Max Verstappen’s 70th anniversary Grand Prix victory over Mercedes’s previous all-inclusive squad was, after all, a comfortable one, even though it was actually built on the thinnest margins.
With a strong blow to the rear tires, neither the polarity set by Valtteri Bottas nor Lewis Hamilton could keep Verstappen’s Red Bull-Honda out, which, after standing out for an opening twice as long as theirs, overloaded himself to the advantage and continued to control racing, disobedient to any tire issues.
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Uniquely, Verstappen had run the hard tire in Q2 and this enabled the first longest season. However, the prevailing suggestion simply paved the way for his victory, not the victory itself, which would surely unfold even if he pursued the same strategy as Mercedes.
There would always have come a point where Mercedes tire problems would have compromised them around stops and Verstappen’s much superior pace could have been used to dispel the past.
Verstappen said he hoped the various ‘tire’ strategy would work after qualifying for the 70th anniversary of the WG
But if Mercedes had not suffered their tire problems, the Verstappen Q2 tough tire strategy could have offered him a significant advantage and perhaps even allowed him to race for victory against a healthy Mercedes.
It was a strategy similar to what Red Bull had tried in the opening season of the Austrian Grand Prix, where Verstappen suffered an early retirement while holding second place between Mercedes and on a harder tire, aiming to go longer. We have not been able to find out if he would have worked there – nor do we really have here, as his victory was certain despite.
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The re-positioning of the compounds for Pirelli for the 70th anniversary race deliberately made it strategically difficult, in an attempt to differentiate the race from the British Grand Prix seven days ago.
Moving the range of a whole smoother step, last week’s medium (C2) became tough this week. Last week’s soft (C3) became the new medium. This week’s soft (C4) was essentially unusable as a racing tire around Silverstone’s long, high G-spins, overheating wildly even to the end of a single lap and imposing an unquestionably slow racing season and short.
Just to traverse it further, Pirelli shared each car eight of these unsuitable tires but only three medium and two solid. For the whole weekend.
Even on a qualifying lap, the soft was no faster than average. It would be faster at the beginning of the lap, but overheated by the time they reached the Maggotts / Becketts sequence and thus slower in the final sector.
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This allowed everyone to gently ignore Q2, saving them the obligation to have to use it in the race. But the difference of single rates between medium and hard was significant. Which made Red Bull’s hard-to-use strategy quite dangerous. Only Verstappen tried it.
Mercedes pulled away from that, in part because of their experience last week when Hamilton and Bottas had each lost out to one media medium in qualifying – the first with a spin, the latter with gravel cuts. This week, given their apparent performance advantage, they were not inclined to take risks because losing one of only two sets of codes would potentially ruin their race.
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So there was a dual risk to the Verstappen tire strategy. He may not be fast enough for them to make Q3 and if he looked flat or hurt them in any way in the attempt, his racing strategy was doomed. Moreover, he could only do one run because with only two such groups allocated, he could not afford to burn through both. He delivered the lap nicely and without mistakes. But would it be so fast?
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He moved on to the fastest ninth, a couple of tenths before the cut. Had Carlos Sainz or Sebastian Vettel not been compromised, Verstappen gambling could have become denser.
“We thought it was our best chance to take over Mercedes, to do something different. And starting with the hard tire, we gave ourselves a chance,” said Christian Horner. “I’m surprised no one else has tried it.”