Television scriptwriters understand the importance of raising the tension just before an advertising break to entice viewers to stay tuned and find out what could possibly happen next.Charles Leclerc had an ideal opportunity to regain lost ground on Red Bull and Max Verstappen, reinvigorate the championship battles and leave millions of fans on tenterhooks during the four-week suspension.
Instead, what Ferrari and their passionate supporters witnessed during the Hungarian Grand Prix was less high drama and more comedy – with Red Bull the ones heading into August laughing the hardest.
But Verstappen’s rise up the ranks could easily have been self-sabotaged before it had even begun. Leclerc’s race turned on Ferrari’s hotly-debated decision to fit a set of hard tyres at his second pit stop, notwithstanding the problems other teams experienced getting the compound to work on a relatively cool track.
After Sunday’s race, Verstappen revealed he almost opted for the same compound as he prepared to line up 10th on the grid. It would have proved a grave error.
“We were planning to start on the hard tyre,” Verstappen later revealed. “But then I went to the grid on the soft tyres and I was already struggling for grip. So I said ‘no way we’re going to start on the hard…'”
Verstappen’s insistence and Red Bull’s willingness to listen to their driver would stand in stark contrast to the approach of Ferrari during the race. What unfolded was arguably yet another example of the team with arguably the best car on the grid giving away points in the most baffling fashion.
With George Russell having delivered Mercedes pole position on Saturday – the first of his Formula 1 career – the least his team could do is give him the best chance of keeping it. For that reason and others, they chose to start the pole winner on soft compound tyres in a bid to help him come out of the first corner with the lead.
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The plan worked – just. Carlos Sainz Jnr, on medium rubber, chased Russell to turn one and beat the Mercedes under braking for the tight right hander, nosing in front. But Russell had the racing line, pulled ahead of the Ferrari and kept the lead.
Behind them, Leclerc was unopposed in third, while Lando Norris was being challenged for fourth by Lewis Hamilton. The other Mercedes driver, who had started seventh after aborting his final qualifying attempt due to a DRS problem, had already passed the Alpine pair, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso seemingly more interested in fighting each other than him.
In the pack, Kevin Magnussen lightly clipped Daniel Ricciardo at the exit of turn one, skewing the left endplate of his front wing in the process. As if not to be outdone, Alexander Albon locked up at the next corner and clattered into the back of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin – somehow with enough force to break his front wing, but not enough to cause Stroll any notable damage.
With enough carbon fibre littering the first sector to make a Womble envious, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. Albon escaped investigation for his clash with Stroll, but was rewarded with a black-and-orange flag instead, forcing him to pit and dropping him to the back, 20 seconds behind everyone else. Magnussen later received a similar summons to address his wonky wing endplate, giving the Williams driver the luxury of having someone to watch in his mirrors.
Just as he had in Paul Ricard a week ago, Russell got a jump on his closest rival once the VSC was lifted and the race resumed, holding over a two-and-a-half second advantage over Sainz once the track was green. Russell was immediately handed tyre-saving duties by Mercedes, preventing him from running away from the Ferraris behind as he no doubt would have preferred to.
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Seven seconds behind, Verstappen was doing anything but preserving his softs. Having passed Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas at the start, Verstappen was now staring down the Alpines ahead. He dispatched Alonso on lap five, then Ocon on lap seven. Suddenly, Verstappen was already up to sixth and only 10 seconds behind the race leader – already matching Red Bull’s projections for his race result after just 30 kilometres. His call to start on the softs was seemingly vindicated.
Out front, Russell was doing a grand job of staying ahead of the Ferraris. But if the plan was for him to build a gap to the red cars behind, he was having less success achieving that objective, with Sainz remaining around three seconds behind the leader.
In fourth position, Norris was enjoying himself as the only car not of the top three teams in the top six places. On lap 12, Hamilton decided the McLaren had outstayed its welcome and slipped past him under braking for turn one. Hamilton’s pass paved the way for Verstappen to follow him through, easily out-dragging Norris on the run to turn two with the help of DRS.
By now, the softs were becoming more of a hinderance than a help, with Russell struggling with rear traction as his rubber wore away. “I’m closing,” Sainz told his Ferrari team what they could already work out from the timing screen. As soon as he got within a second of the leader on lap 16, Ferrari called Sainz into the pits in a bid to jump ahead of Russell – only for Mercedes to beat them to it. Sainz stayed out as Russell dived into the pits.
