Sunday 29 July 2012

Hungarian GP Report: Lewis's command and control

We really are seeing a new and improved Lewis Hamilton in 2012. In previous years we knew what to expect from him: astounding pace, freakish car control, bravery and aggression reminiscent of the great Gilles Villeneuve. All this remains, but this year he's harnessed it with a control and intelligence to manage his race, and in particular to manage the finite resource of the Pirelli tyres. The errors seem to have gone; last year's clumsiness when wheel-to-wheel is now like it was from another driver. And the difference in the positivity of his demeanour out of the car is also palpable. All of this was on display in Lewis's masterful Hungarian Grand Prix win today.

Lewis Hamilton was masterful in
winning the Hungarian Grand Prix
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Lewis was the quickest thing around the Hungaroring from the moment a wheel was turned in Friday practice. Yet, his race today was no cruise and collect. Against expectations the rain stayed away today, which helped Lewis, but in line with some people's expectations the Lotuses showed their prodigious race pace - Lewis had one of them breathing down his neck all afternoon. Further, tyre life was marginal and the McLaren pitwall seriously considered bringing Lewis in for a third change late on, which no doubt would have lost him the win. But while all this was going on Lewis never put a wheel wrong that I saw, carefully looked after his boots, and the thought occurred as the race went on that despite the Lotuses' proximity Lewis had the thing well under control. Sure enough, he was able respond to any threat as necessary and tick off the laps, still out front at the end.

And today's win meant more than 25 points for Lewis, it was a declaration of intent heading into the five-week summer break and the subsequent final part of the season: Lewis fully intends to win the drivers' title this year. Yes, the road back will be a long one, mainly because before today he'd scored but four points in the three preceding races. But the McLaren looks bang on the money right now, and neither championship leader Fernando Alonso nor his team will be even close to disregarding Lewis's threat. Indeed, they may well now see Lewis as their primary rival.

As mentioned, the threat to Lewis today came from the Enstone cars. There have been recurring themes for Lotus this year, and even today had a touch of its season in microcosm. The car came alive over a race stint, especially in the mid part of the race when they, unusually, were able to run on the softs on a two-stop strategy. Romain Grosjean was the first to take the fight to Lewis, as Kimi worked his way up through the pack (indeed, Kimi was down in sixth on the first lap, and didn't have KERS at its full function at any point it seemed). But whenever Grosjean got near to Hamilton it seemed his driving got a little scrappy and time was lost. Of course, running close to the car ahead through the Hungaroring's long corners isn't easy (it explained the scarcity of overtaking today), but still it betrayed Grosjean's inexperience a touch.

Kimi Raikkonen led the Lotus charge, and nearly won
Credit: Morio / CC
Kimi Raikkonen is a man who does know how to win an F1 race, and in his second race stint on soft tyres he put an amazing spurt on with old rubber once everyone ahead had pitted, and having changed tyres himself for the final time squeaked ahead of team mate Grosjean with a robust move as he exited the pits (he was entirely above board though). Kimi was able to cruise onto the tail of Hamilton in the final stint, but as mentioned passing at the Hungaroring is rarely on the itinerary and it looked a remote probability for Kimi here. Thus the win just eluded him and Lotus once again. Still, with a better first lap and fully operative KERS who knows what would have happened: breaking the Lotus duck looked entirely possible. Kimi, as you'd expect, only looked disappointed afterwards at the lost victory.

Indeed, today was a bit of a throwback to Grand Prix racing past, as overtaking, certainly among the front runners, was close to non-existent even with DRS and KERS. Any order changes were down to pit strategy and track position was vital. They don't call the Hungaroring 'Monaco without the houses' for nothing.

Fernando Alonso did effective damage limitation, but he and
Ferrari will know they have to respond to the McLaren threat
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The other major story of the race was a stoic rearguard action from Fernando Alonso. The Ferrari looked seriously off it all weekend, not liking the track's long corners and forever wanting the spit its driver straight on. But if we can count on Alonso for anything it's to make the very best of things on a Sunday, to not make errors, and to bring the thing home having improved on his grid position. He did exactly that today, and via a two-stop strategy that was assisted by the near impossibility of passing won what will probably be a very important 10 points for coming fifth. Indeed, he actually extended his championship lead to 40 points, and only lost two points on Sebastian Vettel. In itself, he'll be satisfied with the damage limitation, but as Luca Montezemolo pointed out after the German race there's work to be done at Maranello to respond to the pace of its rivals.

The Red Bull pilots had a rather frustrating time of it, as did Jenson Button, all on three-stop strategies that were compromised by running behind slower cars. Indeed, Mark Webber spent his entire final stint staring at Bruno Senna's gearbox and never even looking like passing despite having much fresher tyres. Vettel salvaged fourth place, Jenson sixth and Webber eighth. But credit to Bruno Senna who topped off an impressive weekend with a controlled and consistent race run to seventh place. It's also timely, as the star of the Williams test driver Valtteri Bottas has been on the rise recently at Grove.

His star still has some way to go before it matches the trajectory of Lewis Hamilton's of course. Today is further evidence of his development in recent times into a complete F1 driver, and it's all a real pleasure to watch. Despite his championship points lead, Fernando Alonso will have a close eye on Lewis in his rear view mirror for the season's remainder.

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