Four talking points from a fascinating Hungarian GP

05th August 2019
Goodwood Road & Racing

Racing drivers are essentially a selfish breed, we said this time last week, only truly out for themselves. But if you’ve ever doubted this is a genuine team sport, the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix was surely a prime example of how Formula 1 at its best represents a perfect blend of individual and collective genius.


Lewis Hamilton’s seventh victory in Budapest required a superlative drive – but still he owed this victory to a sublime mix of maths and instinct from his Mercedes team to make the key strategy call to unlock his route to the front.

After a great British GP and the drama of wet-dry Hockenheim, this one turned into a third successive modern classic.


Hamilton and Verstappen in their own league

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few weeks about the brewing battle between Hamilton, the master of his generation, and Max Verstappen, the man potentially the master of the next. In the immediate years to come, it looks as if we might be in for some epic duels between this pair – and if this prelude is anything to go by, we could be in for a bombastic symphony.

There were some key points in their tense race-long duel on Sunday. Lap 38 was the most memorable. This was the moment the tense chase became a wheel-to-wheel brawl, as Hamilton used all his experience to prise Verstappen’s defences apart.

Max kept a cool head and was equal to those lunges, leaving Hamilton – always a pure racer – with a valiant but slightly desperate choice to go for the outside at the fast Turn 4 left-hander. It was always unlikely to come off, but he just couldn’t resist and inevitably ran out of road. Still, this had been an example to the world that modern F1 stars know how to race clean and fair. And this duo surely will meet again.

Both were in a different class to the rest of the field on Sunday, in the first 20 laps proving the best part of a second a lap quicker than Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari in third. OK, this was a track-specific battle between Mercedes and Red Bull that is unlikely to be as close on the fast straights of Spa and Monza. But on a day when their cars were reasonably evenly matched, they were equally in a different time-zone to anyone else.


Merc and Hamilton in perfect harmony

There were shades of Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher in the manner of Hamilton’s victory, as he found himself forced to trust in a strategic call made directly from the pitwall, that in turn put trust in him to deliver a performance of the highest order.

It was at this very circuit where Schumacher delivered one of his best victories in harness with Brawn’s strategic genius. Back in 1998, the future F1 boss switched his driver to a brave three-stopper that handed Michael the lead, but then required a series of qualifying-style laps to allow him to keep it after his third stop. He got his head down and posted a memorable defeat of Mika Häkkinen and McLaren.

Now, 21 years later, here was Mercedes calling Hamilton in for a surprise second stop and setting him a similarly demanding challenge, to use his fresh tyres to their maximum to reel back a 20 second gap in just 20 laps.

From his radio calls, Lewis clearly had his doubts. In truth, there was little risk on Merc’s part because second was already in the bag. But chief strategist James Vowles saw a chance to arm Hamilton with what he needed to take the lead from Verstappen, with much less risk than he’d needed on that valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt earlier in the race.

And so it proved. “My tyres are dead,” reported Verstappen as the laps counted down and Hamilton closed in. The decisive move three laps from the end was a good one, Hamilton choosing the outside line at Turn 1 to rely on his extra grip to power him out of the corner ahead – but it was also relatively easy. Verstappen had no answer.

Afterwards, Lewis said he’d have fancied his chances even without the second stop – he always backs himself and why wouldn’t he? – but the strategy surely eased his path. In the first scenario, on equally worn rubber to his rival, he’d have needed a ‘big moment’ move to win. As it was, once he’d put in the hard yards by closing the gap, the pass was relatively straightforward.

“Sorry I doubted the strategy, that was a tall order,” said Hamilton on the cool-down lap. But as with Schumacher and Brawn in 1998, the team knew he had it in him – and made victory his for the taking.

And now as a consequence, heading into the summer break, Hamilton has one hand securely fastened on a sixth world title. That previously hopeful talk of a Red Bull/Verstappen title surge has surely been quashed.


Bottas on the verge of exit?

He might still hold on to his drive for next year, but Valtteri Bottas must be heading into the summer break with serious doubts after just the sort of Hungarian GP he did not need.

Merc team boss Toto Wolff has made it clear he has a simple decision to take in the coming weeks: stick with Bottas for 2020 or twist and go for the man currently on the subs bench, Frenchman Esteban Ocon. What would you do after the Finn’s performance on Sunday?

On Saturday he proved once again that he’s at least a match for Hamilton over one lap as he out-qualified Lewis for second on the grid behind maiden pole position winner Verstappen. But two lock-ups in the first two turns left him out-manoeuvred by Hamilton at Turn 3. To make matters worse, he tagged his right front wing on Hamilton’s left rear tyre, the damage made worse seconds later as Leclerc steamed through and made further contact.

Bottas toiled to eighth with a decent recovery drive – but yet again, when it mattered most he was found lacking.

So Wolf must decide: keep a man who is undoubtedly fast, a team player, on his day an accomplished race winner, but crucially doesn’t look like he has what it takes to raise his game to the next level – or put it all on a young, sparky talent who just might have the potential to be groomed into Hamilton’s successor. Again, what would you do?


More cheer for Vettel

Out-qualified by Leclerc again, Sebastian Vettel needed another motivational lift after his back-to-(nearly)-front second place at Hockenheim. And his late pass on the 21-year-old in Budapest proved to be just that, his Ferrari’s handling leaving him optimistic of a strong run-in to the end of the season once racing resumes at Spa in September.

The pass itself was one of a man letting his young team-mate know that he is still the senior partner at Ferrari. Leclerc was forced to accept Vettel was coming through and wisely chose not to fight too hard… Like Verstappen in front of him, Charles knows better days are ahead.

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • Motorsport

  • F1 2019

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • Valtteri Bottas

  • Max Verstappen

  • Sebastian Vettel

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Mercedes

  • Red Bull

  • Ferrari

  • Esteban Ocon

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