Hamilton has pole but Verstappen’s strongest threat may be behind him

2023 Hungarian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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After taking his first pole position in almost 600 days, Lewis Hamilton was quick to express his heartfelt gratitude to the Mercedes team personnel who have laboured over the last year and a half to get back on terms with Red Bull.

But there was one other person Hamilton should have been grateful for: The person who determined where the official timing line would sit on the pit straight.

While the Mercedes driver only just snatched pole from underneath Max Verstappen nose by just three-thousandths of a second, it should have been by more. Hamilton was 0.15s up on the Red Bull’s provisional pole time heading into the final corner of the lap, but Verstappen’s exit from it was much better than the Mercedes driver, causing him to gain time all the way until he ran out of road with the delta at just 0.003 seconds. In the end, Hamilton’s pole position margin was just 17 centimetres on a 4.3-kilometre lap.

That remarkable statistic reflected just how close the qualifying session for the Hungarian Grand Prix had been. Statistically, it was comfortably the closest Q3 of the season so far in terms of the margin between first and tenth and one of the closest ever since the three-stage knockout format was first introduced in 2006.

George Russell, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying day in pictures
Not for the first, second, or even third time since his last pole position in 2021, Hamilton had bemoaned the performance of his Mercedes after Friday practice only to be right in the thick of things in qualifying. “We definitely weren’t expecting to be fighting for pole today,” he insisted after qualifying. “We made some really great changes to the car, naturally, last night, and it put us in a much better window. So I was then able to just build on that.”

Hamilton not only ended his pole drought, he broke Verstappen’s five-race pole streak in the process. But even though the runaway championship leader had missed out on the top spot of the grid by one of the slimmest margins in history, he was deeply dissatisfied about his car’s handling.

“Every time I got to the apex of the corner, it was just not gripping up for me. And that’s probably the worst balance I can have in a car,” Verstappen explained.

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Verstappen may be disgruntled by having missed out on the shortest run to the first corner for the grand prix, but Sundays have been a very different prospect to Saturdays all season long so far in 2023. The RB19 is an excellent qualifying car but it is an exceptional race car, holding an unblemished record of ten victories from ten attempts.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2023
Hamilton delivered Mercedes’ first pole position of 2023
But that perfection may be under its greatest peril yet at the Hungaroring – not just because of Hamilton ahead but from the two bright orange blobs that will fill his mirrors on the grid. Against many expectations, McLaren appear to have confirmed that their remarkable pace from Silverstone was more than just a one-off. The Hungaroring could hardly be more different from Silverstone, yet Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri were both closer to Verstappen in Q3 than they had been in Great Britain.

“To be only eight hundredths off pole position, I think we’re pretty happy with that,” Norris said. “A little bit surprised, but at the same time I think it’s a good surprise.”

Heading into the race, Verstappen may have more reason to be wary of the McLarens behind than Hamilton ahead. The Alternative Tyre Allocation may have led to some teams treating their sets sparingly over the three practice sessions but it also seemed to encourage longer runs in second Friday practice.

Comparing the long runs of the top four starters, Norris and Piastri averaged faster lap times on the medium compound (1’23.6) than Hamilton and his Mercedes team mate George Russell did (1’24.2). Verstappen ran at a faster pace than all three of them (1’23.3), but he completed his stint on the soft compound tyre.

What was especially striking about the long run data was just how quick a pace Alfa Romeo were able to run at. Having secured easily their best qualifying results of the season with fifth for Zhou Guanyu and seventh for Valtteri Bottas, the two Alfa Romeos were faster on their high-fuel runs on the mediums (1’23.3 average) than either the McLarens or the Mercedes.

Norris was especially upset in qualifying that he had maybe not fully extracted the best lap possible out of his car and cost himself pole position as a result. “It’s just a difficult track to overtake,” he explained. “Which is probably why I’m a bit more frustrated that I normally would be.”

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But Norris might be letting his natural pessimism get ahead of him in this regard. Last year’s race saw over 50 on-track passing moves completed over the 70 laps. Admittedly that number was inflated by Verstappen starting down the order and only five of those 50 were for positions in the top five, but as Norris points out the Hungaroring is not as low-speed a circuit as its reputation suggests, it is likely not quite as difficult to pass around as he maintains.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Hungaroring, 2023
Norris had good pace on the medium tyres in practice
Naturally, the best opportunity for Norris will come at the start. He and Hamilton have the benefit of starting from the left-hand side of the grid, on the racing line, while Verstappen must start on the dirty side on the right. Last time out, Norris managed to get the jump on the Red Bull on a shorter run to the first corner than he’ll have tomorrow. But, naturally, all eyes will be on Hamilton and Verstappen at the start as they share a front row of the grid for the first time since that fateful race in Abu Dhabi almost two years ago.

Asked what he expects to see at the start of the race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said he anticipated “good fun” between the two fierce rivals.

“None of them really has something to risk or to lose,” Wolff explained. “So they would be for sure racing each other at the beginning and it’s great. Lewis, I’m sure, will give it everything he has to put up a great fight but we also need to stay realistic.”

