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Redemptive German Grand Prix a race for the true believers

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29th July, 2019
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Formula One has become a gift that keeps on giving, and at the weekend’s German Grand Prix it wasn’t just the fans on the receiving end of the sport’s bounty.

Undoubtedly spectators of the chaotic race at Hockenheim were substantial beneficiaries, with the wild and at times wacky goings-on during the almost two-hour wet-dry race making it difficult to know where to look.

But Germany delivered more than just the sort of stuff that had eyes glued to screens — for many of the sport’s competitors themselves the race was a day of redemption, for proving wrong the doubters and for banishing their demons.

On this count Max Verstappen led the charge, but not for himself; the Dutchman’s prowess behind the wheel is bringing deliverance to Honda, the long-maligned power unit manufacturer that once seemed it could never come good.

Max Verstappen waves to the crowd before the 2017 United States Grand Prix.

(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Indeed with Daniil Kvyat on the podium — more on him momentarily — Honda had two rostrum representatives for the first time since the 1992 Portuguese Grand Prix, when Gerhard Berger and Ayrton Senna flew the flag for the Japanese engine builder.

It’s hard to overstate how far Honda has come since its return to the sport since 2015. Originally partnered with McLaren, where a toxic partnership stifled and in some cases veiled its progress, the company flourished last year in the low-limelight environs of Toro Rosso and has taken substantial steps forwards bolted to the back of the Red Bull Racing chassis.

There are now few in the paddock who doubt the Honda motor is at minimum a match for its Renault counterpart, which happened to suffer yet another failure in the back of Daniel Ricciardo’s car less than 15 laps into the race.

And Honda hasn’t forgotten its struggles, the company tweeting an oblique reference to Fernando Alonso’s infamous “GP2 engine [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1_it-KIp6k]” commentary during the McLaren-Honda partnership’s darker years in celebration.

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But if anyone was happier than Honda with the composition of the podium, it had to be Daniil Kvyat, the Russian making his return to the top three for the first time in more than three years.

The intervening time had been difficult and dark for Kvyat. After being dumped by Red Bull Racing in 2016 and then effectively twice sacked from Toro Rosso and the Red Bull driver roster in 2017 as he psychologically receded into himself.

It seemed unlikely we’d see him in Formula One machinery again until a chance opening at Toro Rosso had the team calling back for him.

“It was sometimes tough times and I thought maybe Formula One was over for me,” he said. “I thought, especially a podium, that I would never ever have it again.

“But life just proves that if you work hard and never give up, things are possible. I think that’s exactly what happened today.

“All these difficult years, it just felt like they crashed from my shoulders finally. I lost these chains today.”

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So far in 2019 he’s driven like a new man, and on a day Pierre Gasly again underwhelmed at Red Bull Racing, Kvyat’s cool performance was a reminder of the regard with which he was formerly held by the energy drinks brand.

“It was hard work to reach this moment and hopefully I can send the message out there that I’m ready not fight for this kind of moment on a consistent basis — and there is no stronger message than a podium like this.”

But there was perhaps no greater redemption story at the German Grand Prix than Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel. The once seemingly perfect partnership has underperformed this season, and Hockenheim up until Sunday a perfect example of the pair at its dysfunctional worst.

With the car in a sweet spot and tipped for pole, Vettel, the four-time world champion, showed all the signs of being comfortably beaten by young teammate Charles Leclerc — but then he couldn’t even get so much as a lap into qualifying before a power unit problem forced him back to his garage and left him stranded at the back of the grid in a classic Ferrari moment.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel looks on during the Formula One Austrian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel. (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

The race seemed destined to bring more of the same, but Vettel was inspired in the wet-dry conditions. He made up eight places in the opening two laps and was seventh by lap 10, and late in the race on the soft-compound slick tyre he really came alive, taking the chequered flag second and just seven seconds shy of what would have been an incredible victory.

It was lost on few that the herculean drive came not only after his embarrassing smash at Silverstone two weeks ago but also on the one-year anniversary of his devastating crash at the 2018 German Grand Prix that spectacularly began unravelling his title ambitions.

The German still has plenty of critics to answer this season, but his race at the weekend was an opportunity to lay some of his most toxic demons to rest.

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“I’m very happy for the team first of all — it’s a tough period for us,” he said. “We are pushing very hard, we are doing mistakes, we are not where we want to be, but we need to keep believing in ourselves, in our abilities, in our strengths.

“I’m confident that our day will come.”

The result may have done little to change the championship picture, but in Germany Formula One had the opportunity to celebrate those who have been cast into the shadows by the Mercedes juggernaut.