Bad decisions and a perfect performance: the mayhem that made Ocon's Hungarian GP win


The first lap crash; strategic errors; and his team-mate's sublime defending all cleared the way for Esteban Ocon to win the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix. But he still needed the 'perfect' drive. Mark Hughes examines the making of the dramatic victory

podium OCON Esteban (fra), Alpine F1 A521, portrait during the Formula 1 Magyar Nagydij 2021, Hungarian Grand Prix, 11th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from July 30 to August 1, 2021 on the Hungaroring, in Mogyorod, near Budapest, Hungary - Photo DPPI

Esteban Ocon dodged the carnage before putting in a faultless performance to preserve his lead


A Valtteri Bottas misjudgement seconds into the start took out or seriously compromised all but one of the fast cars and a strategic error by Mercedes put that one – Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes – at the back. So Esteban Ocon and Sebastian Vettel got to fight out the lead for pretty much the whole distance as Hamilton came through the pack, for a time on-course to catch them before the end, but ultimately brought up short by an 11-lap dice with his old nemesis Fernando Alonso, who thereby helped ensure his Alpine team-mate Ocon took his maiden victory.

Vettel might have taken the win for Aston Martin but for a 1sec delay at his pit stop. That would have made his subsequent disqualification (pending appeal) for being unable to provide the required 1-litre fuel sample an even bigger blow.

Hamilton needed medical attention for suspected dehydration after finishing third in the intense heat.

The key points shaping this extraordinary race were as follows:


Merc fastest/Red Bull balance problems

Mercedes comfortably locked-out the front row – Hamilton ahead of Bottas – for the first time in a while as Red Bull could simply not get its car balanced through the long medium-speed corners on a track surface in excess of 60C.

33 VERSTAPPEN Max (nld), Red Bull Racing Honda RB16B, action during the Formula 1 Magyar Nagydij 2021, Hungarian Grand Prix, 11th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from July 30 to August 1, 2021 on the Hungaroring, in Mogyorod , near Budapest, Hungary - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

“Armfuls of understeer” forced Red Bull to fit a smaller rear wing on both cars

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Armfuls of understeer bled away the lap time of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez throughout Friday practice when on the soft tyre. Minimising that with set-up gave an undriveable turn-in oversteer on the medium. Running out of flap adjustment on the front wing, Red Bull had to do the unthinkable on a track with the second-highest downforce sensitivity on the calendar – fit a smaller rear wing, which went on for Saturday.

Even with this, the car still understeered excessively on the soft tyre, leaving Verstappen only third-fastest 0.4sec adrift of Hamilton’s pole, with Perez alongside on the second row. The Red Bull was a long way out of its sweet spot around the Hungaroring and, unusually, the team just couldn’t locate it.


Rain & Bottas

The intense summer heat boiled up a heavy rain cloud which arrived at the circuit about 25 minutes before the start, after everyone had driven to the grid on slicks. The grid awnings went up and the slicks were replaced by inters and no-one had much of an idea of how much grip there would be under braking for Turn One.

Hamilton led Verstappen away as Bottas bogged down and was overtaken by a flying Lando Norris from two rows back. The McLaren was up to third and Bottas simply braked too late for the slippery track when directly behind it. The Merc’s back wheels locked, he slewed into the back of the orange car, cannoning it hard into the side of Verstappen and himself hard into the side of Perez. Bottas had effectively just taken out the Red Bull team – as well as himself and Norris. Verstappen was still going but his car heavily wounded. Perez, in trying to limp back with water gushing from the ruptured radiators, cooked the engine.

crash, accident, start of the race, depart, 77 BOTTAS Valtteri (fin), Mercedes AMG F1 GP W12 E Performance, action during the Formula 1 Magyar Nagydij 2021, Hungarian Grand Prix, 11th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from July 30 to August 1, 2021 on the Hungaroring, in Mogyorod, near Budapest, Hungary - Photo DPPI

Bottas took out not one, but two Red Bulls (and a McLaren) at the very first corner


There was a supplementary accident to the side as Lance Stroll made a Bottas-like error under braking and hit Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari in the side, putting both out on the spot and significantly damaging Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren in the process.