The former leader emerged between the squabbling Alpines on a set of mediums. Any option for Sainz, now leading, to extend his stint was lost as he reported he “cannot do many more laps” on his starting set. He peeled into the pits the lap ahead of Russell, but a sluggish, 3.7-second stop put paid to any chance of jumping the Mercedes.
Leclerc had a clear track out front. “How many laps at this pace can you do?,” race engineer Xavier Marcos Padros enquired. “At the moment the tyres are holding up,” Leclerc replied. “It’s a good question though. Around seven or eight?”
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Rather than take those seven laps, Ferrari opted for just one more. With a second set of mediums and no delay in his pit box, Leclerc was sent on his way, rejoining ahead of his team mate but still behind Russell. With the top three all on the same compound and Russell’s tyres five laps older than Leclerc’s, Ferrari could begin to show their some of that impressive race pace they had demonstrated in far warmer conditions on Friday.
By lap 26, Leclerc was in DRS range. Russell held his nerve over multiple laps of sustained pressure until the start of lap 31, when Leclerc was close enough to deploy DRS along the pit straight and breeze by the leader with so much superiority under braking that he was able to move to cover the inside line before they reached the corner.
Having lost the lead, Russell could only watch as Leclerc did what he had been unable to do and gradually pulled away out front. Russell was now more concerned with Sainz chasing him behind than he was with reclaiming the lead, worries that only grew when Sainz got around behind him.
But Sainz was not alone. Verstappen had used a well-timed first stop to undercut Hamilton and move into fourth and now he was beginning to breathe down the neck of the third-placed Ferrari who was trying to focus on catching Russell.
On the Red Bull pit wall, principal strategy engineer Hannah Schmitz and her colleagues saw an opportunity. They made the call and brought in Verstappen at the end of lap 38 for a second set of mediums. The team’s ever reliable pit crew – who ensured their two drivers received the four quickest pit stops of the day – sent their man back out after a wait of just 2.4 seconds.
“An almighty out-lap could see you pass Russell,” Giampiero Lambiese urged Verstappen. “Let’s go.” The world champion obliged.
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Red Bull’s move triggered retaliation. Mercedes had to cover Verstappen, bringing Russell in for another set of mediums to try and last him the 31 laps until the end of the race. Unfortunately, that immediate reaction was not enough to prevent Verstappen from beating them out of the pit lane, the Red Bull driver having successfully accomplished his “almighty out lap” mission.
Meanwhile, Ferrari had also summoned Leclerc in after a shorter, 18-lap stint on his second set of mediums. Their numbers told them that the hard compound would gain them time in the long run if they were willing to take an initial hit bringing the tyres up to temperature. But it did not take long for Leclerc to realise that hit would be far harder than his team expected.
“Fuck…” Leclerc sighed as Verstappen filled his mirrors down the pit straight. “The tyres are shit.”
Even leaving the minimum amount of space on the inside could not allow Leclerc to keep the Red Bull behind. With under two-thirds of the race run, Verstappen had already completed his recovery from tenth on the grid to the net lead of the race.
Ferrari were not panicking. Leclerc would surely come into his own later in the race around the point when Verstappen should begin to fade. Then they were handed a gift: As Verstappen rounded the long left-hander of turn 13 at the end of the lap, a minor clutch problem he had been quietly nursing through the first 40 laps bit him under throttle and Verstappen was suddenly looped through a full 360 degrees at the entrance of the pit lane.
Leclerc had to take drastic avoiding action and almost lost it himself in sympathy, but kept his car pointing the right way and took back virtual second place. Verstappen then had to contend with Russell behind looking to punish him further, but that pressure quickly dissipated once the Red Bull got back up to speed.
“I was struggling a bit with the shifts and the clutch,” Verstappen explained after the race. “We had to change a few things around that to not basically burn the clutch and that cost a bit of performance. I think that caught me out, out of that corner. But luckily, I could do a 360, so I [only] lost one spot.” It didn’t take him long to reclaim it.
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Gifted back his lead, Leclerc was still waiting for his hard tyres to eventually switch on. They continued to defy him, leaving him virtually defenceless for when Verstappen caught back up to him and used his superior traction to power out of the first corner and pass the Ferrari for a second time, heaping yet more misery on the Ferrari pit wall.
While all this was unfolding, Sainz and Hamilton had continued on-track, extending their middle stints in order to switch to softs for the final run to the flag. Ferrari called in the leader on lap 48, seeing him back behind Russell in fifth, which moved Hamilton into the lead. That lasted until lap 51 when he copied Sainz’s switch to softs and headed back out 10 seconds behind the Ferrari in fourth place.
