If pole position was a surprise for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, victory at the Hungaroring would have come as a massive shock to both driver and team. Throughout Friday practice it looked as though Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel had the pace in Budapest, not just to take pole, but also for victory. In the end, of course, they took neither.
As we know, the three-week gap between the last race at the Nurburgring and round 10 in Hungary was punctuated by the “Young Driver Test” at Silverstone, which the Mercedes team missed as punishment for an illegal Pirelli tyre test earlier in the season. The Young Driver Test turned into a test for the new Pirelli tyres that the teams will run for the rest of the season, and everyone expected that Mercedes’s lack of running on those tyres would prove to be a massive disadvantage to them at the Hungaroring.
Certainly it looked that way in practice as Mercedes, while not slow, were not competing at the very front with Red Bull and Lotus. Things changed in qualifying, though. All of a sudden Mercedes, and Hamilton in particular, came alive, snatching pole position from Red Bull Racing and Vettel with a lap that the Briton wasn’t particularly happy with. Hamilton thought that he could have gone a couple of tenths quicker and his surprise at taking pole position was evident from team radio.
As we have seen all too often this season, though, pole position is all well and good for Mercedes and Hamilton, but race victories have been far harder to find. That was a trend that everyone expected to continue in Budapest. Everything looked set up for Mercedes to fall backwards: a lack of running on the new tyres, extremely high track temperatures which has previously exacerbated Mercedes’s high tyre degradation issues, and Red Bull and Lotus cars that were looking fast.
Again, though, Mercedes and Hamilton confounded experts and fans alike to take a brilliant victory on Sunday. One which Hamilton and his fans would have felt was long overdue after some bad luck earlier in the season, in particular his tyre failure at his home race at Silverstone. In Hungary, Hamilton didn’t put a foot, or wheel, wrong.
For me, Hamilton’s victory in Hungary was down to four crucial parts of the race that went perfectly for the 2008 world drivers’ champion. The first of these was the start. Formula 1 fans know how tricky overtaking can be in Hungary, which makes track position a vital factor. If Hamilton was going to win the race it was critical that he started well, kept Vettel behind him, and controlled the first stint of the race. As it turned out he did all of these things, but that, of course, wasn’t enough, on its own, for him to win the race.
Hamilton pitted first on lap 10 as he felt his option tyres start to reach the end of their life, but emerged from the pits behind his old McLaren team-mate, Jenson Button, who had started the race on the harder prime tyres and was not planning pit stop for quite some time. Hamilton knew that if he was to stand any chance of winning the race he couldn’t afford to be held up behind Button’s slower McLaren, and the Stevenage born driver’s decisive pass on his countryman at the end of the pit straight just one lap later was the second crucial point in the race.
Just one more lap later, it was the Red Bull mechanics that were out in the pit lane to change Sebastian Vettel’s tyres and the German emerged from the pits still behind Hamilton and, crucially, behind Button’s McLaren. While Hamilton had quickly jumped ahead of Button, Vettel couldn’t do the same, however. Indeed, it took the reigning world drivers’ champion another 12 laps to pass the McLaren, finally moving ahead of Button on lap 24, followed almost immediately by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.
The damage had been done, though. In those 12 laps, Vettel had been told repeatedly to cool his car, which was in danger of overheating, and damaged his front wing attempting to pass, while Hamilton had built up a double-digit lead, which he never relinquished. The race, though, was 70 laps long, and while Hamilton was in a great position at that point, the job was far from over.
The third of the four key points in the race came not long after Hamilton made his second pit stop on lap 32. The Mercedes driver emerged from the pits in fourth place, behind the second Red Bull of Mark Webber and Alonso’s Ferrari. Webber, like Button, was on a different strategy to Hamilton, having started the race on the hard medium compound Pirelli tyres after technical problems in qualifying saw the Australian qualify down in 10th place.
Just like the situation after Hamilton’s first pit stop, the Englishman knew that he could not afford to get held up behind a driver on tyres that were older and past their best. With that in mind, I’m sure, Hamilton was decisive yet again, passing Webber around the outside of turn two on lap 34 before immediately closing in on Alonso, who shot into the pits just a lap later, without holding up the Mercedes driver. Vettel stopped at the same point, emerging once again behind Button’s McLaren, which he quickly passed on lap 37.
Hamilton maintained his double-digit lead over Vettel before making his final pit stop on lap 51 of the race. Again, though, the Mercedes driver emerged just behind Mark Webber, who squeezed ahead into turn one as Hamilton emerged from the pit lane. With Vettel yet to make his final pit stop Hamilton, despite his previous large lead over the German, knew that getting held up behind the second Red Bull could give Vettel a sniff of victory. The Mercedes driver, though, was decisive yet again, using the opportunity presented by Webber coming up to lap Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber to pass the Australian around the outside of turn two for the second time in the race.
Vettel made his third and final pit stop four laps later, emerging just three seconds behind the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, who was on tyres that were 13 laps old. Raikkonen, though, was two stopping and would run to the end of the race on that set of tyres. Surely, with fresher rubber and 15 laps left to run, Vettel would pass the Finn? Not a bit of it. Raikkonen defended brilliantly and finished the race second, while Vettel had to settle for the final step of the podium. It was this defensive drive, coupled with Hamilton’s second decisive pass on Webber, which is the last of my four crucial elements that resulted in victory for Hamilton and Mercedes.
While all of this was going on Romain Grosjean, one of the pre race favourites for victory after qualifying third and looking impressively fast all weekend, had been given a drive through penalty for passing Massa with all four wheels off the track, while also being under investigation for causing a collision with Button as he overtook him on lap 24 (the Frenchman received a post race 20 second penalty for this incident, but it didn’t impact on the final result).
Nico Rosberg, who was having an awful race after contact on the first lap of the race left him running way down the field, retired with an engine failure on lap 66, the second of the afternoon after Valtteri Bottas’s Renault engine let go on lap 52. It wasn’t all bad news for Williams, though, as Rosberg’s retirement promoted the second Williams of Pastor Maldonado into 10th position, allowing the team to score their first points of the season.
Even Rosberg’s retirement couldn’t dampen the celebrations at Mercedes, though. While Sebastian Vettel still leads the world drivers’ championship, there’s a glimmer of hope for Mercedes in particular as we head into the summer break. If the Mercedes can look after their tyres to win in the heat of Hungary, they should be able to do likewise in cooler conditions. Is the tide turning? It’s too early to say and we’ll have to wait at least until the next race – at Spa at the end of August – to find out.