Lewis Hamilton said he’d need a “miracle” to win the Hungarian Grand Prix from pole position. But there was nothing supernatural about his first victory for Mercedes-Benz. Against his own expectations – and ours – Hamilton simply had the fastest package on a sweltering day at the Hungaroring, and most significantly a car that no longer appears to chew Pirelli’s rear tyres to shreds.
Nothing miraculous about that – just the right chemistry, despite foreboding track temperatures that at times topped 50 degrees. The key appears to have been Pirelli’s decision to introduce new front tyres in Hungary, using a 2012 specification of construction with this year’s compounds in the interests of improving durability. Mercedes’ season might just have been transformed.
“Our long runs didn’t look that great in free practice two [on Friday],” said a satisfied Lewis on a day when he drove quite beautifully. “If we can be quick here with these track temperatures I’m hopeful we can be competitive everywhere else. It could be that we’ve turned a corner.”
Hamilton’s plan had been to at least convert his pole into a lead, and then see how long he could hold on. It turned out making it to Turn 1 first would be easy, the Mercedes getting the drop at the lights quite perfectly. Sebastian Vettel, starting beside Lewis on the front row, was left in his wake and instead of attacking, the world championship leader went into defence mode, squeezing second-row starter Romain Grosjean almost on to the grass on the drag to the first turn. It was just about fair. Just.
As Hamilton escaped, team-mate Nico Rosberg’s race was almost immediately falling apart. The British Grand Prix winner, who started fourth on the grid, was demoted by Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa, then sustained damage in a clash with the second Ferrari. He dropped to 12th and later ran ninth until lap 64 when his engine blew up.
In stark contrast, everything was going right for Hamilton. Rather than challenging for the lead, Vettel was more concerned with holding back Grosjean in the opening laps until Lewis stopped on lap nine to switch from the soft ‘option’ tyres to the medium ‘primes’. Vettel was in two laps later, Grosjean a further tour after that. They all resumed in the same order – except for one spanner in Vettel’s works.
Starting a lowly 13th, Jenson Button had chosen to go long on the first stint and begin on the medium tyres. He’d made a great start to rise to eighth at the end of the first lap and when the frontrunners stopped he climbed further up the order. Hamilton came out behind him, but quickly passed the McLaren and lost little time. Vettel was not so fortunate. The Red Bull was stuck behind Button for 10 laps, allowing Hamilton to build a crucial gap.
Sebastian knew he had to clear Jenson fast to stay in touch, but his efforts to pass ended with slight contact. He said the damaged front wing cost him performance, but that didn’t stop him eventually making a move on Button stick at Turn 4.
Grosjean had been following close behind and now the Frenchman attempted to capitalise on Button’s lost momentum. He crept up the inside at the chicane, but drifted into the McLaren under braking. The Lotus cut the corner, but was through – much to Button’s verbal anger. The former champion pitted for more prime tyres at the end of the lap.
A penalty for Grosjean was expected, but surprisingly the stewards decided to examine the move after the race. Romain pressed on.
After his disastrous loss of KERS and seamless gearshifts in qualifying, Mark Webber was making up ground from 10th on the grid. Like Button, he chose to start on the medium tyres and had made up three places on the opening lap. As Hamilton, Vettel, the Ferraris and the Lotuses came in for fresh rubber, the Australian found himself in the lead for nine laps, before his own first stop on lap 23.
One engineer from a rival team reckoned pre-race simulations showed Webber could win with this strategy. That proved a little extreme, but it was true that Mark was back in the game for the rest of the afternoon.
Once Webber had pitted, Hamilton found himself with a lead of 13.3sec over Vettel, with Grosjean and Alonso right with the Red Bull. Webber rejoined fifth, ahead of Räikkönen, Massa and Button.
A lap later, Grosjean kicked off the second round of pitstops and found himself rejoining behind Massa. He was clearly quicker than the Ferrari driver and on lap 29 pulled off a brilliantly committed move on the outside of Turn 4. But sadly it would prove his undoing.
The stewards judged that all four wheels of the Lotus had crossed the circuit’s white-line boundary on the exit of the corner. As team boss Eric Boullier admitted later, technically Grosjean was bang to rights. But most observers felt it was a harsh decision to bring him in for a stop-go penalty.
When the Frenchman came in, Vettel had already made his second stop and rejoined behind the Lotus. Grosjean would probably have won the battle for second place, but instead found himself down in sixth at the flag. The stewards then ruled on his Button clash, handing out a further 20-second penalty. But perhaps they’d taken pity on him by this stage. The decision didn’t lose him a position, as seventh-placed Button had finished 21.5sec behind him.
At the front, Hamilton had made his second stop on lap 31 and was looking serene. After his third and final pit visit on lap 50, there was one heart-in-mouth moment with an uncompromising pass on Webber through Turn 3 that forced the Red Bull off the track. But once Vettel had come in on lap 55, the victory was in the bag. Hamilton took the flag 10 seconds to the good – but from Räikkonen rather than the triple world champion.
Kimi had stopped for the second and last time on lap 42, then eked out his prime tyres for the final 28 laps. Vettel rejoined after his third stop just a few seconds behind, but despite running on tyres 13 laps newer he couldn’t find a way past the Lotus. This was the Hungaroring, after all.
With three laps to go, Sebastian got a run out of Turn 3 and challenged on the outside of Turn 4. On the radio he claimed Räikkönen’s rebuffal was unfair, but later admitted, away from the “heat of the moment”, the move hadn’t really been on.
“The car was good all weekend, there wasn’t much missing,” said Vettel. “But I should have done a better job with Jenson in the beginning and especially not damaged my front wing – and then it could have been a different race. But would, could, should. In the end I think we’re happy with third.”
For Räikkonen, second from sixth on the grid was as much as he could expect. The result moves him back ahead of fifth-place finisher Alonso in the championship standings, 38 points behind Vettel as F1 heads for its summer break.
“Obviously I keep making my life difficult on Saturdays so then we pay a price, but I had a good car and we managed to do two stops, so that was the only way to really jump people,” said Räikkönen. “In the end it was a bit tight with Seb, but it paid off for us.”
Webber’s strategy took him to fourth, beating Alonso who must be wondering whether the championship has already slipped from his grasp with nine races still to go. It could have been worse for the Spaniard, however. After the race it emerged that he had used his DRS incorrectly on three occasions because the team had not switched the system to race mode. The advantage gained was tiny, so it was decided not to punish Alonso, but to fine Ferrari 15,000 euros instead.
Sixth for Grosjean couldn’t be anything but a disappointment when a first win had appeared on the cards after qualifying, but Button was cheered by seventh. McLaren still has much to do, but with Perez ninth behind Massa, two cars in the points shows progress is being made.
And there was joy for Williams, with Pastor Maldonado scoring the team’s first point of the year with 10th. His team-mate Valterri Bottas had been forced to park on the side of the start/finish straight when his engine failed.
But the driver of the day was the man who finished out front. Hamilton had been circumspect after qualifying, genuinely not expecting to claim his 22nd career victory and his fourth at the Hungaroring. He’s clearly good around here. Only Michael Schumacher has won in Hungary as many times.
“I think this is probably one of the most important Grand Prix wins of my career,” Hamilton said. “To move to a new team and win for Mercedes-Benz is just a real privilege. The guys have done an exceptional job, I’m so glad to be a part of the team and I really couldn’t be happier. I hope there’s more to come.”
On this evidence, there should be.