Leclerc’s hard tyres still hadn’t come good 13 laps into his stint, and he was setting the slowest lap times of the top seven drivers. Russell was now all over him and inevitably overtook the Ferrari for second on lap 54.
“Consider Plan D,” Leclerc pleaded with his pit wall. “These tyres are a disaster.”
There was no choice but to accept the inevitable. Leclerc got the call to pit for a third time, Ferrari admitting defeat by giving him a used set of softs to try and stem the bleeding. He was now down in sixth place – the driver Ferrari should have hoped would score maximum points this weekend now the last of the top three teams running.
Leclerc’s tyre woes were in stark contrast to Hamilton, who was enjoying copious grip from him softs having waited until the final quarter of the race to finally make use of them. Sainz’s Ferrari ahead was easy prey for the Mercedes on five-lap younger tyres – a measure of the gains the world champions have made since the season began. Hamilton then set about eating into the 1.6-second gap to his team mate ahead over the final eight laps. But Hamilton had his eyes on a bigger prize.
Mercedes did not need to utter a word to their two drivers as Hamilton chased down Russell. After his best weekend in silver so far, Russell would be forgiven for not wanting to lose out to his team mate in the final six laps. With no team orders, Russell defended the inside line when Hamilton tucked into his slipstream on the pit straight, but Hamilton was wise to it and simply cut to the inside on exit to drive through into second place, the battle already settled.
After over 60 laps of racing, the final finishing positions had been settled. Leclerc edged towards Sergio Perez, who hadn’t matched his team mate’s progress having started one position behind him on the same strategy, but couldn’t make a move on the Red Bull.
Taxing the drivers further, light rain began to fall over the circuit. It was strong enough to warrant words of caution from race engineers but not enough to cause too many problems for drivers. Even a late Virtual Safety Car when Bottas suffered a fuel system failure was nothing more than a brief rest for the drivers ahead of the final lap.
Red Bull’s turnaround from being half a second slower than Ferrari’s race pace on Friday to winning by 10 seconds from tenth on the grid had been impressive – even if it had only served to sap the intrigue from a championship battle that increasingly feels like a forgone conclusion.
After executing his team’s plans almost perfectly, Verstappen recognised how the team’s strategists had backed him up perfectly after his pre-race call not to start on the hards.
“It’s incredibly important if you want to fight for a championship,” Verstappen said of Red Bull’s strategy team and pit crew. “You can’t afford many mistakes.
“It’s very hard, to always be on the good side like that. But I think we have a lot of good guys in the team and girls as well. Today I think Hannah, our strategist, was insanely calm and she’s very good.”
Hamilton was delighted with back-to-back double podiums for his team in second place, Mercedes now looking far more of a threat to Ferrari in the constructors’ championship than Ferrari are to Red Bull. Russell’s first pole had not granted him his first race victory, but he was still satisfied heading into the summer break.
“Obviously, you’re always disappointed if you start from pole – to finish anything lower than first position, you’ll be disappointed with,” he admitted. “But when you look at everything objectively, I think that was probably a fair result.”
Sainz had to settle for fourth, but it was Leclerc in sixth who had the most reason to feel aggrieved. “Oh my god, the hards were so bad,” he grumbled on the cool-down lap. “That’s why I said I wanted to stay on the mediums as long as possible.”
Norris endured a lonely second half of the race ahead of the two Alpines of Alonso and Ocon. After missing out on the final point to his team mate in Paul Ricard, the retirement-bound Vettel exacted some revenge on Lance Stroll by passing him for 10th in the closing laps.
With four weeks to stew in their frustration at yet another opportunity to win resulted in a Verstappen victory an Ferrari losing points, Leclerc insists that championship standings are not on his mind going into the break.
“Before thinking about the championship, as a team, we need to understand what we need to do to get our car better,” Leclerc said. “Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult.”
Despite taking yet another 25-point haul, Verstappen is convinced that Ferrari still have the pace in their package to give him headaches over the final nine race weekends – if only their strategies would stop obstructing him almost every Sunday.
“We know that our car is, in general, is quick, Verstappen said. “But I think throughout the race, Ferrari was also very fast. They just they made the wrong call with the hard tyre.”
2022 Hungarian Grand Prix
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- Aston Martin expect rivals will copy novel rear wing by Singapore GP
- Transcript: Why Ferrari told Leclerc ‘the hard is worse than expected’ but still used it
- What made Verstappen’s 10th-to-first win in Hungary a rare achievement
- Gasly pleased FIA is considering “different options” for track limits policing in 2023
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