Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the Nurburgring on Sunday brought him level with Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 career victories in Formula One. It’s a milestone many people thought would never be broken — Hamilton included — but it means the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix will always hold a place in the history books.
It was the record that everyone thought was unbreakable.
When Michael Schumacher first retired from Formula One in 2006 with 91 wins to his name, he was so far clear of the previous record holder — Alain Prost on 51 — that it seemed unthinkable anyone could match him.
After all, it would require a driver to mimic Schumacher’s dominance at the top of the sport — something which seemed so unique to the combination of Ferrari and Schumacher in the early 2000s.
No one else had been so dominant for so long in Formula One up to that point, and there was no reason to believe anyone would be able to do it again.
But the great thing about F1 is that its competitors regularly achieve the unthinkable.
Just when you thought a lap record couldn’t be lower, it gets broken. Just when you thought a car design was perfect, it gets improved upon. Just when you thought a driver looked unbeatable, he gets beaten.
When Schumacher left Ferrari at the end of 2006, Fernando Alonso was the driver everyone was expecting to dominate. At the age of 25 he had 15 wins and two world titles to his name, and with Schumacher leaving the sport, the stage was set for the Spaniard to be his natural successor.
But to prove just how tough F1 is, a driver as competitive and talented as Alonso only managed to increase his tally to 32 wins over the next 12 years. He’s coming back for another go in 2021, but his career to date is proof that it’s so much easier for a driver to underachieve than it is for one to rewrite the records in the way Leiws Hamilton is right now.
Back in 2006, Hamilton had zero race starts (let alone wins) in Formula One. He’d just won GP2, F1’s feeder series, and it was clear he was destined for grand prix victories … but 91 of them? It just seemed like such an untouchable number.
Even Hamilton, who had won everything going in his junior career up to that point, saw Schumacher as untouchable.
“I just remember sitting on the couch with my brother watching the grands prix every Sunday, watching Michael storm ahead,” Hamilton said. “We used to watch the start and first half of the race, and then at the end me and my brother would go play a racing game upstairs and I was always Michael.
“He was phenomenal and that was when I was 13, 14, something like that.
“It’s crazy to think that today… of course, I did dream of one day being here, but it was beyond my wildest dreams to be reaching Michael’s win record and it’s very, very hard to describe how I feel right now.
“I’m tired from the race, my mind is blown and I’ve got a bit of a headache right now!”
But when he is able to take some time and focus on his achievement, Hamilton will realise the magnitude of his success. And it’s worth savouring the moment as in the coming weeks, months and years he will likely notch up win No.92, win No.95, win No.100…
Hamilton is a long way from being done with F1 and there really is no telling how far he will go. But just as was the case when Schumacher took his 91 victories, there’s also no telling who might be able to beat him in the coming decades.
To the tattoo parlour…
Daniel Ricciardo’s podium was a special moment for Renault as its first top-three finish since returning to F1 as a team in 2016. It also meant Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul will have to honour a pledge made ahead of last year’s British Grand Prix that he would get a tattoo when Ricciardo visited the podium in yellow and black.
“It’s real,” Ricciardo said when asked about the tattoo after the race. “It’s going to happen.”
“We’ll have to do some thinking now, but probably it will be something to do with me, but I think with a German flavour. This is obviously the place we did it. A little tip of the hat to something traditional in Germany as well.”
Abiteboul, who does not currently have any tattoos, said on Sunday evening he is more than happy to honour the bet. However, he hinted that he might take his time deciding what he lets Ricciardo put on him.
“I’m a man of my word,” he said. “I just need a bit of time to decide the size and the location.”
On a more serious note, Renault has looked very impressive lately. Of course the podium came thanks to misfortune for Bottas and with Albon once again underdelivering for Red Bull, but it’s hard to argue against Renault being the strongest car in the midfield right now.
The result felt like vindication for Abiteboul, who signed Ricciardo to a big-money deal, only to have the Australian opt to move to McLaren for next season — Renault has Fernando Alonso joining in his place next year.
