Verstappen wins historic sprint race to stretch title lead
SILVERSTONE, England (AP) — Max Verstappen out-dragged Lewis Hamilton at the start of Formula One’s experimental first sprint qualifying race to take the pole for the British Grand Prix and spoil the homecoming of the seven-time champion.
Hamilton initially seemed fine with the defeat and showed enthusiasm for the format and the fan energy at packed Silverstone.
“I don’t know how it looks to watch from the fans,” Hamilton said from aboard an open-air trolley used for the “podium” drivers as they were taken for a lap past the grandstands.
Hamilton said in the trolley the inaugural sprint race format was “way more enjoyable. We should do more like that, or a version of it in the future.”
But the Mercedes driver changed his tune by the post-race news conference as he sullenly accepted he’d lost again to Verstappen and Red Bull. Hamilton said there he didn’t like the format — which, also, cost him another point in the standings.
The Dutchman stretched his lead over Hamilton by winning the sprint, and takes a 33-point advantage over the local driver into Sunday’s grand prix.
“In my opinion there needs to be a Saturday and Sunday weekend,” Hamilton said.
Verstappen and third-placed Valtteri Bottas — Hamilton’s teammate — said they preferred the traditional three-round qualifying, noting they’d rather have used the track time for practice.
The leaders of F1 have recognized the series needs a freshening as its audience starts reaching key younger demographics and so this weekend they tried something new. One practice session was cut and transitioned instead on Friday to the preferred knockout qualifying, which was won by Hamilton.
But that only set the starting grid for Saturday’s sprint race — dicey because there’s always the chance the drivers don’t push hard out of fear of damaging their cars a day early when points aren’t on the line.
That wasn’t a problem because it was racy right from Verstappen’s jump on Hamilton as flames shot from Verstappen’s heated left front tire. Fernando Alonso jumped from 11th to fifth in the opening lap before finishing seventh, and Sergio Perez crashed.
Any chance of Hamilton finally topping the championship leader was lost when Verstappen simply drove away from Hamilton at the start.
“They’ve done a really great job with their engine, their starts are really great this year,” Hamilton said. “We’ve lost a bit of performance on our starts, so we’ve got to work a bit harder to improve that.”
Verstappen earned three points for the win, as well as the pole. It put Verstappen in position for a fourth consecutive win, all from pole.
Red Bull has won five straight, which includes a Perez victory. He was the biggest casualty of the experimental qualifying when he crashed on the fifth lap and finished last.
That is a reason Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff pointed to in favor of sticking with traditional qualifying.
“Overall it is a good add on,” Wolff said. “I don’t want to see it every race, I think there is too much randomness ... last is not the place Sergio Perez should be.
“It could really work against you if you’re one of the frontrunners so there is too much randomness but I think if the next few ones go like this one, I think it has a place in the calendar in a limited form.”
The hard racing was celebrated after the finish as Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas climbed aboard the trolley. Verstappen was presented with an old-school winner’s wreath around his neck and all three drivers waved to fans as they passed.
Hamilton has not won a race since May 9 at the Spanish GP but Silverstone has long been a Mercedes stronghold and the team has won seven of the past eight British GP. Hamilton has won six of those.
With Perez starting last and both Mercedes on the tail of the lone Red Bull, Mercedes believes Hamilton could win a seventh British GP and reignite his title defense.
“We have pace,” Wolff said. “If Lewis would have held the position at the beginning I think we would have pretty much had the same race just with the Mercedes in front.
“With two cars right there you can split the strategies, you can go long, you can try overcutting, you can try undercutting, starting on different tires. That is certainly a big advantage.”
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