“Those guys were quick, but we managed to do it,” Lewis Hamilton said over the radio after winning the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Despite being fastest in two of the three practice sessions, fastest in qualifying, and then leading much of the race “those guys” were quick. He meant the Lotus cars of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Räikkönen, who both pressured the 2008 World Champion at different points during the afternoon.
Hamilton got a perfect start – despite being worried before the race that it was a chink in his armour – and lead the way from Romain Grosjean, who had qualified a career-best second, and Sebastian Vettel. The double world champion tried to squeeze past the Frenchman at the first turn, but Grosjean hung on and Vettel then also lost a place to Jenson Button – who despite suffering from understeer in qualifying – secured fourth on the grid behind Vettel.
The other excitement at the start involved Michael Schumacher who, when seeing the flashing yellows at the start of the GP rather than the five red lights, switched off his engine. The veteran F1 driver was pushed back into the pits to get restarted while the rest of the field went off on another formation lap.
However, his woes were only just starting and after speeding in the pitlane he was back into the pits again, after an early stop to change rubber, to do a drive through penalty. He eventually retired just under 10 laps from the end. Even without the start line problem and the drive through he would have struggled having only qualified 17th. Mark Webber, who qualified down in 11th, didn’t find it difficult to scythe through the field, though. He was up to seventh on the first lap and went on to finish eighth.
All eyes were on Hamilton and Grosjean in the opening laps, however, as despite the Brit pulling out a gap it settled at two seconds, with each driver trading fastest laps. The Lotus has been much kinder on its tyres all year and many expected Grosjean to take full advantage of this and jump into the lead over the stops. But a slow in lap – thanks to some back markers – and a slow pit stop meant that Hamilton maintained his lead when Grosjean resumed racing after his stop on lap 20. A lucky escape for Hamilton after he suffered another wheel gun problem delaying him by just over a second in his stop.
It was clear that the Lotus was a faster car in race trim and – unlike previous races – the Lotus drivers had qualified better, well enough to challenge the McLarens. This, coupled with Grosjean on soft tyres and Hamilton on mediums in the second stint, meant that he could close the gap right up on the McLaren. Two mistakes from the Frenchman on lap 27 and 28, though, eased the pressure.
Most cars were on a two-stop strategy, but with Button losing ground to the leaders, McLaren decided to put him onto ‘Plan B’, a three-stop strategy. There was no argument from the 2009 champion and he duly pitted on lap 35 for his second stop. Soon after Hamilton was also told that ‘Plan B’ looked like the best option. “Yeah, yeah,” was his reply. Crucially McLaren decided to stick with ‘Plan A’ for the race leader as Button’s day went from good to bad. He emerged from his stop behind Bruno Senna and despite the fact that the Williams was on the less-grippy medium compound, there was no way past for Button. Vettel pitted on lap 39 and emerged in front of the pair, already making ‘Plan B’ look like the wrong decision.
Two laps later it was crunch time again for the leaders. Hamilton pitted with only a 0.9-second gap to Grosjean, but again – thanks to a slow in lap – he emerged in front without problems. Four laps later Bruno Senna pitted, releasing Button, but the damage had been done. Button would finish only sixth after 69 racing laps.
In front of Grosjean Hamilton may have been after finishing his second stop, but he wasn’t leading the race. Out in clean air was Kimi Räikkönen who, after a bad start, had jumped Alonso in the opening round of stops. He was the fastest man on the circuit and by the time he made his second stop, on lap 45, was 18 seconds ahead of Grosjean. He came out of the pits as Grosjean appeared beside him. The pair went into the first turn side by side and it was only some very aggressive – but fair – driving from the Finn that ensured he grabbed second place.
It was now a race – or tyre conservation test – to the finish. Räikkönen quickly reeled in Hamilton, who would have done 29 laps on his medium compound tyres by the end of the race. However, the ex-WRC driver was struggling with only two-thirds power from his KERS and decided on lap 60 that there wasn’t a way past unless Hamilton’s tyres went off. It was clear that Kimi was quicker than the McLaren, but some very clever driving from Hamilton and the nature of the Hungarian track made it almost impossible for Räikkönen to get close enough to attack. The pair eventually finished first and second nine laps later, with Grosjean in third.
Hamilton – in stark contrast with Hockenheim – had a superb weekend, but now the summer break looms and McLaren will be heading off wondering what would have been the result had a Lotus got in front at the start. What’s more Hamilton is nearly two whole race wins off the leader of the championship, Fernando Alonso. He needs to start winning on a regular basis to close that gap, because there’s no way Alonso will stop collecting the points.