🇬🇧 F1'23: R10 - Three choices

Inside everyone is three choices: Hard, medium or soft?

A safety car can really change everything, including perceptions of mid-range teams and tyre suppliers.

It seemed initially that Pirelli had chosen the wrong tyres, going a step maybe too hard, but the C1, C2 and C3 sets that the teams had to choose from came into focus after Kevin Magnussen blew out his engine.

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While everyone pitted, taking advantage of the virtual and then full safety car while the Haas was cleared away, both McLarens were put on hard tyres, while the Mercedes chasing them were on softer rubber, with the conventional knowledge being that all things being equal, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell would pass their chrome-clad rivals.

It seemed like a major strategic mistake that would cost them several points, but it turned out to be exactly the right decision.

Both Mercedes drivers could not negotiate their way past, leaving them asking their own internal questions over why they could not get past one of their customer teams, with both drivers unable to overtake, despite having double doses of DRS down the long Silverstone straights.

They (and everyone else) might have got their answer from Russell’s first stint on softs. He skilfully pushed his red tyres for 20+ laps, hoping for a rain shower that never came or a safety that turned up a few laps too late. Despite that, he was stuck behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with the Monegasque driver providing a tow and DRS. Eventually, when Russell did change over to mediums, he passed the Ferrari and never relinquished the position.

That extended stint allowed Russell to run soft-medium. But the cost of that was that everyone else got the info that you can run 20+ laps on soft tyres. And if you can run them on softs, you can definitely do it on hards. In fact, every driver outside the top 10 was driving softs when the chequered flag fell.

As a result, Hamilton and Russell drove their tyres off the cliff and were unable to get past the durable hard compounds on the McLarens in the closing laps.

It’s not necessarily a turning point - we shouldn’t be expecting McLaren to be challenging for third and fourth (right?), but for the second race in a row, McLaren - who now have some significant upgrades on both cars - have managed to turn that hard work in the factory into tangible points for the team. And probably the best way to demonstrate that development is Oscar Piastri. 

Everyone knows the Australian is quick, he’s won the F3 and F2 titles before finally getting his chance in the big leagues, and he was… alright, I guess, up to now. He had not finished above eighth - coming at his home race in Melbourne with a finish under the safety car. So today was a big jump forwards for him and the team, getting both drivers into good points. As an extra way of measuring it, Daniel Ricciardo collected 37 points in a turbulent final year with the team, but didn’t manage a fourth in 2022.

“The most pleasing aspect is that we achieved this result on merit. We were genuinely the second fastest team. It's a bit unlucky with the safety car giving Lewis a free stop, but happy with P4.”

Oscar Piastri, speaking after the British GP

There was a glimpse of what could have been at the start of the Grand Prix too, when Verstappen’s car bogged down and Norris passed him for the lead into turn 1. It was the first laps Norris had led since Russia, which had a few people looking towards the sky to see if it was about to rain, but as I wrote about in Austria, it feels like Norris has turned a corner as the definitive team leader.

Only Red Bull Racing have taken more points than McLaren over the last two races, with their disastrous start in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia long forgotten. They’re not completely out the woods yet, with Hungary’s track characteristics being very different to the high-speed Red Bull Ring and the snooker table smooth Silverstone, but it provides Mercedes with yet another challenge - while they’re all chasing Red Bull, how do they keep their rivals behind them too?

Not that Mercedes are doing much drastically wrong. They’ve seen off the early wave of Aston Martin’s emergence, beating them 4-2 on podiums in the past five races after 4-1 on podiums by another of their customer teams in the first five races.

So if you’re Toto Wolff’s team, you’ve worked hard and managed to see off a new rival, only to see a historic name experience a rebirth - ironically enough in the colours they were once dominant in. Six of the points-scoring drivers were Mercedes or customers of Mercedes, which shows that something is going right, but if your customers are challenging you consistently, yet more work needs to happen to change things around.

The development race is absolutely crucial, but then there’s the balance between pushing forward in 2023 and trying to get a headstart in 2024.

July takes its only weekend off with a couple of races now left until the summer break. Hungary and Belgium provide the backdrop for a European tour where Max Verstappen’s orange army expect to take yet another win. Only four drivers have won 7+ races in a row, with Sebastian Vettel’s nine in a row under threat. 

No one seems to be able to get near the World Champion, but the battle behind promises to be great fun, as teams throw more and more into development, maybe McLaren have played their way into the conversation for top five contention, alongside Mercedes, Aston Martin and Ferrari.

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