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This led to a crazy old order behind Hamilton as they exited the turn. Ocon – who had decided against a move down Leclerc’s inside and moved left, thereby creating the gap that Stroll was trying to fill – lay second. Vettel, who’d qualified 10th, was third. Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari – which had started 15th after spinning out in Q2, caught by one of the powerful wind gusts – was fourth, ahead of Yuki Tsunoda and Nicholas Latifi, who’d qualified 16th and 17th respectively. They’d qualified far enough back that they missed the carnage.

Pierre Gasly, who’d qualified his AlphaTauri a strong fifth, had to go virtually straight-on at the first corner to avoid the crashing Bottas/Perez. He rejoined somewhere near the back and would make a terrific recovery drive to sixth, stopping two laps from the end for new tyres on which he set the race’s fastest lap.

Rain and Bottas had completely randomised the order behind Hamilton. But he was about to be compromised too as the race was red-flagged.


Here Comes the Sun

The rain stopped in the half-hour gap during which the damaged cars were worked upon. Red Bull replaced Verstappen’s floor, repaired the damaged hydraulic pipes but there was no time to replace the entirely missing right-hand barge board.

The race would continue with a standing start which would essentially be the beginning of lap three. But which tyres to fit? Tyre choice in such circumstances is totally free, yet remarkably everyone remained on intermediates as they lined up at the end of the pitlane in race order, 15 cars now rather than 20.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 01: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 during the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on August 01, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Hamilton took the restart on inters whilst everyone else opted for slicks – ultimately costing him the win

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Every single one of them realised the error of their choice as the safety car led them through the formation lap. There was some ambiguity about whether teams could instruct their drivers to pit. On a conventional formation lap to the grid, they are not permitted to as it falls foul of the ‘driver coaching’ regulation and the driver must make the call. But this was a continuation of the race rather than a regular formation lap. Everyone erred on the side of caution, though, and treated it as a formation lap in this regard.

Discussions were obviously had beforehand between teams and drivers about what to do should they wish to immediately pit for slicks. But Mercedes was adamant that it didn’t want Hamilton to pit on the formation lap. So, even though he was radioing that every corner was dry, he didn’t. Every other car did – and so we had the bizarre spectacle of a one-car grid taking the start, the rest lined up at the end of the pitlane, now on slicks.


Garage Positioning

It was a disastrous choice from Mercedes, but there was a logic to it. The biggest error was not choosing slicks in the first place, but that applied to everyone. Merc was so insistent on not pitting on that lap because stopping at the first garage in the pitlane, Hamilton would have to been obliged to be held for an age for all the traffic that would be following and there would be a multiple loss of position. As it was, as he pitted at the end of the lap, the back of the field was only 13sec behind and with a pit stop taking 20sec, he was a solid last by a long way. His limping title rival Verstappen was only a couple of places further up, unable for a long time to put a pass on Mick Schumacher’s Haas. Ocon led the race from a closely following Vettel.

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Williams, as the last garage in the pitlane, benefitted the most from the traffic situation, allowing Latifi to vault from fifth to third. Tsunoda also leapfrogged past Sainz to run fourth.

Having Latifi hold up the pack in third allowed Ocon and Vettel to clear off into the distance, building a big cushion and taking Sainz in a faster Ferrari off their backs. Behind the Ferrari were Fernando Alonso’s Alpine and George Russell’s Williams, who had been blocked from entering the fast lane of the pitlane after his stop by the queue of cars. From his end garage, he drove straight past them, to the front of the line, and emerged second behind Hamilton before allowing through the cars he leapfrogged.


