It wasn’t the lap 37 collision or even the lap 17 restart where the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix turned into a Mercedes-versus-Red Bull feud. The first shots came before Mercedes made their first pit stops.Lewis Hamilton led the early laps from Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas, while championship leader Max Verstappen sat a frustrated third. But Mercedes’ control of proceedings ended when the Safety Car was summoned for Mick Schumacher’s crash, and many teams chose to pit.
Behind the Safety Car, Bottas slowed down to create enough of a gap to Hamilton that they could double stack in the pit lane. This was to the disgust of Verstappen and his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.
|10||Verstappen||Valtteri is running massively off the pace.|
|10||Lambiase||I agree, it’s a piss-take. Absolute piss-take. Stay out, Max, stay out.|
Red Bull’s decision to stay out put Verstappen in the lead, and the red flag that followed meant he was able to change tyres on the grid for the restart.
Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles reassured Hamilton the race was not lost.
|13||Vowes||Hi Lewis, the main thing is this. Everyone’s going to go to the end of the race on these hard tyres now, but you had car pace at the beginning, and there’s a few options we can throw in there with additional VSCs and Safety Cars. The main thing for now is pressure him, you have car pace.|
|13||Verstappen||Wait, it’s still more than 10 car [length]s. This is not allowed.|
The needle between the title-contending drivers properly kicked off on the restart as Verstappen was beaten off the line and went to repass Hamilton around the outside of turn one. There wasn’t enough room and he went off-track at the exit, and as he rejoined at turn two his steering wheel was at full lock but he came off the throttle as he reappeared straight into Hamilton’s path.
Once Hamilton had opened up his steering to avoid a clash, Verstappen put the power down and an opportunistic Esteban Ocon passed the Mercedes. Then chaos behind led to yellow and then red flags, and meant there would be another restart.
While Hamilton stayed in the cockpit, keeping his communications with the team on the radio, Verstappen had been adamant to jump out of his car as quickly as possible on both stoppages so he could communicate with his team in private.
During this time the Red Bull radio channels were still busy, as race director Michael Masi was minded to report Verstappen to the stewards for his off-track pass. Masi gave Red Bull the opportunity to drop Verstappen back behind Hamilton (and therefore Ocon).
Red Bull agreed, so Verstappen lined up behind Ocon and Hamilton on the new grid. But to give their man the best chance of regaining the lead at the start, Red Bull put him back on medium. Mercedes and Alpine stuck with hards, expecting that would be the best tyre for the rest of the race.
|15||Hamilton||How long is the race? What’s the reason we didn’t put on the new medium?|
|15||Bonnington||We’ve got 35 laps remaining, Lewis. This is the correct tyre.|
|15||Hamilton||I’ll lose places off the grid.|
|15||Bonnington||That last start was very competitive. We’re going for a standing start.|
However this time Verstappen dived down the inside on the restart to overtake Hamilton and kept it on track, having been a tenth of a second faster off the line than his rival.
Hamilton feared the worst, suspecting his hard tyres would leave him at a disadvantage.
|18||Hamilton||No way we can keep up with the tyres. We should have stopped for mediums.|
A Virtual Safety Car period broke Verstappen’s rhythm up front as he approached backmarkers to lap for the first time, and he had Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen ahead of him when a second VSC period began on lap 30.
|31||Verstappen||Why’s Kimi not speeding up. What the fuck?|
The gap between the top two went from two seconds down to 0.7s over the duration of the second VSC, with Verstappen waiting to quite literally get the green light to lap Raikkonen.
|30||Bonnington||And Lewis on the restart, you can use strat five or seven, and overtake where appropriate.|
There was one more VSC period, and Hamilton was on Verstappen’s gearbox as it ended on lap 36. He didn’t line up a move until turn one next time around though, going to the outside and having his nose briefly ahead. Verstappen braked late and his right-rear didn’t grip the track, crowding Hamilton off the track as he oversteered off too.
|36||Hamilton||That guy is crazy, man.|
Verstappen had a gap as he got to turn two, but Red Bull was in his ear at turn 22.
|36||Lambiase||Max, so let’s give the position back to Hamilton. Obviously do that strategically. Give the position back.|
Verstappen slowed on the run to turn 27. Hamilton hesitated behind him, unwilling to be suckered into passing the Red Bull immediately before the DRS detection line and allowing his rival an easy re-pass.
At around the same time Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington was told Red Bull were going to let him by.
Verstappen then dropped several gears and got on the brakes early. Footage from Hamilton’s car shows Bonnington began talking to him just after he had to brake and flick his car to the left, clipping Verstappen’s car, damaging his front wing endplate.
|36||Bonnington||So they’re asking Max to swap positions.|
|36||Hamilton||He just brake-tested me.|
|37||Lambiase||I don’t know what’s going on here, Max. We tried to let him past. He’s not going past.|
The next lap was tense, but with the TV direction all on the lead battle it gave Mercedes a good chance to examine the damage.
|37||Bonnington||He was told to give you the pass.|
|37||Hamilton||I’ve just hit him, man, my wing’s broken.|
|37||Bonnington||It’s okay, it looks okay, he’s been told to give you the position.|
|37||Hamilton||He just brake-tested me. I don’t know what’s going on.|
|37||Hamilton||It’s just dangerous driving, dude.|
|37||Hamilton||I’ve got some damage on my car.|
|37||Bonnington||It’s only front wing endplate. Looks light.|
Verstappen had a lead of nearly two seconds next time by, and Hamilton said he couldn’t keep up. After another two laps the nerves were only growing.
|39||Hamilton||Let me know where I’m losing. What’s happened?|
|39||Bonnington||Our losses are only turns eight, nine, 10, 22.|
Hamilton’s victory hopes then returned as Verstappen was messaged at turn 22 on the next lap.
|41||Lambiase||Max can you let Hamilton through on the exit of 23. Just let him through now as soon as you can. Let him through. Max|
Again, Hamilton received his message just as Verstappen conceded position, at the same place as where they clashed – and then immediately reclaimed it by diving down the inside of the final corner.
A 5s penalty was issued to Verstappen on lap 43 for his earlier turn one off, and he turned on his rear rain light – which hadn’t been in constant use through the race – as Hamilton approached him again nearing the lap-ending turn 27.
|42||Lambiase||For your info, we have been given a five-second time penalty. So that’s just for the moment.|
Hamilton went down the inside and ran as deep as possible, then started to pull away. Two laps later, the medium-shod Verstappen explained why.
|44||Verstappen||My rear tyres are gone.|
|44||Lambiase||Okay, Max, at the moment, we cannot pit because the gap to Ocon is insufficient.|
The hard tyres were lasting better for Hamilton, and with a decreasing fuel load he even clinched the extra point for fastest lap with his broken front wing. But Mercedes couldn’t relaxed even as his lead went past eight seconds, with both he and Verstappen being told to avoid kerbs and manage the pace to avoid a late puncture and more drama.
Hamilton finished the 50-lap race with 6.825s in hand, which eventually grew by 15s Verstappen was given a 10s penalty for the turn 27 crash in addition to his earlier sanction.
But while he’d lost the race, Verstappen had won the race’s Driver of the Day poll, and was informed by F1 on his way back to the pits.
|50||Horner||Good effort Max. I don’t know why he did it, why he went up the back of you like that. It made no sense at all.|
|50||Verstappen||Luckily the fans have a clear mind about racing, because what happened today is unbelievable. I’m just trying to race, and this sport, it is more about penalties than racing. So for me, this is not Formula 1. But at least the fans enjoyed it, and I gave it all today. Clearly not quick enough, but still happy with with second.|