Pitlane to podium for Hamilton in Hungary

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away
from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

After another dreadful qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton in 2014, the Briton looked certain to lose even more ground to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the fight for the world drivers’ championship. Hamilton failed to set a time in Saturday qualifying, after a fuel leak on his Mercedes caused a huge fire putting Hamilton out and giving his Mercedes team a gigantic task to rebuild a car that was almost a total loss.

In contrast, as we’ve seen so many times this season, Rosberg had a trouble-free qualifying session. The German cruised to pole position by around half a second from the Red Bull Racing of Sebastian Vettel. It looked very much set fair for another win for the world drivers’ championship leader.

Sadly for Rosberg, though, the weather certainly wasn’t set fair. A huge downpour around 40 minutes before the start of the race threw a spanner in the works and added a huge amount of spice into the race mix. Nevertheless, though, Hamilton started the race in the worst possible position – the pitlane – and Rosberg in the very best starting spot. It would need a mighty drive from Hamilton, and some of the luck that had been so sorely missing from his season so far, if he was not to fall further behind in the championship race.

The race didn't start well for Hamilton, either, as he spun on the opening lap

The race didn’t start well for Hamilton,
either, as he spun on the opening lap

It certainly looked like luck was against Hamilton in the opening laps. The 2008 world drivers’ champion spun on the very first lap, on just the second corner of his race. Hamilton scraped the barrier, but crucially didn’t cause much damage to his car. Rosberg meanwhile, serenely streaked clear in the lead of the race. By lap eight, though, Hamilton had clawed his way up to 13th position, ahead of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and then the safety car came out after Marcus Ericsson slammed his Caterham into the wall at turn three – a 20G impact.

Not only did the safety car wipe out Rosberg’s substantial lead over the second placed Williams of Valtteri Bottas, but it fell at an awful time for the German. Rosberg was unable to pit immediately as he’d already passed the pitlane meaning he, as well as Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari all had to do another lap while the rest of the field streamed in to change from intermediate tyres to, for the most part, soft option slick tyres.

Still, though, Rosberg was in fourth position while Hamilton was 13th as the restart was further delayed by Romain Grosjean crashing his Lotus with the safety car about to release the cars. All was not well with Rosberg, however. Smoke was coming from the left rear brake on his Mercedes and as the race restarted on lap 14 Rosberg fell like a stone.

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Hamilton on the other hand, was going very much in the opposite direction. By lap 17 the two Mercedes cars were running fifth and seventh, with just the Red Bull of Vettel separating the two Silver Arrows. Another safety car came out on lap 23, however, as Sergio Perez slammed his Force India into the pit wall after spinning coming out of the final turn.

As the safety car came in on lap 27, Alonso led, while Rosberg was up to third and Hamilton fifth. There was no further progress for either driver until Rosberg pitted on lap 33. Almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel had an almost identical accident to Sergio Perez, but managing not to hit the pit wall as he spun out of the final corner. That let Hamilton through and straight onto the back of the out of position Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, who had done a tremendous job to hold up Rosberg before the latter pitted.

He couldn’t do the same up against Lewis Hamilton, though, with the Englishman executing the pass of the race on lap 34 to pass the Frenchman around the outside of turn four. Hamilton was now second, with Rosberg 13th, but moving swiftly back up the field after his pit stop. Crucially, though, Hamilton was now a full pit stop ahead of his team-mate. When he eventually made his second stop on lap 40 – from the lead – and fitted the slower, but more durable medium compound slick tyres, we was able to emerge ahead of his team-mate in fifth position.

Rosberg was able to close up to Hamilton, but not close enough to make an overtaking manoeuvre. The team-mates were on different strategies. Rosberg was on the fast option tyres and due to stop once more, while Hamilton was on primes and due to run until the end of the race. Hamilton was asked by the team to let his team-mate through, but Rosberg was simply not close enough and Hamilton was unwilling to lose a significant amount of time to wave his championship rival through.

Ultimately, the decision to put Hamilton on an alternate strategy cost both him and Rosberg the chance to win the race. Hamilton was unable to close in on Alonso and Rosberg was unable to pass Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the race by a significant distance from the Spaniard. Ricciardo pitted again for Fresh option on lap 54, rejoining behind Rosberg, with the latter making the same change on lap 56, emerging in seventh.

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo battled for victory in the closing laps

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo
battled for Victory in the closing laps

Alonso – on soft option tyres – led from Hamilton, but Ricciardo was closing rapidly on them both with his new rubber. Similarly Rosberg was catching the leaders at an alarming rate on his fresh tyres, but it was Ricciardo who was in the best position to win the race, and he duly did.

First of all he moved ahead of Hamilton around the outside of turn two on lap 67 and just a lap later overtook Alonso in turn one. The Australian was gone, but Rosberg was now on Hamilton’s tail. The Englishman was just able to hold his team-mate off to claim the final podium position and reduce the championship deficit to 11 points. An almost unthinkable result after their contrasting fortunes in qualifying.

It was Ricciardo who took his second win of the season, though. The Australian will be hugely satisfied with his performances at Red Bull, which have put his four-time world championship winning team-mate, Vettel, in the shade. As we head into the mid-season break, though, it’s Rosberg with the championship lead, albeit slightly reduced. Hamilton, though, may well think that the luck may now be turning in his favour.

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Hamilton proves too hot to handle in Hungary

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.

Hamilton leads into turn one at the Hungaroring

Hamilton leads into turn one at the Hungaroring

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 makes his crucial move on Button

Hamilton makes his crucial move on Button

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.

Vettel makes contact with Button while attempting to pass in Hungary

Vettel makes contact with Button while
attempting to pass in Hungary

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.

Raikkonen and Vettel celebrate on the podium

Raikkonen and Vettel celebrate on the podium

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).

Rosberg retires in a cloud of engine smoke in the closing stages

Rosberg retires in a cloud of
engine smoke in the closing stages

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.