Hamilton strategy

From the back, Mercedes intended to two-stop Hamilton as the harder tyre usage would maximise the performance difference between him and the other cars, allowing him to overtake around a track where you generally need to be around 2sec faster than the car ahead to make a pass.

It was only as he got off the first set of tyres on lap 19 that he began to make progress, helped by Red Bull forlornly trying to respond to that stop with Verstappen in a crippled car unable to make a fast enough in-lap to avoid being passed by the Merc. Max would remain down near the tail end for the whole race, driving hard just to make the top 10. By contrast, Hamilton’s race came alive as he chased down the pack.

14 ALONSO Fernando (spa), Alpine F1 A521, 44 HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 GP W12 E Performance, action during the Formula 1 Magyar Nagydij 2021, Hungarian Grand Prix, 11th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from July 30 to August 1, 2021 on the Hungaroring, in Mogyorod, near Budapest, Hungary - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Alonso’s stout defending kept Hamilton behind for 11 laps, nixing the Merc’s strategy for the win

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Tsunoda had undercut his way past Latifi at the first stops. Hamilton on his second set of slicks passed them in quick succession, dramatically going around the outside of the AlphaTauri at the fast Turn Four. Sainz pitted immediately after that, so as to not be undercut by the Mercedes, but Alonso stayed out.


Alonso’s two key roles

Alpine was happy keeping Alonso out because he was in Vettel’s pit stop window, preventing the Aston from making an undercut attempt on Ocon’s lead. If Seb pitted he’d come out directly behind the other Alpine. Staying out meant that Alonso would inevitably be overcut by Hamilton, but for the greater good – and Alpine already suspected Hamilton was going to be stopping again anyway.

It was correct in this assumption. Aston eventually brought Vettel in on the 39th lap, as his tyres were beginning to fade. There was a 1sec delay fitting the left-rear and Vettel rejoined flat-out, trying to make the undercut work, as Ocon was brought in next lap. The Alpine exited just in front of Vettel who had made a terrifically fast out-lap and that wheel delay was all that had prevented him taking the position. Ocon was composed throughout and dealt with all the high-pressure moments perfectly. “He just didn’t make any mistakes,” said a resigned Vettel afterwards.

44 HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 GP W12 E Performance, overtakes 55 SAINZ Carlos (spa), Scuderia Ferrari SF21, action during the Formula 1 Magyar Nagydij 2021, Hungarian Grand Prix, 11th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from July 30 to August 1, 2021 on the Hungaroring, in Mogyorod, near Budapest, Hungary - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

By the time Hamilton got past Alonso and Sainz, Vettel and Ocon were just out of reach

Alonso rejoined behind Sainz/Hamilton and was catching them on his fresher tyres, setting fastest laps. But then, with 23 laps to go, Hamilton pitted again, rejoining a few seconds behind Alonso but lapping up to 2sec faster than anyone on his fresh medium compound tyres, with everyone around him on old hards.

Alonso knew now what his challenge was. He could see on the big screen team-mate Ocon leading Vettel and had been informed Hamilton was catching him at 2sec per lap. When the Merc inevitably came upon him, he must delay it for as long as possible. He proceeded to do that to perfection for 11 laps, forcing Hamilton to go the long way round at Turns Two-Three and up to the fast blind-apex Turn Four. Times without number their tyres were almost touching and on one occasion, on the 160mph run-up to T4, sidewall rubber was exchanged.

It was a brilliant demonstration of racecraft from Alonso who is clearly back at something close to his best, even at 40 years old. Eventually Hamilton worked out an offset line through the final corner which allowed him to follow more closely through there, which in combination with DRS, finally got him up to fourth. Using the line he’d figured out in his Alonso dice, Hamilton made much quicker work of Sainz to go third. But there were now only four laps left and he was still 9sec off the lead. He took the flag right upon Vettel’s rear wing, as Ocon took a sweet victory at the same track as his team-mate had taken his maiden win – 18 years ago.