Formula 1’s first visit to the Nurburgring since 2013 will go down in the history books for many reasons, as two notable landmarks were reached on Sunday. LUKE SMITH picks out the key storylines from the weekend.
The promise of cold weather in “German Siberia” proved accurate as fog and rain kiboshed Friday’s practice sessions, condensing the Eifel Grand Prix into a two-day weekend.
Lewis Hamilton tightened his grip on the drivers’ championship with a fuss-free victory, capitalising on an error by pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, whose race ended shortly afterwards due to a suspected MGU-H issue.
The big post-race story was the significance of Hamilton’s victory as he drew level with Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 wins, a landmark once thought unreachable.
Kimi Raikkonen also became officially the most experienced driver in F1 history as the Alfa Romeo driver broke Rubens Barrichello’s record for the most number of starts, but endured a race to forget after tangling with George Russell’s Williams at Turn 1.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Eifel Grand Prix.
1. Equalling Schumacher meant a huge amount to Hamilton
Much of the media narrative since Hamilton’s 90th F1 win at Mugello last month was about the significance of equalling Schumacher’s victory tally.
But Hamilton was always quick to bat away the questions and suggestions, saying he had not given it a huge amount of thought, instead focusing on the primary objective of securing his seventh world title.
However as Hamilton came into the pitlane following his victory at the Nurburgring, the penny dropped. All of the branding in parc ferme had been updated to honour him matching Schumacher’s record. A moving moment followed when Michael’s son, Mick, presented Hamilton with one of his father’s race helmets in the pit lane.
The emotion was clear in Hamilton’s voice as he spoke about the achievement after the race, acknowledging that it wasn’t just ‘another’ win. A phone call was shared with his father soon after, helping bring home just what an achievement it was – and one that Hamilton was eager to remember.
“It’s definitely not just another win,” Hamilton said. “I’ve really tried to contemplate and realise what it is that we’ve done, and what I’ve been able to achieve. I would say for the next couple of days, that’s where my mind is going to be at – just wow, it’s hard to find the right words and to be able to compute exactly.”
2. Hamilton’s legacy goes far beyond the number of wins
Victory for Hamilton swelled his championship lead to 69 points in the wake of Bottas’s retirement, making a seventh title – and status as F1’s statistical greatest of all-time – look a formality.
After the race, Hamilton spoke at length about the journey he has been on with Mercedes in F1, and also about the idea of the legacy he will leave behind.
But even on the occasion of a record-equalling feat, Hamilton was thinking about the bigger picture. For him, being remembered as the man at the top of the record lists is not important – it’s about what he does outside of the car to make the world a better place.
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“Yes, it’s great having these wins, but I think the more important things are what you do out of the car,” Hamilton said.
“That’s really where I think the impact can be made, in terms of wanting to be remembered. It’s not the most important thing for me to be remembered as the best or the greatest, because I have so much respect for all those drivers in the past. I don’t feel like I need to compare myself to them, because I’m different.”
Through all of Hamilton’s continued activism and messaging against racial injustice, he is ensuring he will leave a far greater mark on F1 than simply being its most successful driver.
3. Bottas’s welcome show of fight was undone by another error
When the lights went out at the Nurburgring and Hamilton made a better getaway to pull alongside Bottas on the run to Turn 1, it looked like game over. Another Bottas pole that he failed to convert.
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Hamilton squeezed Bottas out at the first corner when he encountered understeer, leaving the Finn a long way wide. Yet there was no sign of Bottas backing down as he threw his car across the kerb and up the inside to get the cutback for Turn 2, maintaining the lead.
“He did an amazing job,” Hamilton said of Bottas’s move. “I remember coming out of that corner thinking, ‘good on you man. I’m impressed, that was good.'”
“I wasn’t going to give that position up easy,” Bottas said. “So I decided to go for it from outside, and I’m glad I did get the position back for the second turn inside.”
Bottas then held a marginal advantage over Hamilton through the opening stint, only to throw away the lead after lock-up on lap 13 that he blamed on the light drizzle.
Both Bottas and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff insisted he could still have won the race, as he’d have committed early to a two-stop strategy that most agreed was the best route home. Yet it was still an error he simply should not have made, especially when in a title fight.
Bottas admitted himself that he needs a “miracle” to win the title this year, the points gap now being as large as it is. A first step would be ironing out errors like the one on Sunday.
4. Red Bull has made a good step toward Mercedes
Max Verstappen may have taken the added variables of cold weather and a condensed practice programme as an opportunity to beat the Mercedes, but had to settle for second once again.
There were nevertheless a huge number of positives to take from Red Bull’s weekend as it debuted a number of updates on the RB16 car, most notably around the rear suspension.
The updates have helped calm the skittish, sometimes nervous car down a bit. Verstappen was pleased with the balance of the car all weekend long, allowing him to sit on provisional pole after the first runs in Q3 and largely stay with the Mercedes drivers through the opening stint.
Wolff said that Mercedes must stay “vigilant” given Red Bull’s good form as the team continued its tradition of starting slow and then developing quickly through a season.
“If we see that trend continue, then the remaining races are going to get tougher,” said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. “It will be harder to try and keep getting the cars on pole on Saturday and winning on a Sunday.”
The signs are promising at Red Bull. It’s welcome news for number two driver Alex Albon as he looks to secure his future with the team, although his shocker of a Sunday is one performance worth forgetting.
5. Ricciardo’s rejuvenation of Renault got what it deserved
Daniel Ricciardo’s return to the Formula 1 podium after more than two years was a welcome sight, even if it lacked his trademark shoey celebration.
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It was no less than both he and Renault deserved after so many near-misses this season, having enjoyed a decent upward trajectory through the year. The decline of Ferrari has certainly helped matters in 2020, but with McLaren, Racing Point and AlphaTauri all already snagging podiums, one was overdue for Renault.
