Hamilton secures pole as championship heat rises – 2021 Hungarian GP qualifying report
Lewis Hamilton took pole by over two tenths in Hungary qualifying ahead of Valtteri Bottas, with Max Verstappen third after what Christian Horner described as a display of "gamesmanship" from the reigning champion
Hamilton took his Silverstone momentum into Hungary by putting his Mercedes on pole
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
Predictably enough, the Lewis Hamilton/Max VerstappenSilverstone coming-together dominated the motorsport media in the run-up to Hungary. Quite a bit of the online stuff had become personal, and some of it racially motivated, which is never good.
From a racing perspective though, it all looked pretty straightforward. Lewis Hamilton had been beaten up on the opening lap by Max Verstappen twice already, at Imola and Barcelona. Both moves, with Lewis on the outside, were fair enough, but uncompromising. Contact had been avoided by Hamilton backing out. But a driver can’t keep on doing that, or he gets walked over. It’s just that Copse Corner, at 180mph, ups the stakes somewhat…
“With the Red Bull apparently now the class of the field, any contact arguably disadvantages Max more”
And the racing dynamic had also changed. At the start of the season Hamilton arguably had the best car and so contact or perhaps more accurately, risk, was to be avoided. But that is no longer the case. With the Red Bull apparently now the class of the field, any contact arguably disadvantages Max more.
There was a lot of argument about whether Silverstone was a racing incident or whether Hamilton was at fault. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can be both. And was, in my book. Racing drivers are human and can make mistakes. Some of the TV footage was misleading, showing Hamilton alongside the Red Bull. He was, at one point, but not at the critical time, which is the turn-in point. He was not going to be able to take the corner at the same speed on the inside line – he didn’t actually hit an apex — and was going to have to lift to make it, while Max was obviously going to turn-in faster on the ideal line. So, Lewis at fault. But still a racing incident because racers are competitive animals not robots, and all can make errors.
Verstappen had to settle for third place in front of fervent support
Sometimes they even make deliberate ones, like Ayrton Senna at Suzuka in 1990. The fact that Hamilton was unlikely to see the Red Bull for the rest of the afternoon if he had finished the opening lap behind, perhaps prompted the gung-ho approach. But was it a premeditated move to take Max off and have him suffer a 51g impact? I very much doubt it.
I have some sympathy for Red Bull’s view that the Hamilton penalty was too lenient. A 5s or 10s penalty might be significant in the ultra-competitive midfield, but it clearly wasn’t for a man driving a Mercedes at Silverstone. You shouldn’t be able to make an error, be penalised, and still win the race. That’s all a bit ludicrous.
“It would have been remiss of us not to present it” Christian Horner
Of course, had the stewards factored it in and awarded a 30s penalty, for example, they would have been pilloried for inconsistency after the penalties dished out at the previous race in Hungary. After the event though, there’s not much that can be done and although Red Bull had a right of review (which demands fresh evidence) it was always going to be a lost cause and, predictably enough, was thrown out on Thursday at Hungaroring.
“They (the stewards) felt that it was not new evidence,” explained Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, “but it would have been remiss of us not to present it. We felt that the driving tactics were dangerous, and that is a different suite of penalties.”
Toto Wolff had been upset by Horner’s comments about his driver at Silverstone but 10 days on, temperatures had cooled a little. “Emotions run high,” Christian admitted, “that’s why it’s sport and we’re all entitled to an opinion. But had it been any other driver our reaction would have been identical. I don’t think there was premeditation from Lewis, just a bit of red mist. It doesn’t mean that a seven-time world champion can’t make a mistake or misjudgement. But no way was it personal.”
If things had cooled in the paddock it was the opposite on the track. This was Hungaroring and on Friday we had record track temperatures of more than 62 degrees against an average 49 degrees for Budapest. That meant set-up difficulties on the opening day, which is always gripless and dirty in Budapest anyway. What was clear though, was that Mercedes was relatively happy with its pace and expected to be in the fight here, at a track on which Hamilton was trying to win for an all-time F1 record ninth time!
Although race day temperatures were not predicted to be at quite those levels, it was clearly going to be a case of the leading teams attempting to clear Q2 on the medium compound Pirelli to facilitate the possibility of a one-stopper. As things turned out though, only the Mercs had sufficient pace on the medium to achieve it, which was a surprise.
