Deep in the Eifel mountains lies a hallowed stretch of asphalt that has become world renowned as the ultimate test of driving prowess.
While the deathly 20km northern loop that plummets through the forest has long been unfit for grand prix racing, the Nurburgring still holds an unmistakable mystique that often conjures the very best out of the very best racing drivers in the world.
How fitting then, that the Eifel Grand Prix would be the scene where one of motorsport’s most exceptional talents would finally reach a winning record almost too mythical to contemplate.
On a weekend where the world’s exclusive club of 20 Formula 1 drivers were forced to rely on their raw talents to succeed, we were witness to some truly exquisite displays of skill on a stingingly cold Sunday.
Despite all Friday running being written off as a result of the conditions, Saturday afternoon had produced another Mercedes and Verstappen lock-out of the top three places on the grid.
Valtteri Bottas had delivered arguably his best lap of the year to take pole ahead of team mate Lewis Hamilton, leaving the championship leader scratching his head as to how he had been outdone.
Yet again, those first 11 seconds between the starting lights extinguishing and the first car reaching the apex of the tight first corner appeared as if they would prove the most critical.
Despite the left hand side of the grid typically proving more favourable as it straddles the racing line, from second on the grid Hamilton roared up alongside his team mate as the field charged down the hill towards the first turn.
Hamilton squeezed Bottas fairly robustly on the exit and could be forgiven for thinking he’d done the job as he momentarily lost the sister Mercedes in his blind spot.
However, Bottas refused to accept yet another first corner defeat and bravely kept his nose on the inside of Hamilton as the pair swept through turn two, forcing Hamilton to yield the lead back to him.
It was an uncharacteristically brazen move from the Finn and one that certainly caught his team mate by surprise.
“He did an amazing job,” conceded Hamilton after the race. “I remember coming out of the corner thinking ‘good on you, man, I’m impressed’.”
Behind, Max Verstappen was still third while Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari slotted into what would prove a short-lived fourth place. Alexander Albon almost had early end to his afternoon when he snatched a brake at turn three and nearly careened into Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault. Fortunately for both, the Red Bull driver avoided contact, but a flat-spotted tyre soon forced the team to pit Albon far earlier than planned.
To say that Bottas, Hamilton and Verstappen disappeared into the horizon in the early laps would not do justice to how rapidly the trio checked out at the front. By the end of lap seven, the front three had built a lead over Leclerc’s Ferrari that stretched the length of the pit straight.
Unsurprisingly, Leclerc was now coming under pressure from Ricciardo for his fourth position. Earlier in the season the high-downforce demands of the Nurburgring circuit would not have suited the Renault’s previous preference for lower downforce tracks. But the team has made strides with its car and Ricciardo, who will leave them for McLaren in six races’ time, has plenty of confidence in it.
After crossing swords with Leclerc a couple of times Ricciardo used DRS to pull level with the Ferrari approaching turn one, then out-dragged his rival, sweeping around the outside of him into turn two in an expertly-judged move.
If the single digit temperatures were not already challenging drivers enough, the radio waves began to be filled with reports of light rain imminent around the circuit.
Labouring away in 10th after failing to reach Q3 again, Sebastian Vettel was looking for a way past Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo in a car that was only able to close up significantly at the very end of the straight. As Vettel tried to put Giovinazzi under pressure at the start of lap 11, he suddenly lost control while under braking and skidded across the asphalt runoff.
That trashed his tyres and, with it, his strategy, Vettel having been one of few drivers to start on the medium compound. A subsequent unscheduled early pit stop compromised the rest of his afternoon. He later put the spin down to his car being disturbed by the aero wake of the Alfa Romeo as he tried to dodge around his rival.
Out front, Bottas was looking comfortable, with Hamilton having been unable or unwilling to attempt a challenge on the lead. Instead, Hamilton appeared content to sit within two seconds of his team mate and focus on managing his soft tyres while hoping for a mistake ahead.
“I could see he was graining his front tyres,” Hamilton later explained. “So I knew those next few laps was the time for me to push.”
But on lap 13 Bottas threw his hard-won lead away. He locked up his right-front wheel heavily under braking for turn one and ran wide. Hamilton immediately pounced, using his greater momentum to sweep by around the outside of turn two and into the lead. Bottas would later claim that “drizzle” had contributed to the error.
With his tyres flat-spotted from the lockup, Bottas immediately pitted for fresh mediums, dropping him to fourth behind Ricciardo. Would this be another example of a strong weekend for Bottas undone by a single mistake? We never got to find out.