And it was a perfect drive from Ricciardo, getting the jump on Charles Leclerc early in the race before pulling a gap over the rest of the midfield. The late safety car removed Sergio Perez’s advantage of fresher tyres, but Ricciardo still did well to soak up the late pressure – and even have a sniff at Verstappen in second for a few corners – to get that long-awaited podium.
If Ricciardo was staying at Renault, you would argue the building blocks are now in place for some of the success he expected to enjoy upon joining the team in 2019. Alas, just six races remain in their partnership before the Australian heads to McLaren – but more podiums could be on the cards in that period.
Above all, Ricciardo will leave a permanent mark on team boss Cyril Abiteboul – literally – after their podium tattoo bet finally came good at the Nurburgring.
6. Hulkenberg shines again with an even later call-up
Nico Hulkenberg’s strange bit-part role in the 2020 F1 season continued at the Nurburgring after he was drafted in by Racing Point for a second time.
Having deputised for COVID-positive Sergio Perez in the two Silverstone races, Hulkenberg this time stood in for Lance Stroll, who had been feeling ill since Russia and was unable to take part in final practice.
It was at even shorter notice that Hulkenberg got the call this time, meaning his first time in the cockpit was for qualifying. Although he qualified last, he was at least in the race – unlike at the British GP, where an exhaust problem meant he failed to start – and with a fuss-free display rose all the way up to eighth.
It only adds to the growing calls for Hulkenberg to land a seat on the F1 grid next year. Haas looks like the only possible landing spot for him, and the field would only be stronger for his presence.
Hulkenberg has now outscored Sebastian Vettel in the last eight F1 races (10-8) despite only making two starts in that time. That may be more a reflection of the nightmare season Ferrari and Vettel are having, but it’s also proof of just how good Hulkenberg has been with every opportunity that has been thrown his way.
7. McLaren’s updates did not work as hoped
A race of attrition and opportunity has twice resulted in a McLaren podium this year, but the team missed a big opportunity at the Nurburgring, largely in part to its struggles with the new update package.
Carlos Sainz Jr was given the new package while team-mate Lando Norris stuck with the older parts for the weekend after Friday’s running was cancelled, and was quick to report struggles in qualifying.
While Sainz managed to take fifth in the race, he said he had been “suffering” for 60 laps after struggling with high levels of tyre wear. Had it not been for the new updates, then a podium – something Norris was in contention for prior to his DNF – may have been within reach.
It is something McLaren will need to get to the bottom of and respond to ahead of the next race in Portugal, particularly after losing third place to Racing Point in the constructors’ championship as a result of its double-score with Perez and Hulkenberg, and with Renault on the rise.
The fight between the three teams is likely to be the most exciting championship permutation we have come Abu Dhabi. Let’s hope it does not fizzle out early.
8. Vettel paid the price for another error
Another weekend to forget for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari. After showing signs of improvement through practice, a return to Q3 looked within reach, only for Vettel to be bumped out late in Q2 by Charles Leclerc and start the race 11th.
Leclerc put in a star display throughout the Nurburgring weekend, qualifying a stunning fourth before regressing to seventh in the race, but Vettel was anonymous.
Hopes of points took a hit on lap 11 when he made an unforced error at Turn 1 while trying to overtake Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo, half-spinning and having to ditch his flat-spotted medium tyres that should have taken him much further into the race.
The fact he was engaged in a wheel-to-wheel fight with the Russell prior to the latter’s clash with Raikkonen also points to the level of his struggles right now.
Vettel will want to try and get some good results to sign off his Ferrari career, but right now, they look a long way away. He clearly isn’t enjoying life with the SF1000, and will surely be craving the opportunity to get in the Racing Point cockpit for next year.
9. The safety car rules could do with a rethink
The late safety car at the Nurburgring on Sunday had the potential to really shake things up and give drivers a chance to make some late moves in the cold conditions. But it also removed the excitement of the Ricciardo-Perez fight for the podium that was on the cards, and ultimately did very little to impact the end result.
The calling of the safety car again seemed strange, given Norris had parked his car well out of the firing line. FIA race director Michael Masi explained the small fire on the engine made it a sensible move, as did the uncertainty over whether the car would filter back through the marshal gate.
But the big issue was just how long was spent behind the safety car. Both Hamilton and Verstappen were vocal over team radio, asking for the race to resume as their tyre temperatures plummeted on a cold day in Germany.
Masi later explained the fact that so many cars had been lapped meant they had to go and unlap themselves, which took time.
While having the field in position order does make sense in terms of excitement, it also means quick restarts after safety cars are not really possible. Cases such as Sunday show why a rethink may be a good idea.
10. Two-day weekends will work on a sporting level
As frustrating as the lack of Friday running may have been for those at the Nurburgring braving the foggy and rainy weather, it did help create a more exciting weekend.
FP3 was filled with on-track action as the teams tried to cram all of their regular running into a one-hour session, while the drivers were left slightly more in the dark in terms of both set-up and strategy for qualifying and the race. They did not have the usual ‘perfection’ that is possible to achieve through three practice sessions.
This also meant strategy options were largely unclear, with most trying for a one-stop and then switching to a two-stop under the safety car, but a second visit to the pits seemed like it offered more benefits anyway.
“Personally I like it a lot,” said Wolff. “The less testing you have, the less data collection, the more you will create variability.
“It’s not the strongest that wins, but the most adaptable, the most innovative team, the driver that is being able to learn the track and learn the tyres as quick as possible, so if that was a proposal they have my vote.”
It was a good rehearsal for the Emilia Romagna GP at Imola, which will be a two-day weekend with just one practice session, and could point to where F1 goes in the future.