Lewis vs Max: It's all gone horribly wrong
Let's explore the reasons behind the situation and find out why Lewis was penalised.
Unlike the Sprint Qualifying . . race . . whatever, Max had a fairly unproductive formation lap, which translated into colder rear tyres and while his reaction time was bang-on, he picked up just a touch more wheel spin than Lewis, who's reactions off the lights were also spotless. So Max was on the back foot right away, but as he pushed the car through the first complex of corners, his confidence grew as the hot temperatures on the track were working in his favour.
Lewis on the other hand was strictly following his objective - get Max on lap 1 and keep track position. The purpose is clear - those cars are difficult to follow and you'll find yourself fighting with dirty air as far back as 3 full seconds behind another car. Gaining track position early was imperative for Lewis to win the Gran Prix without any significant troubles, as he would've disrupted Max's strong race pace, since the Bulls were running their cars with higher downforce settings than the Mercs.
While the wheel to wheel action was epic, with both drivers putting all of their skills to use, there was something that most us would've missed from excitement. Very deliberate lines from Lewis. Thinking ahead, squaring off the slow corners, positioning his car in a way that would compromise the charging Max's line towards the next track complex. Because Lewis is a wise old fox, he knows how to place his car to be in an overtaking position three corners later! This is where the experience from fighting with Nico Rosberg in the same car for years comes to play. And he executed this by the book, to a point.
Max on the other hand had to defend his track position corner by corner, straight by straight. And you can't do much more about that, unfortunately. Such is the layout of Silverstone, that you can't really leave someone to go by and retake that position in the next complex, especially if your rival is running in a lower downforce configuration than you. So Max was out of options and defending hard, bumping wheels, trying to force Lewis to think better of it. Let's just focus on that for a second - trying to force a multiple world champion to give up. Yeah, right... Lewis was trailing on points, enough so that the guy didn't have anything to lose, but in front of the home crowd, he had everything to play for!
The point of no return
By this point in the picture above, we all know how things went down, so let's talk about the point of no return. Famously Senna and Prost were hitting that point and each other in the height of their rivalry, only to be repeated by Schumacher and Hill years later in 1994 Australian GP. The point of no return happens when two drivers, consciously or not, put themselves in a situation that will end up in an imminent collision with neither backing out of it. There are countless examples throughout the F1 history, including both Lewis and Max, but none so far was between the two of them directly. So why those two would put themselves in this tough spot?
Well, they are both passionate racing drivers. One is multiple world champion, the other is a contender for the crown, so these two would go for a gap or a pass without giving an inch more than necessary to each other. It's that simple, actually. Formula 1 is a risky and unpredictable sport, and both drivers understand that very well. Yet even this early in the season, they are ready to risk their whole race to be ahead. Everyone is chasing the momentum in the championship with Max having the upper hand on that, until the British GP. Of course, everybody has an opinion on the crash and the penalty that followed, but in the heat of the moment, we tend to miss the reasoning behind the drivers actions. So what was really happening in the heads of those two hardcore racers?
Two very different assumptions
The shot above is literally one TV frame before things went horribly wrong. This is the point of no return for both, as Max is committed to the racing line and Lewis is squarely in his blind spot. At this point in time, both made their respective and significantly different assumptions. And both were wrong on those!
At that point, Lewis felt he had a significant length of his car alongside Max, as he called it on the radio afterwards. So Lewis assumed that Max will not commit to the racing line for Copse, thus he thought he's forcing Max into an error and off-track adventure, as we saw later with the same move on Charles Leclerc. He assumed that Max knows about his persistent presence on the inside. So when Lewis started to slow down for his line in the corner, he was assuming that Max would go wide, off the racing line.
But Max was seeing things differently from his position. First he thought he had closed the door on the inside for Lewis on the straight. So when he saw Lewis's front wing popping in his peripheral vision, he moved the steering wheel slightly to leave some space on the inside of Copse. The biggest moment of that crash came when Lewis slowed down for the corner, because at the line he was taking, he would've gone straight into Max and both would've been out. So when Max lost the front wing of Lewis in his peripheral vision, he assumed that Lewis backed out of it. He also assumed that in this case, when Lewis is not alongside, he had the racing line for Copse.
The lingering question is why the stewards decided it wasn't a racing incident and had given a penalty to Lewis. As from what I was reading on the internet, the prevailing opinion is that it was a nasty, high speed crash (which it was) and people see that as the only reason for the penalty. But it's not so simple. The arguments of the stewards to punish someone so severely have to be way beyond that. We've talked about the assumptions of the drivers and the way they were both wrong, but from the stewards perspective, it's not exactly the same. Let me explain to my best abilities, although things will remain at least partly subjective.
You would think that it was a first lap racing incident, but there is a point which neither of us and even the TV pundits have considered initially. And this is why Formula 1 have stewards to make those tough calls. While both drivers assumed wrong, Max's assumption was more in-line with the actual rules. It might sound weird, but bear with me, I'll explain.
When Max lost Lewis's front wing from his peripheral vision, this meant that no significant part of the Lewis's car is alongside him. Which, in accordance to the rules meant that he is entitled to the racing line in the corner. It was still the wrong assumption, because Lewis did not disappear like a magic trick, but it was something that falls squarely within the rules of engagement. So the stewards had their argument to award the penalty to Lewis and discard the possibility of the crash being just a racing incident.
Credit: Sky Sports F1 SkyPad
Comparisons with Leclerc
It's hard to draw an accurate comparison, since Charles had a first-row ticket for the crash between Max and Lewis, so when he found himself in the same situation, it was only natural for him to assume that Lewis will keep the inside line and technically he yielded the corner, going off the track and gifting Lewis the lead without any meaningful fight. In this situation Lewis achieved his objective and forced Leclerc into a mistake. But this is where all the similarities end. Take a good look at the photo above!
Let's start with the competitors racing lines. Max and Charles have their cars roughly on the same position, relative to the centre of the track. But while the frames aren't perfectly synced, we can clearly see that Max has committed earlier to the racing line for Copse while Charles hasn't. At this point, towards the end of the race, Leclerc is firmly dipping his wheels in the marbles outside that racing line.
As for the lines of Lewis, there are a couple of significant moments. In the fight with Max, Lewis is in a much better approach for the corner, but because Max's car is closer, he picks up some understeer from the turbulent air on his already low downforce setup and never makes it even close to the apex. In the fight with Charles, there is a noticeable distance between both cars and Lewis, having learned his lesson from earlier has committed to the very inside line for the corner, running comfortably away from any possible airflow disruption or contact. So clean overtake on the inside of Copse was . . sort of possible, albeit very risky for either one of the drivers, as we saw a crash with a penalty and then a mistake with an off-track adventure. Neither move was spectacular and one didn't work the way it should've, but racing drivers are human beings and misjudgements can happen. The biggest takeaway for me at least is that Max is alright and that the stewards have a really complicated and responsible job, whether we like their decisions or not.