An empty Silverstone circuit might take some getting used to, but what happened on track looked no different to recent years, with Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes on top in qualifying.
Hamilton appears to have only teammate Valtteri Bottas as a rival for victory on Sunday afternoon.
So how is it we’re already writing off any notion of a competitive season? How did this season so quickly become this one-sided?
The real reason behind Mercedes’ dominance
The Mercedes W11 and Silverstone were made for each other.
The car had already proved dominant at the Red Bull Ring and Hungaroring over the first three races, but stretched its advantage even further through the high-speed corners of Silverstone. Lewis Hamilton’s pole position time was a full second clear of his nearest non-Mercedes rival, with 0.5s of that advantage coming in the high-speed middle sector alone. Put simply, the others didn’t stand a chance.
Another lap record was smashed — Hamilton was 0.790s quicker than teammate Valltteri Bottas’ pole position last year — underlining the step Mercedes has taken this season. But arguably the biggest difference to the 2019 British Grand Prix was not Mercedes’ engineering excellence, but the absence of Red Bull and Ferrari in the fight at the front. And as easy as it is to blame Mercedes for making F1 boring, the finger has to be pointed at its rivals.
While Mercedes has found the best part of a second in performance, Max Verstappen set a nearly identical time to his qualifying lap from last year, dropping 0.049s compared to his 2019 attempt. As the old saying goes, if you stand still in Formula One you go backwards, and while the gulf between the top three teams and the rest in F1 means Red Bull can still qualify third with that kind of performance, on a track where Verstappen was a second clear of the midfield pack last year, on Saturday he held just a 0.4s advantage over McLaren’s Lando Norris in fifth.
Meanwhile, Ferrari has just gone plain backwards. Despite hooking up a relatively good lap, Charles Leclerc was 0.355s slower on Saturday than during qualifying for the 2019 British Grand Prix. In the context of the 2020 season, it was Ferrari’s best qualifying performance of the year, but with Sebastian Vettel in tenth place there was a stark reminder of how far the team had gone backwards. The reasons are well known — Ferrari was forced to sacrifice engine performance over the winter after pushing the boundaries in 2019 — but that doesn’t make the failings of the Italian any less stark.
What’s more, Ferrari has been running its car with a trimmed out rear wing to reduce drag this weekend and compensate for the lack of power. While that seemed to help with single lap pace, the long-run pace looked disastrous on Friday, with Leclerc on average 1.4s slower than Bottas using the same tyres in FP2. Red Bull looked closer to Mercedes on race pace during practice, but every indication is of another two-horse race between Hamilton and Bottas for victory on Sunday.
Return of the Hulk
After nine months out of F1, Nico Hulkenberg qualified 13th on his return to Racing Point. By all accounts it was a decent effort for a substitute driver, but a reminder of how costly a positive COVID-19 test will be for any team this year.
Realistically, Racing Point should have been on the second row of the grid, but with Lance Stroll underperforming and Hulkenberg coming up to speed, the pink cars will start sixth and 13th.
“There are lots of areas we didn’t get right and we have underperformed today for sure,” technical director Andrew Green said. “With Nico, you can expect that, it’s day two and he hasn’t done that many laps, so he has done a great job to get to where he got to in such a short space of time. But I think with Lance we were definitely expecting a little bit more.”
Just two days ago Hulkenberg was expecting to be turning laps of the Nurburgring in a GT4 car rather than racing in Formula One at Silverstone. The news that Sergio Perez had tested positive for COVID-19 triggered a series of events that saw Hulkenberg enter the paddock just ten minutes before the start of the first practice session. The whole weekend has been about getting him up to speed in the car, but having driven for the team as recently as 2016, Hulkenberg had a slight advantage over someone completely new to the team.
“He’s got a good memory and a lot of the procedures he was used to when he was driving for us for a few season haven’t really changed,” Green said. “They might have evolved a bit, but the general principles are all very similar.
“He did slip into it incredibly seamlessly, it was like he had almost never left, which was the reason why we wanted him in the car in the first place at such short notice. We wanted someone who we could get the maximum out of in a short space of time.