Following his spin and pit stop, Vettel was now under attack from George Russell’s Williams. The pair fought over 18th place at the chicane, allowing Kimi Raikkonen to close up behind the two.
As the three rounded turn one, Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo had a snap of oversteer at the apex, with the resulting contact sending Russell’s Williams briefly into the air and breaking his rear suspension after returning to earth. Raikkonen was later handed a 10-second penalty for his misdemeanour.
Russell tried to recover, but it quickly became clear his race was run. As he pulled off the circuit into retirement, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed.
If Bottas’s unforced error had cost him the lead, the intervention of the Virtual Safety Car looked like it was about to cost him any chance of victory.
Hamilton and Verstappen took immediate advantage of the opportunity to pit for new tyres while minimising their time loss due to the lower speeds. Once the track went green again, Bottas was almost 15 seconds behind his team mate and Verstappen out front.
While Verstappen was pursuing Hamilton out front, the sister Red Bull of Albon was running in 11th after his earlier pit stop, chasing Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri. Albon had a good run in the slipstream along the back straight on lap 17 and pulled alongside as the pair approached the chicane.
Kvyat misjudged the braking for the chicane and ran straight over the grass, giving Albon a clear chance to breeze past. He did just that, but carelessly swept across the front of Kvyat’s car as he tried to take the racing line for the final corner and removed his rival’s front wing.
That forced Kvyat to drive a whole lap without a front wing. It took pieces of his floor with it, effectively ending his chances of a decent result, while Albon received a five second time penalty for his error. Not too long after, however, Albon was called into retirement by Red Bull who spotted rising power unit temperatures which were later traced back to a holed radiator.
Suddenly, Bottas was dropping through the field like a stone. His Mercedes power unit had begun to malfunction during the VSC period, a suspected MGU-H problem leaving him with vastly reduced power. Mercedes tried to provide their driver with some kind of remedy out on track, but it proved futile.
Bottas was called into retirement at the end of lap 18. It was another gut punch for the Mercedes driver in a season of frustration and missed opportunities where so much promise on Saturday had again delivered little to celebrate on Sunday.
With Ricciardo having pitted under the VSC, third place was now occupied by Lando Norris in the McLaren. The team had chosen to roll back upgrades on his McLaren to a Tuscan Grand Prix specification, and Norris was feeling much more comfortable in the car than he had in Sochi.
But then Norris became the latest driver to report that all was not well onboard his car. “I’m losing power!”, he exclaimed over radio. “Something’s happening. I’ve lost power.”
“Driver default 03. Default 03,” responded his team. “It’s getting worse,” came the reply. “A big loss of power now.”
After pitting Norris and no apparent solution in sight, McLaren advised their driver that he would have the affliction for the remainder of the race. “This is not great, but we need default 03 on every straight,” he was instructed. “So default 03 whenever you can. Default 03 on every straight, after every corner.”
While Norris was busy troubleshooting his power unit problem at 300kph, he was passed by Perez and team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr. But a points finish remained a possibility, if he was able to survive the remaining laps.
Leader Hamilton’s margin over Verstappen was gradually building by just under a second a lap as the pair navigated lapped traffic. One of these lapped cars, now sitting inside the top ten for the first time that afternoon, was an unexpected name – Nico Hulkenberg.
The Formula 1 veteran had woken up on Saturday morning expecting to enjoy a weekend of punditry for German channel RTL. Then Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer summoned him to the Nurburgring to replace an unwell Lance Stroll.
Without a single lap of practice running to his name, Hulkenberg was thrown into qualifying at a circuit he had not raced since 2013 in a car which he last drove in early August and had since been extensively upgraded, partly in line with his recommendations. Unsurprisingly, he had only qualified at the very rear of the field.
But despite being the least prepared driver to have taken a race start in quite some time, Hulkenberg had steadily moved up the order and was running in ninth having switched onto mediums at the halfway point of the race.
Meanwhile, Norris’s problem had evolved from chronic to terminal. The McLaren fell into anti-stall in turn five on lap 44 and Norris had no choice but to pull off into retirement.
Whereas race control deemed a Virtual Safety Car was adequate enough to recover Russell’s stricken Williams earlier, it was decided that a full Safety Car would be required to remove Norris’s McLaren. This prompted speculation F1 had indulged in a NASCAR-style ‘competition caution’, claims which were batted away by race director Michael Masi.
With the race neutralised, almost everyone dived into the pits for soft tyres. Hamilton retained the lead over Verstappen, but his 11-second advantage had now vanished. Of the top ten, only Leclerc, Giovinazzi and Romain Grosjean had opted for track position over fresh rubber.
