Hockenheim, Germany (AP) — Lewis Hamilton regained the championship lead in unexpected and dramatic fashion on Sunday, winning the German Grand Prix after Sebastian Vettel crashed while leading near the end.
Heavy rain played havoc late on at the Hockenheimring as Vettel misjudged a basic entry into a turn and slid over the gravel into the barriers with 15 laps to go.
The four-time Formula One champion started from pole position and seemed in control. He was angry with himself, kicking the gravel in frustration as he stepped out his car.
“I threw it away. It was my mistake,” Vettel said. “I was a tiny bit too late on the brakes, locked the rears and I couldn’t turn. It wasn’t the biggest mistake I’ve done, but one of the most costly ones.”
His mishap opened the door wide open for Hamilton, who is 17 points clear of Vettel after trailing by eight beforehand.
“I’ve never had a race like this,” Hamilton said. “I think this is right up there.”
Hamilton met with stewards for crossing the line between pit entry and the track. The incident came while the safety car was deployed following Vettel’s crash. Hamilton decided against pitting at the last second, and crossed the grass to rejoin the track — a move prohibited under governing body FIA’s rules.
Earlier, not even Vettel’s crash could distract him.
“I didn’t think about it. I was just trying to stay on the track,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t give it a second thought.”
The British driver was fourth at the time of the crash, having started from 14th on the grid because of a hydraulic problem in qualifying.
“You’ve always got to believe. I just wanted to stay collected, stay calm,” said Hamilton, adding defiantly: “For those who don’t know me, now you do.”
Valtteri Bottas started and finished second on a great day for Mercedes, with Kimi Raikkonen taking third on a bad one for Ferrari.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was fourth for Red Bull, but teammate Daniel Ricciardo retired after rising from last on the grid to seventh. German driver Nico Hulkenberg was fifth for Renault.
Vettel’s incident led to a safety car coming out for several laps.
There was confusion at Mercedes, even with Hamilton out in front.
Hamilton was told to come into the pits, but ignored his mechanic screaming “In, in, in in!” at him.
“They were all panicking in the pit wall,” Hamilton said. “But it’s good to see how much they care.”
But this doubling back onto track led to the stewards summoning Hamilton.
When the race resumed, with about 10 laps left, Bottas almost overtook Hamilton.
That did not go down well at a nervy Mercedes.
Shortly after, Bottas was firmly told on team radio to “hold position” and not challenge Hamilton, who secured his fourth win of the season and 66th overall.
“We had a bit of a battle after the safety car … Taking positives as a team, perfect result for us,” said Bottas, who added — seemingly half-heartedly — that he “understood” the team’s call.
Ferrari had made a similar call earlier on, at Raikkonen’s expense.
With a little more than 20 of the 67 laps to go, Raikkonen was leading Vettel — who was complaining of his tires overheating.
Ferrari’s senior performance engineer, Jock Clear, told Raikkonen not to hold up Vettel.
Raikkonen replied: “I’m sorry but can you be direct? What do you want?” After another indirect order, Raikkonen added “So you want me to let him (past)? Please. Just tell me.”
He eventually did, ending the Finnish driver’s hopes of a first win since the season-opening Australian GP in 2013.
Asked about the instructions, a rueful Raikkonen said “it wasn’t clear. I had the speed.”
Hamilton’s win also made a bit of history, moving him level with F1 great Michael Schumacher on four German GP wins.
Vettel had won once before in Germany — at the Nuerburgring — but has never won at Hockenheim. He grew up less than 30 minutes away, in Heppenheim, and may never get a better chance amid doubts over future F1 races.
At the midway point of the season, Hamilton has a 17 point lead heading into next weekend’s Hungarian GP.
In a double blow for Ferrari, the team conceded top spot to Mercedes in the constructors’ championship.
Things started well for Ferrari, with Vettel getting away cleanly and Raikkonen holding off Verstappen.
Vettel set fastest laps as Hamilton climbed to fifth.
Raikkonen was the first of the front-runners to change tires, on Lap 15, coming out of just ahead of Hamilton.
Losing speed, Hamilton changed tires on lap 43.
When he came back out, the heavy rain started falling.
Raikkonen lost position to Bottas, and Vettel lost control of the title race.