Sunday 28 July 2013

Hungarian GP Report: Lewis turns silver into gold

Well, how many of you foresaw that podium, in that order? Before the race, or even better before qualifying? Don't lie now.

Lewis Hamilton - justifiably pleased
Photo: Octane Photography
Even Lewis Hamilton seemed sceptical that he was any sort of contender for the Hungaroring race win, even after he'd staked the ground of pole position yesterday. The assumption of the driver, his team and of everyone else for that matter was that - given the Mercedes's tendency to chew the tyres, the characteristics of the track and the baking ambient temperatures - he'd do no better than manage a decline down the order. Some opined that he'd struggle even to score a point. Yes, dear reader, we had the latest demonstration today that when it comes to F1 especially, nobody knows anything, as it was indeed Lewis that prevailed for the win, and did so with dominance and verve. We never learn, do we?

It's not clear if Lewis actually believed his doom-laden predictions or else is some kind of master of the bum steer (the former seems more likely), but Lewis took the lead at the get-go, and refused to relinquish it. But this was no grim hanging on at the head of the pack, à la Thierry Boutsen. Lewis had the required pace over a race stint to stay ahead and even to move clear. Indeed, it was a drive a lot like him: fast, featuring (crucial) immediate and often spectacular overtakes, and much smarter than many give him credit for, as he went as fast as he dared with the limited (and often with the Mercedes, very limited) resource of the Pirellis.

And as it transpired today rather than providing a roadblock himself it was another roadblock, a chrome-coloured one, that worked to Lewis's advantage. After those who started on softs at the front peeled in for their first stops they re-emerged to find Jenson Button, who'd started on the mediums, in the way. He backed up Sebastian Vettel and others as Lewis quickly built a lead of well upwards of ten seconds; worse for Vettel he slightly damaged his front wing on the back of the McLaren while trying to pass. By the time Jenson was cleared Lewis was over the hills and far away. Still, there was little to suggest subsequently that Seb or anyone else would have had sufficient pace to clear Lewis, even without the delay. At the very least Lewis would have been right in the mix for victory. And let's not forget that Lewis emerged from his stop behind Jenson too, and cleared him pretty much right away while those behind didn't. That's not luck; that's doing a better job.

A queue behind Jenson Button was important to the race
Photo: Octane Photography
Two of Lewis's passes, both on Mark Webber, will live long in the memory, particularly the second which was an ambush move down the inside of the Red Bull at turn three among traffic rather reminiscent of Nigel Mansell's celebrated pass on Ayrton Senna on almost the same piece of tarmac some 24 years previously. We can spend all day debating the merits and demerits of Lewis Hamilton (and I know many of us do), but when it comes to raw ability in wheel-to-wheel situations no one in the sport right now can match him. And his skills were put to crucial use today.

And as is our wont, we have to ask whether this means that Lewis can enact a championship charge this campaign after all? It's easy to forget after all that we still have half a championship to go, given the calendar these days is rather bottom-loaded. Yet it has to be said that it remains a long shot, Seb after all has close to two clear wins over Lewis in the drivers' table and doesn't look like he'll be leaving many points out on the track. And there's the perennial question mark at Mercedes over whether it'll experience races such as at Spain and Germany wherein it drops down the order as if made from lead. It can't really afford many (or any) more of those if it wants to emerge on top.

Kimi Raikkonen ghosted to second
Photo: Octane Photography
Kimi Raikkonen just like last year came alive on the Hungaroring race day, and was an equally unforeseen presence on the second step of the podium. Kimi was helped by a two-stop strategy, one fewer than most of those around him, and a mammoth 33-lap run on a single set of tyres before the end. He was also helped a little by the Hungary track's time-honoured militation against passing, but it remained a worthy and combative drive. It seems the Lotus likes the new tyres on race day at least.

Then came the rather frustrated figure of Sebastian Vettel, who completed the podium in third. Given pole position he probably would have won, perhaps comfortably, but he didn't have pole and didn't seem to enjoy having to be patient in the pack. As mentioned, he had contact with Button's McLaren too which could have easily had more negative consequences. Despite everything though he's stretched his championship lead yet further.

His stable mate Mark Webber was able to benefit from the flip side of his ill-fortune from yesterday, with his starting on medium tyres vaulting him right into contention. He even led for a while, and fourth was his reward at the end.

Where to now for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari?
Credit: Octane Photography
Only then did we find Fernando Alonso, who rather against his dark horse status in advance didn't have the pace in the race to challenge. Perhaps it wasn't for nothing that he called his qualifying fifth a 'little miracle', as we didn't have the usual sight of Alonso ghosting forward in the race from his starting slot and he finished where he started. Indeed, had Romain Grosjean not picked up a penalty he'd likely have sank back a place.

It's difficult to see what lays next for Ferrari. In order to challenge for titles this year it'll have to, somehow, claw back and then reverse the trend of recent times of being out-developed by Red Bull. But this doesn't seem especially probable if we're to employ the maxim that what has gone before is much more likely to happen again in future. And at precisely the wrong moment, doubts about its wind tunnel correlation have re-emerged.

Then we had Romain Grosjean, who was another to put in a drive a lot like him. It was quick, it was combative, but he was unable to get to the end without crossing the line (literally) and thus compromising his result. When clearing Button he moved back on his line early and tagged him, and he pitted not long afterwards, which seemed ahead of schedule and possibly related to the clash. Then when progressing back through the pack he got a drive through penalty for completing an overtake on Felipe Massa while having all four wheels leaving the track. By millimetres. It did seem an extremely harsh penalty, one that it's hard to imagine more established drivers getting as well as is the latest demonstration of muddled thinking from the stewards when it comes to enforcing the track limits. Though perhaps if he'd got it for the Button clash no one would have objected. After the race he did get a 20 second penalty for the Button stuff, which lost him no places. So perhaps, in spite of themselves, the stewards got it right ultimately...

But today was all about defying expectations, none more so than Lewis Hamilton turning his silver into gold. And six months into his new career at Mercedes the switch from McLaren looks like one heck of a master stroke. And this fact has defied expectations more than anything else.

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