Lewis Hamilton received a championship boost ahead of his home race of the Formula 1 season after Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was dealt a five-place grid penalty for the British Grand Prix.
Bottas, the 27-year-old Finn fresh from his victory at the last round in Austria, continued his impressive form by edging out Hamilton in both practice sessions here at Silverstone on Friday.
But Bottas can now start no higher than sixth for Sunday’s race after his Mercedes team were forced into an unscheduled gearbox change.
Hamilton served a five-place grid drop last weekend after he, too, had to take on a new gearbox following damage sustained at the previous round in Azerbaijan. He started only eighth before he recovered to finish fourth.
Mercedes have been the class of the field at Silverstone, and – with Bottas effectively out of the running for the number one spot on the starting grid – Hamilton will be considered as the overwhelming favourite to secure his 67th career pole on Saturday. Such a feat would leave him just one behind Michael Schumacher’s all-time record.
Hamilton, who is also bidding for a record-equalling fifth victory on home soil, has seen his preparations this week overshadowed by his no-show at a Formula 1 promotional event in London on Wednesday night.
Hamilton won from pole here in 2015, and again last year, and now the Englishman could do with another dominant victory as he bids to trim the 20-point margin to rival Sebastian Vettel at the summit of the championship.
“Today’s been a really good start to the weekend and it’s great to be back here at Silverstone,’’ Hamilton said, before news of Bottas’s grid penalty broke.
“The track is absolutely incredible with these new cars. It was already one of the very best circuits in the world, but with this car and the speed we are able to carry through the corners, it’s just phenomenal, it’s like the greatest rollercoaster ride ever.
“We worked through all the sessions, fine-tuning the balance and I think we’re in a good position at this early stage of the weekend. We still need to build upon it, but it’s a great foundation moving forward.’’
Hamilton, on an apparent charm offensive after his name was jeered in London on Wednesday evening, added: “Each time I left the garage I gave the fans a wave and I could see them waving back. I just want them to know that I can see them and I really appreciate all the love and support.’’
Vettel, who has been so consistent this season, was only fourth here, four tenths of a second slower than the Mercedes pair. His Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who spun off the circuit during the second session, was also faster after he ended the day third in the order.
Aside from Hamilton’s bizarrely-timed two-day holiday with friends to the Greek island of Mykonos – leading to him missing F1’s live parade through London – the other talking point this week has been the decision taken by the British Racing Drivers’ Club to trigger a release clause in its F1 contract after 2019.
Such a move means this year’s event could be one of the final grands prix to be staged at the Northamptonshire circuit unless a new deal with F1’s owners Liberty Media is agreed.
As expected, the British fans were out in force on Friday, with 350,000 spectators expected over the course of the weekend and a near sell-out crowd for Sunday’s race.
Red Bull have brought a number of updates with them to Silverstone. Max Verstappen was fifth, 0.6secs slower than Bottas, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo sixth fastest.
Fernando Alonso, who is set to serve a mammoth grid drop following a series of penalties for changes to his Honda engine, was ninth in his McLaren, while Britain’s Jolyon Palmer, who took an unscheduled trip across the gravel, finished 18th in both practice sessions.
Championship leader Vettel had to cut short his trial with the so-called ‘shield’ on Friday after complaining of dizziness.
The transparent safety device, which sits in front of the driver, was attached to Vettel’s Ferrari during opening practice.
But the four-time world champion, a keen advocate for improving cockpit safety, gave the new design the thumbs down after managing only three laps of the Silverstone circuit.
“I tried it this morning and I got a bit dizzy,” Vettel, the first driver to trial the new device, said.
“Forward vision is not very good. It’s probably because of the curvature, you get quite a bit of distortion, plus you get quite a bit of downwash down the straights pushing the helmet forwards.
“We had a run planned with it, but I didn’t like it so we took it off.”
The shield, made of transparent polycarbonate, is designed to sit in front of the driver and deflect any flying debris. It is now the FIA’s preferred option over the ‘canopy’ and the ‘halo’.