On a drying track, he made a late switch to slick tyres, which wiped out the advantage of his good start. After toiling all afternoon in traffic, he suffered the ignominy of Lando Norris relegating him to 14th place on the final lap.
Ocon could scarcely have imagined that a year on, in similar conditions, he would claim his breakthrough grand prix victory. It took a little luck, a first-lap pile-up and a tactical mis-step by a rival. After that, Ocon’s poise under pressure and his team mate’s robust driving secured a breakthrough win for the 24-year-old and the Alpine team.
Bottas goes bowling
After a pre-race downpour, the Hungarian Grand Prix began much as it had in 2020, on a wet but drying track. It was a warm day, however, and the grip was improving rapidly. As the 20 cars made their way to the grid on intermediates one of them – Antonio Giovinazzi – peeled into the pits for a set of slicks.
The championship contenders, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, got away cleanly from first and third on the grid respectively. But Valtteri Bottas in between them found wheelspin and dropped behind Verstappen, plus the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez, and Lando Norris, who started brilliantly from sixth in his McLaren and was about to pay for it.
As Bottas tucked in behind the McLaren on the inside approaching turn two, he found his car light on downforce and hit the brakes too late. He rear-ended the MCL35M into Verstappen’s car, then thumped into Perez himself. Behind them Lance Stroll also braked too late for turn one, knocking Charles Leclerc into the other McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo.
This was one of the costliest first corner pile-ups for some time, with shades of the carnage Romain Grosjean unleashed at Spa in 2012. Bottas and Stroll both retired on the spot and were given five-place grid penalties for F1’s next race.
That was little consolation for Red Bull: Perez was out of the race and suffered engine damage which will likely mean he incurs a grid penalty at a later date. Perhaps even worse for them, Verstappen was ‘walking wounded’, his Red Bull badly damaged but at least still able to circulate.
Two weeks on from the controversial collision between Hamilton and Verstappen at Silverstone, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner had now seen both his drivers suffer as a result of Bottas’ clumsy error. “He’s done a great job for Mercedes in taking out both of our cars,” Horner fumed several hours later, repeating his point for emphasis.
McLaren were in the same position: Norris was out and Ricciardo’s car was badly damaged. Leclerc also went no further. With debris all over the first corner the race was red-flagged – an increasingly familiar sight in F1 these days.
Among those to benefit were Ocon, who moved up from eighth on the grid to take second, and Sebastian Vettel, whose slow getaway from 10th proved a blessing.
“I had a really bad start and it turned out to be the right place to be, so I did get lucky,” he admitted. “I took a bit of margin.
“In these conditions it’s so easy to make a mistake and as we saw it can be quite costly. I really planned to be on the inside and it turned out to be the place to be. Other people were taking each other out and I had a clear track.” He emerged from turn one in third.
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Mercedes’ tactical error
By the time the race was ready to resume the track had dried out considerably. The field left the pits on intermediates, but one by one the drivers concluded slicks were the way to go. With one exception: Hamilton, leading the field around, stuck with his intermediates.
“I was surprised to see Lewis staying out,” Vettel admitted. At the original start, drivers had not been able to confer with their race engineers due to F1’s formation lap radio restrictions, but that did not apply at the restart.
Ocon and his engineer Josh Peckett also came to the conclusion that slicks were the way to go. “If we were not able to talk, probably it would have been a different story,” said the driver. “But it was clear to me that it was dry, so I was discussing it with the team what to do.
“What put me in a bit of doubt was Lewis continuing straight – because Lewis and the team, Mercedes, they usually don’t make mistakes at all. So I got a bit in doubt once that happened but it was definitely the clear thing to do, so we boxed.”
Hamilton must have started to wonder whether he’d done the right thing when he took up pole position with the entire grid to himself. Had other cars lined up behind him, those who had pitted would have started later. As it was, once Hamilton pulled away and passed the pit lane exit, the rest of the field was released.
His pursuers instantly set faster sector times in the middle of the lap, and as Hamilton headed for the pits at the end of the first tour the scale of Mercedes’ error became apparent. Once fitted with four medium compound slicks, he resumed 14th and last.
Progress came slowly to begin with. Hamilton found a way by Giovinazzi, but Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri was too quick down the straight to trouble. Ahead, Verstappen in his battered Red Bull scrapped thrillingly with Mick Schumacher’s Haas and eventually squeezed past. “Schumacher had more downforce that Max today,” Horner noted.
Gasly and Hamilton also demoted the Haas, but Mercedes knew they needed a tyre advantage to made headway, and brought Hamilton in early for a set of hards. Red Bull moved to cover him off, but even with a two-second advantage before pitting, Verstappen’s car was so badly damaged he emerged behind Hamilton – as did Ricciardo, also struggling ahead of him.
Hamilton shot past Schumacher again, lost little time with Nicholas Latifi after the Williams driver pitted from the dizzy heights of third, and took a few laps to pick off Yuki Tsunoda. But his pass on the AlphaTauri tipped Ferrari’s hand: They pitted Carlos Sainz Jnr to emerge ahead of the Mercedes driver on fresher tyres, halting his progress for the time being.
Ahead, Ocon and Vettel circulated at the front in close company to begin with, but from lap 23 the Alpine began to edge clear. Vettel’s chance to use an early pit stop to attack Ocon was diminishing, while Aston Martin eyed the unhelpful gap to Alonso, who Vettel was set to emerge behind if he pitted.
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Finally on lap 35, with Ocon now 2.6 seconds up the road, they brought Vettel in. “I pushed really hard on the way in and probably a bit too hard,” said Vettel. “I locked the rears and triggered the anti-stall. Then I pushed like crazy on the out-lap. It was close.”