Ricciardo remained third, with Perez fourth. The Racing Point had been slowly catching the Renault thanks to his fresher tyres, but that advantage had now been wiped out by the pair switching to softs under Safety Car.
After what must have felt like an age for Verstappen and Hamilton under caution waiting for the plethora of lapped cars to loop back around, the race was restarted in time for an 11 lap sprint to the chequered flag.
Hamilton used both Mercedes’ unique DAS system and his privilege as the pace setter to his advantage, pulling well clear of Verstappen at the restart. Instead, it was Ricciardo who made a speculative attempt at his former team mate around the outside into turn one, but Verstappen easily resisted him.
As most of the field were now on fresh softs, there were only a handful of significant speed differentials between cars on track. Of the top ten, only Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri was able to make a move, overtaking Leclerc’s Ferrari to take sixth place, a useful gain for the Monza winner in their fight for sixth place in the constructors’ championship.
Hamilton was too quick for Verstappen to realistically overcome him and methodically ticked through the remaining laps as he headed towards the chequered flag and a record-equalling 91st career grand prix victory. The Mercedes driver crossed the line to not just extend his championship lead to an almost unassailable 69 points, but to officially join level with Michael Schumacher’s all-time record for wins in the sport.
Verstappen may not have been able to take the fight to Hamilton and Mercedes, but a superb last-lap effort denied Hamilton the bonus point for fastest lap by six-thousandths of a second, giving the Red Bull driver some satisfaction.
Ricciardo was easily the happiest driver to cross the line after keeping Perez at bay through the final 11 laps to take third place and secure Renault’s first podium appearance since their return as a factory team in 2016.
“It’s been a while,” said Ricciardo, who had not tasted champagne in Formula 1 since his win at Monaco back in 2018. “To be honest it feels like the first podium all over again.”
Perez was happy with fourth, but lamented the late Safety Car for denying him a chance to chase down Ricciardo. An exasperated Sainz took fifth after “60 laps of struggle” in the McLaren, while Gasly finished a strong sixth in the AlphaTauri after his successful dispatching of Leclerc’s Ferrari.
But perhaps the most remarkable performance of the day had come from the driver in eighth, Hulkenberg. Having drawn on all 178 starts’ worth of experience to somehow be competitive despite no track time, Hulkenberg had not made a single significant mistake over the entire race distance and had gained a remarkable 12 positions by the finish.
“I feel quite happy and relieved that I managed this kind of performance,” said Hulkenberg.
“It was difficult to expect very much from this race, you know, with so little preparation. Obviously the other guys – they’re in the season, they’re in their cars and then here I am being thrown into the ice bath and trying to swim and survive somehow.”
Crucially, for Racing Point, Hulkenberg’s performance moved them up to third position in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren and Renault. As in Silverstone, Hulkenberg’s stand in performance had served to only strengthen his claim to one of the 20 seats on the F1 grid.
The final points positions were claimed by Grosjean and Giovinazzi. Beyond the sheer importance of even minor points finishes for Haas and Alfa Romeo, it was a welcome positive result for two drivers who have had to contend with plenty of frustrating race weekends over the last few years.
But despite the wealth of feel-good results through the field and the volume of driving excellence having been displayed around the Nurburgring that afternoon, it all paled in comparison to Hamilton’s historic achievement.
Many of those who watched in awe of Michael Schumacher’s unrelenting dominance over Formula 1 would have doubted the seven-time champion’s record of 91 victories would never be approached, let alone matched – at least not within a single generation.
The gravity of his achievement only dawned on Hamilton as he entered the pit lane after the race had concluded.
“I hadn’t even computed it when I crossed the line,” he said.
“You grow up watching someone and you generally idolise them in terms of the quality of the driver they are, what they are continuously able to do year on year, race on race, week on week with their team.
“Just seeing his dominance for so long, I don’t think anyone – especially me – imagined that I would be anywhere near Michael in terms of records, so it’s an incredible honour.”
Fittingly, a further honour was bestowed on the Mercedes driver on behalf of the Schumacher family by current Formula 2 leader and son of Michael, Mick Schumacher. Presenting Hamilton with one of his father’s race helmets, the second-generation Schumacher congratulated him on reaching the unfathomable heights only the elder Schumacher had scaled before him.
At a circuit so steeped in the rich history of motorsport, we saw Formula 1’s past, present and future come together to celebrate that which lies at the very core of racing – the glory of victory.