Midday sun it was not, but the way Lewis Hamilton was driving on Sunday it could just have well have been.
“We’ve done it, we’ve bloody done it,” were the words of elation from Hamilton after he gave his peers a masterclass in the wet at Silverstone and produced his greatest drive to date.
The Briton’s reaction a private message to his McLaren mechanics broadcast to the world on the team radio after sixty laps of rain-soaked chaos says it all. This wasn’t just about winning. This wasn’t just about fulfilling a school-boy fantasy and triumphing in front of a home crowd, though it clearly meant everything. These were the words of something grittier: raw delivery against the odds, at a time when those around him had begun to doubt.
The stakes could not have been higher going into Silverstone. Mistakes at the Canadian and French Grand Prix, combined with some over-zealous reporting on his off-track pursuits, led to mumblings that the British youngster had begun to take his eye off the ball. The implications of another disappointing result on his championship hopes, not to mention the backlash from the press, were unthinkable. A mistake in qualifying which saw the McLaren ace line up in fourth place compounded the situation.
His response on race-day couldn’t have been better: a flawless charge to victory in conditions where flawless was simply inconceivable. A lightening start saw him vault out of the starting box and nail Mark Webber and Kimi Raikkonen, but a near coming together with team-mate and pole-sitter Heikki Kovalainen almost ruined his race there and then.
“To be honest, I lifted too early into Turn One,” Lewis admitted. “Heikki had the outside line, so he had the grip but unfortunately I was on the inside and I was just sliding, sliding across. There was nothing I could do to avoid him, I think we tapped or we touched.”
“I had another opportunity on the exit of the last corner but that’s not a place to overtake really. We were almost side-by-side and I had an oversteer moment and the last thing I wanted to do was take my team-mate out, so I just tried to keep it on the track.”
The inevitable could not be delayed for long though and a few laps later the Finn relinquished the lead. There Hamilton stayed for the duration of the race, keeping his head in treacherous conditions, to take the chequered flag some fifty seconds ahead of his closest challenger, and a full lap ahead of championship rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa (see full race report HERE).
“The team were telling me that it was forty seconds, 48 seconds, you’re five or eight seconds or whatever it was faster than the guy behind,” Hamilton said afterwards. “And I’m thinking, hold on a second, what’s going on? I’m not even pushing. I’m driving to a comfortable pace. I didn’t want to slow down because the moment you slow down, you perhaps lose concentration, so I just said ‘I’m comfortable at the pace I’m going’ and even then I was a silly amount quicker than everyone.”
“So I really had to be very, very sensible. Imagine I was a minute, sixty seconds ahead and I came off, and I didn’t win. There would be no way you could come from that. That would be the most embarrassing thing. You would have to retire. I was comfortable with the pace I was doing but I asked the team ‘How much slower can I go?’ They gave me a margin which I was comfortable with, yet I still did a 1m36s and that was quicker than I’d been in my last stint. But I was comfortable there. The car felt good, I felt comfortable where I was.”
Hamilton well and truly silenced those critics who have begun to doubt his raw talent, but he did more; he hurled the questions back. ‘Is Lewis Hamilton the quickest driver in Formula One?’ his performance asked. He dominated in a context where underlying skill and flair behind the wheel of an F1 cannot be masked, as he did at Monaco. He was the only driver not to make any mistakes while his peers, including Kimi Raikkonen, Robert Kubica and Fernando Alonso all had their moments. Food for thought.
Besides stopping the onslaught of criticism in its tracks, Hamilton also kept his title dreams alive and his victory paves the way for the mouth-watering prospect of a three-way title race between himself and the Ferrari pairing. As a result of Ferrari’s problems in the race (see HERE) Lewis currently find himself leading the championship but tied on 48 points with Raikkonen and Massa.
McLaren dominated both qualifying and the race this weekend, but it would be wrong to assume that they have an advantage over their Italian counterparts. As the track dried in the run up to the first round pit-stops Kimi Raikkonen was hunting Hamilton down at a rate of knots. Had Ferrari correctly predicted further rain and changed the Finn’s tyres to fresh intermediates, as McLaren had done with Hamilton, then who knows what would have happened.
“We could have won this race with Kimi but we made a key mistake at the first pitstop, choosing to stay on the same set of tyres” Stefano Domenicali, Ferrari’s Team Principal explained. “The rain did not ease off and lasted longer and our drivers – Felipe had also gone for the same choice – found themselves in difficulty. With hindsight it’s easy to say we should have changed tyres, but Formula One is not an exact science – sometimes strategic choices pay off and sometimes they don’t.”
“All the same, we have to admit that, this weekend, we did not operate to our usual standard. We made mistakes at every level and even our performance did not match our expectations and now we have to work out why, but calmly without panicking.”
Heading to Hockenheim its advantage McLaren. It was always going to be a case of damage limitation for McLaren at circuits such as Magny-Cours and Silverstone, and Hamilton’s win at the latter, combined with Ferrari’s disappointing points haul couldn’t have been a better result. But as in Monaco when mistakes masked the underlying pace of the F2008, so in Silverstone, Raikkonen could equally have taken the top step of the podium. So the gap in performance between the two teams is minimal.