Lewis Hamilton took a stunning victory from 14th on the grid as Sebastian Vettel crashed out of the lead of the German Grand Prix.
Vettel had led comfortably throughout when the race was thrown wide open by rain showers, with drivers trying to stay out on slick tires as the rain hit only certain parts of the track. But with just 16 laps remaining, Vettel went straight on at the Sachskurve and hit the wall, throwing away what had looked to be victory in his home race.
Hamilton had started the race on soft tires and run a long opening stint in an attempt to take advantage of the incoming rain, but eventually he had to come in for ultrasofts just one lap before rain starting falling. By that point he had dispatched numerous cars, and in the tricky conditions, Hamilton made up the ground on Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas in front of him, sitting third on the road after Vettel crashed out to bring out the Safety Car.
Bottas was told to pit immediately for a fresh set of ultrasofts in order to be more competitive on the race restart, and Hamilton got the same message but saw Raikkonen stay on track and opted to rejoin the circuit. Hamilton actually cut across the grass having taken the pit entry, but there was no immediate investigation.
It proved the right decision, as Raikkonen then chose to pit from the lead behind the Safety Car, with light rain still falling and tire temperatures dropping. Raikkonen also put on fresh ultrasofts, but rejoined in third place ahead of Max Verstappen despite a slow stop for Bottas as Mercedes didn’t have his tires ready.
The race restarted with 10 laps remaining, and Bottas immediately made use of his fresh tires to attack Hamilton into Turn 6. The pair went wheel-to-wheel all the way to Turn 8 but Hamilton emerged ahead before Mercedes strategist James Vowles told Bottas to hold position, a message the Finn accepted.
Hamilton pushed to the line in the final laps at the team’s request as Mercedes covered off the prospect of a time penalty for not entering the pits under the Safety Car, but the race director’s event notes made no such mention of drivers not being allowed to abort, and there has been no investigation announced.
Raikkonen was unable to attack Bottas in the final laps while Verstappen similarly had to settle for fourth, with Red Bull also losing a car as Daniel Ricciardo retired on Lap 28 after reporting a loss of power. Like Hamilton, Ricciardo had been on a recovery drive and risen to sixth place on medium tires before his stoppage.
Aside from those two cars climbing through the field, the race had been largely processional until the rain started falling, at which point Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso all opted for intermediate tires. Pierre Gasly even went for full wets but all four had to abort and put slicks back on as the rain was never heavy enough to cost too much time on slicks.
The conditions were still extremely difficult, highlighted by Leclerc spinning at Turn 1 and catching his car after a complete 360, before also going off on the exit of Turn 4.
Raikkonen’s first stop had come early and allowed him to take the lead once all of the front runners pitted, but Ferrari employed team orders to tell him to allow Vettel past as they were on offset strategies. Though not happy, Raikkonen was then unable to quite keep pace with Vettel as the rain fell, with trouble lapping backmarkers seeing the Finn run wide at Turn 8 and lose second place to Bottas.
That error came just over a lap before Vettel went straight on at Sachskurve at relatively low speed, but the home favorite was unable to turn the car before the front wing was buried in the barrier and he couldn’t rejoin. Vettel’s frustration was clear to see as he repeatedly punched the steering wheel, having missed out on a massive chance to extend his championship lead.
Further back, the tire decisions saw a number of cars — including both Renaults — on intermediates behind the Safety Car but they eventually all pit for ultrasofts, leaving Nico Hulkenberg in fifth place ahead of the Force India pair of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon. Haas had lost out heavily in the chaos, but Romain Grosjean delivered a very impressive final few laps to climb from tenth to pass Perez on the final lap and secure sixth behind Hulkenberg at the flag.
Perez held on for seventh ahead of Ocon, who had a train of cars behind him, with Marcus Ericsson delivering a measured drive — in contrast to his quicker but more erratic teammate Leclerc — to pick up two points in ninth. Carlos Sainz finished 10th on the road but was handed a ten-second time penalty for overtaking behind the Safety Car, promoting Brendon Hartley to score the final point.
Aside from Vettel and Ricciardo, both Williams drivers also retired around the Safety Car period, while Alonso opted to return to the pits in the closing laps having dropped out of the battle for points.
In almost symbolic fashion, the heavens opened immediately after the race with a heavy thunderstorm, and Hamilton stood on the podium with his arms outstretched in the pouring rain, having regained the championship lead. Vettel is now 17 points behind in the standings, with Raikkonen 40 points off his teammate in third place.
The one-two also puts Mercedes back in the lead of the constructors’ championship by eight points from Ferrari, with Force India moving ahead of Haas into fifth place by virtue of having scored a podium in Baku despite having the same number of points.