“In that respect, it wasn’t that arduous for him, I think the switch was relatively simple. We did make a conscious effort to reduce his workload and there is a lot of work going on in the background to reduce that workload, so there was no emphasis on him doing test items, setup compares or anything.
“We focused on the basics, changed our plans completely and just doing the simple stuff and not experiments. We needed to get the basics right and we’ve just about come out of it and done that. That was our target and it is our target for tomorrow as well, to make a conscious effort to focus on the Sunday and less the Saturday.
“His biggest disadvantage is not driving the car for nine months, not being in the seat for that length of time. He’s a bit rusty.”
“The biggest thing is time in the car. If he has a good race tomorrow and gets 50-odd laps under his belt, he will come out he’ll come out of that a bit tired, for sure, and a bit sore on Monday, but he’ll come out of it with a lot more knowledge.”
‘Lando Norri 5’
Lando Norris was a standout performer again, putting his McLaren in fifth position for Sunday’s race.
Norris was quick to make reference to his brilliant one-off race helmet design after the session. His helmet carries ‘LANDO NORRIS’ in giant letters, designed by six-year-old fan Eva Muttram. She ran out of space on the piece of paper used to design it, so simply placed the S underneath the I.
Norris liked it so much he has changed his official Twitter handle to ‘Lando Norri S’- he also retweeted a fan account which was even more creative with it after qualifying.
— #L4NDO (@TeamL4NDO) August 1, 2020
Albon ready to fight
Alex Albon has had a difficult weekend so far. A crash in Friday practice was followed by car issues on Saturday morning which robbed him further track time ahead of qualifying. Elimination in Q2 followed, meaning Albon will have to fight through the field on Sunday afternoon.
“We missed a bit of track time which would have been pretty useful,” Albon said after qualifying. “Friday went pretty well, we had the crash obviously but the pace was strong. I was pretty positive going into today, but just struggled with the change of balance and extracting the most out of it.
“Sundays have tended to go pretty well for me. We’ve made up a lot of positions the last few races we’ve done… obviously, we don’t want to keep doing it [like that]. When it comes Sunday we tend to go a bit better, and we’ve got free tyre choice tomorrow too … Should hopefully be able to make up some positions.”
While there seems to be a perception forming that Albon is under big pressure to turn his form around, the Thai driver seems relaxed about his status with the team. There is also nothing coming out of the Red Bull camp to suggest he is facing the same kind of internal team doubts there were about Pierre Gasly had during his stint with the team.
When asked if he was feeling the heat, Albon was quick to point out what his results look like on paper so far.
“Personally I don’t see it as struggling,” he replied. Race one we had a very strong race, race two we finished fourth and race three we finished fifth – if that’s struggling then I’d be worrying about other things. I’m happy, personally, with the first three races.
“Things haven’t gone our way and I’m not worried in the sense that it’s been tough or it’s going badly, it’s just tough qualifying and on my side I’m just focused on getting more comfortable with the car and extract more performance out of it.”
Another great Lewis Hamilton lap
Mercedes’ huge advantage over the rest of the field should take nothing away from Hamilton’s final lap in Q3. In blustery conditions and with a car that has been sensitive all weekend, he hooked up the perfect lap when it mattered to beat Bottas by 0.303s.
“Obviously there is a relatively big gap between us and third place, but it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day Valtteri is pushing me right to the limit and he’d been doing such a fantastic job all weekend and I made some changes going into qualifying and it was worse, so it was a real struggle out there.
“This track is just awesome because, as you know, with a gust of wind, you have a head wind, a tail wind, a cross wind in different parts of the circuit. It’s like juggling balls whilst you’re on a moving plate, at high speed.
Hamilton’s struggle had been clear to see in Q2 when he spun under acceleration at Luffield in Q2, but he managed to bounce back to get the job done when it really mattered.
“Qualifying is a lot about confidence building and damn I had that spin,” he said. “I was already down, I was struggling through the first section every lap and I don’t know how, but with some deep breaths I managed to compose myself and Q3 started off the right way. It still wasn’t perfect the first laps but still a really clean lap and the second one even better. It never gets old for sure.”