Ocon was in the next time around and kept position over Vettel thanks, he suspected, to the Aston Martin driver spending over a second longer in the pits. “That’s probably what made the difference because they would probably have undercut us on that,” said Ocon, “the guys in the garage, again, top job by them.”
The other Alpine of Alonso led for two laps before pitting. That restored Ocon to the lead with Vettel breathing down his neck, Sainz almost seven seconds behind with Hamilton in pursuit, and Alonso 16 seconds behind in fifth.
Alonso’s decisive defence
With Hamilton filling his mirrors, Sainz could see what was coming next. “I was trying to read a bit through the race to see how we were going to manage to finish in front of Lewis for that podium,” he said.
“In the end, he did what I was expecting him to do, which is what he’s done here the last two years: Box for a fresh tyre and then come back through the field. He has the car with a capacity to overtake – we don’t. So we decided not to cover him.”
Sure enough, Hamilton hit the pits again on lap 48 for another fresh set of mediums. He rejoined fifth, 22 seconds behind Ocon, with three other cars between them.
Team principal Toto Wolff was quickly on the radio to encourage him that a win was there for the taking. “He’s got a great heart, Toto,” said Hamilton, “but with all due respect, when I got the call, I was like, ‘I want whatever they’re smoking at the end of this race!'”
Hamilton feared it would be “impossible” to catch the cars ahead. But the driver who made the crucial difference was Alonso, who produced a defensive drive which helped his team mate win the race.
For 10 laps Alonso resisted everything Hamilton threw at him. The Mercedes driver pressed relentlessly, even looking optimistically at the outside line into the super-quick turn four, only to be rebuffed.
“That was a really great battle,” said Hamilton afterwards. “When I was approaching him, I was like ‘God, this is going to be the hardest’, because he’s very, very tough, I would say probably the one of the toughest drivers to overtake.
“It was very, very much on the limit, if slightly over some stages. But wheel-to-wheel battling in racing is good and in hindsight now watching, I’m sure if I watch it back it’ll just be close and we both finished, so that’s how racing should be.”
Hamilton was less magnanimous on the radio at the time, complaining at one point that Alonso squeezed him too hard. Finally the Alpine driver snatched a brake hearing into turn one, ran wide, and Hamilton pressed home his advantage. Next up was Sainz, who Hamilton passed with ease compared to what he had just been through.
The Mercedes driver still had enough life in his tyres to bring the leaders into view by the final lap. Unquestionably, had he made it past Alonso a lap earlier, he’d have had a shot at second place, and another lap or two earlier could have given him a crack at the lead.
Ocon resists Vettel
Ocon came under fiercer pressure from Vettel in the second stint, the Aston Martin seemingly happier on the hard rubber. “I tried everything to push him into a mistake,” said Vettel. “He had some minor lock-ups, but nothing big.
“It’s obviously not easy to pass here but it’s also not easy to stay controlled and smooth like he did under pressure.”
The leader had a worrying moment when they lapped Giovinazzi. Having tipped Verstappen out of the lead of the Brazilian Grand Prix while a lap down three years ago, Ocon showed extra caution with the backmarkers now the show was on the other foot.
“I was not enjoying blue flags,” he admitted. “Blue flags and me is not a great story, either behind or now in front.
“It was very, very close. Once I got the dirty air, I think we were a little bit slower overall than Sebastian in this race and that slowed me down, basically. I was struggling to get into the blue flag for Antonio, for him to clear, and Sebastian got DRS because of that, and he almost made a move.
“He was very, very close. A bit too close for comfort. I just managed to put the gap then in the tight section – the car felt amazing in that tight section.”
When the chequered flag fell, the gap covering the top three had shrunk to less than three seconds. Chased by a pair of drivers with 11 world titles and 152 grand prix victories between them, Ocon joined the ranks of F1 race winners.
Ocon and Vettel returned to parc ferme on foot, for different reasons. Ocon, unfamiliar with the podium procedure, had driven past the pit lane entrance in error, and stopped at the pit exit, for which he was reprimanded. But Vettel had come to a halt with a shortage of fuel, and that was more serious. He was later disqualified as the necessary one litre sample could not be obtained from his car, and remains second in the classification provisionally, his team having indicated they intend to appeal.
Behind Sainz and Alonso came the AlphaTauri drivers, Yuki Tsunoda having run fourth after the turn one carnage but waved his quicker team mate by when instructed on lap 48.
After two years without a point, the floodgates opened for Williams. Nicholas Latifi took eighth on the road, having passed his team mate at the start and stayed there. Russell actually emerged from the pits after the restart in second, but had to allow a string of cars by having passed them illegally.
Verstappen’s reward for a hard day’s grind in a battered RB16B was a point for 10th place. It may yet prove vital in the championship outcome, though he leaves Hungary provisionally six points behind Hamilton, which will become eight if Vettel’s disqualification is upheld.
Ocon savours breakthrough triumph
Hamilton’s profit should have been greater, but he welcomed F1’s newest winner after the race. “I’m so happy for you buddy,” he told Ocon in the press conference afterwards, “it’s been a long time coming.”
The world champion’s breakthrough win came 14 years and 99 victories ago. But Ocon was discovering the view from the top step of the podium was exactly as he hoped it would be.
It was strangely fitting that it should come at the track where he’d suffered a tough weekend 12 months earlier. “It can sound weird,” Ocon admitted, “it’s not the favourite track of many drivers, I would say. But it is one of my favourites, for sure.
“On the calendar it is in the top two. Probably step one now.”
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2021 Hungarian Grand Prix
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