F1 heads to Silverstone this weekend

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This Sunday’s race at Silverstone could produce some of the best racing so far this F1 season.

Forget fake marinas in Miami. What Silverstone offers is one of the best circuits on the calendar for flat-chat banzai motor racing and an atmosphere that’s second to none thanks to the fervent enthusiasm of a sell-out crowd that gets behind more than just a single driver or team. It’s great on telly, many times more in the metal.

The drafting down Wellington and Hangar Straight should be even more frenetic than usual thanks to the new generation of ground-effect Formula 1 cars, and it will be fascinating to see how edgy they look through Maggotts and Becketts. We also hear the grandstands at Copse sold out quicker than usual for this year following the fierce Lewis Hamilton/Max Verstappen collision 12 months ago. Even without controversy, the old first corner is one of the best spots on earth to watch an F1 car at ten-tenths – although standing on the entry at eye level is better than any grandstand seat to fully appreciate the mind-bogglingly rapid change of direction. Remarkably, it’s apparently much less dramatic for the drivers.

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“Copse is easy now,” Lando Norris told me ahead of last year’s race. “It depends a little bit on the wind. If there’s a tailwind it can be a little bit trickier. But in qualifying you don’t even have to think about it, one-handed even. You are flat out from the exit of Luffield, all the way to the final part of Becketts.” Let’s see what Lando and co make of it this time in these new cars as they deal with the dreaded headaches created by bounce and porpoising.

It’s only a shame that the fight for the world title has deflated, especially in contrast to the intensity of Verstappen vs Hamilton 12 months ago. This time, the reigning world champion holds a commanding 46-point lead over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc a further three in arrears. That’s almost the equivalent of two race victories, and it’s hard to imagine Verstappen and the sharpest race team on the grid losing it from here. Reliability concerns remain a wrinkle for Red Bull, as seen last time out for Perez in Canada. But the team has won six on the bounce, Verstappen six from eight, in a vein of form that carries echoes of Sebastian Vettel’s greatest days at the team a decade ago.

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At 24 and already into his eighth season, Verstappen has matured into a devastatingly effective performer. The final 15 laps in Montréal represented the best of Verstappen. Following a safety car interruption, he faced intense pressure from Carlos Sainz Jr in a potentially quicker Ferrari on fresher Pirelli tyres, having also lost radio communication to his team on the pitwall. The powerful DRS effect on the straight heading into the chicane could have made him vulnerable, but a combination of better traction out of the hairpin and the Red Bull’s renowned slipperiness in a straight line kept Verstappen out of Sainz’s range. It would have taken a mistake for Carlos to get by – and that was never likely to happen. The champion looks imperious.

Beyond Mercedes-AMG’s fall from grace this year, Ferrari’s failure to capitalise on the excellence of its F1-75 is the most troubling theme of the season so far. Think back to the Australian GP in April when Leclerc stroked to his second win in three races and engine woes forced out Verstappen, also for the second time in three. Leclerc held his own 46-point advantage back then, which Verstappen will correctly point to as evidence that he cannot be complacent. The difference is Ferrari carries deeper, more fundamental flaws beyond a suspect reliability record. On strategy and general match fitness, Maranello falls well short of its rival in Milton Keynes. And that’s on team boss Mattia Binotto.

In the past, an invidious blame culture haunted Ferrari bosses in times of crisis, from Cesare Fiorio to Stefano Domenicali and even in the early years of Jean Todt’s ultimately glorious reign. It’s been largely absent (at least publicly) under the calming authority of Binotto’s watch – but for how long? The Italian media is not known for its patience. Like Gareth Southgate and the England manager’s job, any downturn leads to awkward questions, and like football F1 is a results-driven game. Ferrari’s lame capitulation, despite its strong car performance, makes Binotto’s position vulnerable. Would the team be faring better under the eye of, say, Christian Horner? There’s no genuine answer to that, of course, but it won’t stop such a question being asked. Ferrari’s car will be strong at Silverstone, and Sainz and Leclerc desperately need a win. You could argue their boss’s need is even greater.

Damien Smith

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