While last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix may not have been as exciting as Hockenheim the week before, it did give us a chance to enjoy another perfect performance from Lewis Hamilton. At the same time, it saw Ferrari lose their strong positions, and Sebastian Vettel go into the break with far less than he was probably hoping for.
Hamilton managed to extend his lead and made hardly any mistakes from qualifying right until the end of the race. While he is not yet fully in control of the championship, he looks to be in a better position than anyone else has all season.
However, things could have been very different for Ferrari and Vettel. While they did not make mistakes as big as in the past, the knowledge that they had the fastest car and still finished second will be hugely frustrating.
Here we will take a look at how Hamilton managed such a comfortable win in a race that Ferrari should really have controlled.
One of the main factors that helped Hamilton dominate the weekend was his skill at coping with the heavy rain. The first three practise sessions were dry and the Mercedes looked to be hard to control for its drivers. During practise, both drivers spun at the chicane and the car looked unstable. By contrast, the Ferrari driven by Vettel was clearly quicker, as it has been since the British GP at the beginning of July.
During the final practice session on Saturday morning Valtteri Bottas managed to find enough lap time to take second, just 0.06 seconds behind Vettel. At this point, it seemed that there was a real chance of a front row start for Ferrari. Furthermore, Ferrari and Vettel are known for holding their pace back until they really need it, so there was even a chance of pole.
A front row start for either of the Mercedes drivers would have been an excellent result, and it looked like Hamilton was heading for another weekend of damage limitation, just like in Germany and Great Britain.
However, a huge thunderstorm during qualifying quickly changed things. Hamilton is excellent in wet conditions and his final run on a soaked track in Q3 put him in pole position by two tenths of a second over his teammate. Once again, Mercedes had secured another front row lockout. Neither of the Ferrari drivers came close to challenging Hamilton, and Vettel only managed fourth.
Pole position gave Hamilton a real chance of extending his championship lead, providing he got a clean start in the race. The Hungaroring is notorious for being difficult to overtake on, so the few seconds at the very start would be crucial. Hamilton has not always managed the best getaways this season and with the first turn a fairly long way away, there was a real chance of losing position to a faster Ferrari.
However, after the first turn of the first lap Hamilton had very little to worry about. He led, with Bottas and Vettel behind, and steadily extended his lead over the opening laps to around four seconds. Bottas could not find the pace to match him and Vettel, with a different tyre strategy, had to hope to jump the second Mercedes after his own stop, and then try to catch Hamilton with faster and newer tyres towards the end of the race.
Ferrari’s choice to start on the slower and more durable soft compound tyres was a risk, but clearly they felt it was worth taking. It may have slowed down the start, but they felt it would give them the best chance of winning in the quickest car. When Vettel climbed up to third after a brave move around the outside of his teammate, it looked as if there was a chance of it working.
Backmarkers and Vettel’s Slow Pit Stop
Bottas made an early stop to cover Raikkonen’s and Hamilton stopped on lap 25. The next stage of the race for Vettel was about closing the gap to Bottas. The German’s speed did not look good enough to match or extend enough of a margin to Hamilton, who was now on much fresher tyres.
Vettel absolutely had to jump Bottas after his own stop to give himself any chance of winning, and the best possible chance of finishing second. He will have known that Ferrari had the faster car and that Hamilton would be on worn tyres.
While at the time Bottas was on much fresher tyres, it didn’t look as if he would have the speed to jump Vettel. On lap 35 he was close to 25 seconds behind Vettel, a pit stop then cost him around 21 seconds and while Vettel’s speed was good as he approached his stop, it seemed that Bottas’ was not good enough.
However, at this point Vettel was coming close to backmarkers and he lost a number of seconds while negotiating them. Carlos Sainz went through too many blue flags without letting the leader through. Vettel was clearly unhappy knowing that he was losing vital seconds.
At the same time, Bottas finally found pace, perhaps after being urged on by his team for the sake of his teammate. During the four laps prior to Vettel’s stop, Vettel’s advantage over Bottas was reduced by 5.3 seconds and Bottas completed his quickest lap of the race as Vettel made his stop.
It was no longer certain that Vettal would be able to stop and come out ahead of Bottas. A slow 4.2-second pit stop cost him; he came out of the pit lane extremely close to Bottas, but behind. If it had not been for a problem with the wheel gun there is every chance he would have been ahead, he would also have been ahead had Sainz let him through sooner.
With 30 laps remaining neither Vettel, Hamilton nor Bottas were due to make another stop. Vettel would have to find a way past them within the next few laps or he would have no chance of catching Hamilton. Vettel was stuck in third for a frustrating 24 laps behind Bottas while Hamilton steadily pulled ahead. When Vettel finally made it past Bottas, he basically had no chance of winning.
Had Vettel made it out of the pit stop in second there is every chance he could have closed down the eight or so seconds to Hamilton, especially using newer ultra-soft tyres in the fastest car. There is no guarantee he would have passed him, but in the end, he didn’t even have the chance to try.
What’s Next for Ferrari?
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At Silverstone, Hockenheim and the Hungaroring, Mercedes and Hamilton had to fight and at all three races there was a chance of them losing ground in the championships races. However, on all three occasions they turned things around, primarily due to Hamilton’s superb driving, but also due to Vettel’s massive mistake in Germany and some clever strategy decisions.
If it had remained dry in Hungary, Hamilton would probably have a reduced lead in the championship, possibly to around 10 points or lower. However, he is now comfortably ahead by 24 points with another nine races to go.
The next race will take place at Spa over the final weekend in August. Once again, Ferrari will be favourites to win, the extra power they have over Mercedes, for the first time since the turbo hybrid era began, will be a huge advantage in Belgium. Following Spa is Monza, the Ferrari home race, and they will certainly be favourites to win there.
However, as has been proven time and time again, being favourites does not guarantee a thing. Furthermore, having the fastest car is not always enough to win. While it is significant that Ferrari are faster, it is only by the smallest of margins. If they make mistakes, even small ones, they can have huge repercussions. Both the teams and their drivers have made mistakes and they are sure to make more in the remainder of the season. The question is which team will handle these mistakes better.
If Vettel can win in Spa and Monza, the worst position he will be in is ten points behind Hamilton, truly opening up the competition with just eight races to go. However, Hamilton seems to be finding his best form, and Vettel will know that a small mistake, or a bit of bad luck, could see Hamilton extend his lead to over 30 points in no time at all.
One only has to look at last season. Vettel won at the Hungaroring to extend his lead to 14 points going in to the summer break. However, just three races later, with three Hamilton victories, he was 28 points behind. He never managed to make up ground and Hamilton enjoyed his fourth title. Ferrari can still turn things around this season, but at present, it looks as if Hamilton is on his way to title number five.