then next to replace them with dry tires; a perplexing move that set the trend.
Lewis Hamilton opted to stay out at the last possible second, flirting with steward penalty to cut the white pit-lane line and go around again just as the rain was easing off. It was to prove a race-winning decision.
Up-front, disaster struck the Ferraris. As the rain soaked Turn 6 Kimi Raikonnen resembled more a flailing ice-skater than a World Champion. His Ferrari slipped and stuttered around corners, his tyres begging for more grip, as Hamilton took his P2 position and beared down on Vettel.
In the end, Vettel caused his own demise. Coming up to a routine corner, the Ferrari driver seemed to brake far too late given the wet conditions, before locking up and careering into the gravel and then the barriers. His banging of the steering wheel said it all. This was a school-boy error that gifted Hamilton a race win and a golden chance to steal a 17 point lead in the Championship race.
Such a deficit is not impossible to overturn – all it takes is one retirement form Hamilton and a race win for Vettel to reclaim top spot, or a handful of wins in the upcoming races, but the Mercedes driver is the kind of sportsman who doesn’t need a second chance to grasp such a lead as we enter the second half of the season.
Such a disaster for Vettel echoes Singapore last year. There, Vettel well and truly squandered any chance of claiming the 2017 title by crashing out at the first corner following a pointless manoeuvre on Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen.
There’s still a long way to go in this 2018 season however and it’d be brash to say that Vettel lost the Championship yesterday. However, Mercedes are notoriously strong finishers and you can’t help but wonder how much untapped potential this new and improved Ferrari has in the second half of the year.
Nonetheless, it was an excellent drive by Lewis Hamilton yesterday and a much needed one given the difficulties he faced in Silverstone a fortnight ago and during qualifying on Saturday. In an instant, the title race has come alive and a fifth world title is almost in reach for King Lewis.