Hamilton’s 1m16.553sec medium tyre Q2 first run was adjudged good enough but a set of softs was fitted to No44 just to cover the bases in case the track ramped up more than expected. They weren’t needed, with Hamilton’s medium tyre lap three-tenths ahead of the cut-off time at the end of the session.
An impressive Q3 lap means AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly starts fifth tomorrow
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
Valtteri Bottas, after a slow second sector on his first Q2 run, knew there was more time in him and also made it through on the medium, eighth. At Red Bull, Sergio Perez had been significantly slower than Verstappen all the way through practice and so softs in Q2 were no surprise.
As it is, Red Bull faces a hard enough task after Mercedes achieved its first front-row lock-out of 2021 in Q3. Hamilton stopped the clock in 1m15.429sec, Bottas managed 1m15.734sec and Verstappen, 1m15.840sec. Which means that unless Verstappen can jump the Mercs on the opening lap, he is likely to have an uphill struggle to prevail on pace over a race distance running the opening stint behind two Mercs on more durable tyres. As well as less strategic flexibility.
“I don’t know why, but I just didn’t have the same grip on that set,” said Max after his first Q3 run. And on his second one, although he improved slightly, he didn’t have enough sector one tyre temperature as the two Mercs exited the pits just in front of him and ran snail-like prep laps. A bone of contention?
“A bit of gamesmanship,” was Horner’s opinion. “Lewis had a heck of a lap in the bank and wanted to back us up, but it’s all part of the game.”
A solid Alpine display put Fernando Alonso (pictured) ninth and Esteban Ocon eighth
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
Max himself on the soft compound in Q2 was more of a surprise. “My lap time on the medium would have been right on the edge in Q2 and we didn’t risk it,” Verstappen explained. Hungaroring was not the place to roll the dice given that, behind Monaco, it is the hardest track on the calendar on which to overtake. Starting 11th would have been a disaster.
Perez did finally get a soft-tyre lap together in Q3, although the gap to Verstappen was still 0.58sec, and is theoretically close enough to put himself into the Sunday strategy mix. It was mighty tight though. The tardy Merc second Q3 run prep lap meant that Mexican didn’t get across the line in time to do his second run, leaving him vulnerable to those behind. It ended up with just 0.07sec covering the second Red Bull, Pierre Gasly’s superbly-driven AlphaTauri, Lando Norris’sMcLaren and Charles Leclerc’s seventh-placed Ferrari.
“I expected a bit more today,” said the man who so nearly won the British GP, “but the wind changed quite a bit in Q2 and it seemed to hurt us more than the rest.”
That was certainly the case for team mate Carlos Sainz who, after being fourth quickest in Q1, threw his Ferrari off the road in the final corner and will start 15th.
“I was really puzzled,” Carlos admitted. “I didn’t understand what I did differently. The wind was different but I actually went in slower but lost the rear. We just looked at the data and saw that what had been a 10kph tailwind was suddenly a 35kph (20mph) gust. I don’t like to blame the wind and so I’ll take it on the chin, but I’m not usually making that kind of mistake.”
Further back, Daniel Ricciardo’s season narrative continued as he went out in Q2, half a second shy of team mate Norris’s pace. But that might not be all bad. Yes, it’s hard to pass here but he is likely to be the first car starting on mediums behind the Mercs and could make a one-stopper work. Kimi Räikkönen outqualified Antonio Giovinazzi for just the third time in 11 races, and George Russell went out in Q1 for the first time in 2021.
Sainz lost his rear end and ended up in the barrier at the final turn during Q2
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
Tomorrow’s opening lap is going to be compulsive viewing. Just as Hamilton was desperate to finish lap 1 at Silverstone ahead of Verstappen, so Max, on rubber that is likely to give him a 5m advantage off the line, will be equally keen to jump at least one, if not two Mercs tomorrow. You feel that if he doesn’t, Lewis’s 100th GP win, a ninth in Hungary, and possibly even a retaking of the championship lead, is very much on the cards. And the opposition was making no bones about it. “I guess the premium seats tomorrow are at Turns 1 and 2…” Horner said. “We’ve got to get a good start.”
Could it be that contact between the championship protagonists will turn out to be just like buses – none for ages then two coming along at once?