When asked if there was added satisfaction that it was Ricciardo who claimed the podium, Abiteboul said: “Yeah, I think so. I think it’s really important to the team, to Daniel, to myself I guess also.
“I know we’ve been questioned about this decision of him joining us and also his decision of joining [McLaren]. So in both directions really. It was very important for everyone to keep the commentators at bay and show why it made sense at the time.”
More bad luck for Bottas
At the end of the first lap, it looked like Valtteri Bottas had the potential to keep Michael Schumacher’s record intact for another two weeks at least.
He had been the star of qualifying on Saturday — beating Hamilton by 0.25s in a straight fight — and, despite a slow start, managed to resist his teammate’s challenge in the opening few corners. The hard part, it seemed, was done.
But it says a lot about Hamilton as a competitor that nobody believed the race was over. Bottas looked solid in the first 12 laps, but Hamilton was starting to turn up the pressure and both Mercedes drivers had just received a message from the pit wall to up their pace.
To add to the pressure, the cool temperatures meant both drivers were in a constant battle with their front tyres to keep them in the right operating window and at the start of lap 13, a few spots of rain at the first corner tipped Bottas over the edge.
“For the lock up, I think the main cause was the drizzle,” he said after the race. “I really felt less grip under braking and immediately started to lock up.
“Of course, I was the first car approaching that corner, so for sure Lewis pretty quickly saw that I had a lock up and I’m sure he reacted to it. But that’s how it goes in tricky conditions.”
That lock-up meant he had to pit roughly 12 laps ahead of schedule, meaning he would need to adopt a two-stop strategy instead of the preferred one-stop. There was still race-winning potential in a two-stop, but not long after his unplanned tyre change, his chances took another hit when a Virtual Safety Car allowed rivals Hamilton and Max Verstappen to limit their time loss in the pits while the rest of the pack was moving at a restricted speed.
The final blow came when the MGU-H on Bottas’ power unit started misbehaving, costing him upwards of two seconds per lap when the VSC period lifted. Such a loss in performance made the situation irrecoverable and soon after he was forced to retire from the race.
Coming into the weekend, Bottas was 44 points adrift of Hamilton — a substantial margin but one that could still be overcome if Hamilton had been the one experiencing a race-ending failure. Now the gap stands at 69 points and there’s a high chance that he will be mathematically out of the running with three or four races remaining.
“I knew it was still all to play for even after that lock-up in the drizzle, but then came the engine thing and I couldn’t believe it,” he added. “I understand the gap to Lewis is now pretty big in the points, so I would definitively need a miracle, but, as always, there’s no point in giving up.
“I have to keep the bar high for me and keep trying. It’s just disappointing — that’s the best word.
Hulkenberg shows what he’s made of
On paper it might not look like much, but eighth position for Nico Hulkenberg in the circumstances is a remarkable result. Just over 24 hours before the race he didn’t know he would be taking part, as he was having a coffee in Cologne with a friend at around 11am on Saturday when Racing Point asked him to step in for the poorly Lance Stroll.
The first laps of his weekend were in Q1, the opening qualifying session, and the fact he qualified last was hardly a surprise. It would have been understandable if he had been a non-factor in the race as well, but Hulkenberg completed a well-executed race to take home four more points to add to the six he scored in Silverstone when he replaced Sergio Perez.
Hulkenberg’s performance saw him voted Driver of the Day. The German driver said the key was not focusing too much on external factors.
“Very happy with everything, to be honest,” he said after the race. “The start wasn’t great, as expected kind of, but then Lap 1, I managed to find two spots I think.
“And then I kind of just really focused on myself, just really trying to find the good rhythm for myself in the car, being on the limit, which kind of happened halfway through the first stint. Then I managed to make the tyre last, and I think a long first stint was key then to a successful result. Obviously totally unexpected but totally appreciated and really happy for that.”
With several seats still available next season, Hulkenberg has more than proved he deserves another chance in F1. He will undoubtedly have some interest in his services for 2021.