Pirelli expect the high track temperatures will produce a two-stop race. This year, the three compounds nominated for the Hungaroring are each a step softer than they were last season, leading Pirelli to expect that the soft C5 compound will be avoided by teams due to its lack of durability. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc can at least rest easy that his team’s ill-fated strategy which dropped him from the lead to finishing in sixth will likely not be repeatable this time around.

Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo, Hungaroring, 2023
Zhou was the surprise of qualifying
Starting on the mediums and pitting twice for hards seems the most conventional approach – which will be interesting given how everyone at the front of the field has next to no running on the hard C3 tyre. However, as the C3 was last year’s medium compound at this circuit, it’s notable that Verstappen, Hamilton and two other drivers all took the mediums over a distance of 32 laps during the race, which suggests a one-stop strategy may be a little too far to push for.

Either way, all the ingredients appear to be present for a fascinating flat-out battle for victory on Sunday. And with the added intrigue of Russell down in 18th, Carlos Sainz Jnr out of position in 11th and Daniel Ricciardo making his first start since the end of last season, there will be plenty to look out for throughout the field during the Hungarian Grand Prix – one that pole winner Hamilton is daring to dream could give him a long sought after next victory.

“If there’s a way to hold position, then maybe there’s a fighting chance for us,” he said. “But just even being up there in the top three. It’s new. We’re going to have a great race, for sure.”

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Qualifying times in full

Position Number Driver Team Q1 time Q2 time (vs Q1) Q3 time (vs Q2)
1 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’18.577 1’17.427 (-1.150s) 1’16.609 (-0.818s)
2 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’18.318 1’17.547 (-0.771s) 1’16.612 (-0.935s)
3 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’18.697 1’17.328 (-1.369s) 1’16.694 (-0.634s)
4 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes 1’18.464 1’17.571 (-0.893s) 1’16.905 (-0.666s)
5 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’18.143 1’17.700 (-0.443s) 1’16.971 (-0.729s)
6 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’18.440 1’17.580 (-0.860s) 1’16.992 (-0.588s)
7 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’18.775 1’17.563 (-1.212s) 1’17.034 (-0.529s)
8 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’18.580 1’17.701 (-0.879s) 1’17.035 (-0.666s)
9 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’18.360 1’17.675 (-0.685s) 1’17.045 (-0.630s)
10 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’18.695 1’17.652 (-1.043s) 1’17.186 (-0.466s)
11 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’18.393 1’17.703 (-0.690s) Missed by 0.002s
12 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’18.854 1’17.841 (-1.013s) Missed by 0.140s
13 3 Daniel Ricciardo AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’18.906 1’18.002 (-0.904s) Missed by 0.301s
14 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’18.782 1’18.144 (-0.638s) Missed by 0.443s
15 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’18.743 1’18.217 (-0.526s) Missed by 0.516s
16 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes 1’18.917 Missed by 0.011s
17 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’18.919 Missed by 0.013s
18 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’19.027 Missed by 0.121s
19 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’19.206 Missed by 0.300s
20 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes 1’19.248 Missed by 0.342s

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Sector times

Position Number Driver Sector one Sector two Sector three Ultimate lap Deficit to ultimate lap
1 1 Max Verstappen 27.782 (1) 27.044 (2) 21.547 (1) 1’16.373 0.239
2 44 Lewis Hamilton 27.817 (2) 27.124 (4) 21.629 (2) 1’16.570 0.039
3 4 Lando Norris 27.878 (5) 27.123 (3) 21.693 (3) 1’16.694
4 81 Oscar Piastri 27.909 (6) 27.033 (1) 21.818 (9) 1’16.760 0.145
5 14 Fernando Alonso 27.921 (7) 27.279 (7) 21.733 (5) 1’16.933 0.102
6 16 Charles Leclerc 27.863 (4) 27.278 (6) 21.814 (8) 1’16.955 0.037
7 11 Sergio Perez 27.947 (9) 27.289 (8) 21.728 (4) 1’16.964 0.081
8 24 Zhou Guanyu 27.858 (3) 27.276 (5) 21.837 (10) 1’16.971
9 77 Valtteri Bottas 27.929 (8) 27.305 (9) 21.762 (7) 1’16.996 0.038
10 27 Nico Hulkenberg 27.947 (9) 27.455 (10) 21.753 (6) 1’17.155 0.031
11 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr 28.084 (12) 27.697 (12) 21.922 (12) 1’17.703
12 31 Esteban Ocon 28.036 (11) 27.72 (13) 22.021 (14) 1’17.777 0.064
13 18 Lance Stroll 28.293 (15) 27.618 (11) 21.899 (11) 1’17.810 0.334
14 3 Daniel Ricciardo 28.163 (13) 27.861 (15) 21.96 (13) 1’17.984 0.018
15 10 Pierre Gasly 28.176 (14) 27.837 (14) 22.032 (15) 1’18.045 0.172
16 22 Yuki Tsunoda 28.424 (19) 28.186 (19) 22.176 (16) 1’18.786 0.133
17 63 George Russell 28.483 (20) 28.088 (17) 22.219 (17) 1’18.790 0.237
18 23 Alexander Albon 28.395 (17) 27.989 (16) 22.408 (19) 1’18.792 0.125
19 2 Logan Sargeant 28.407 (18) 28.141 (18) 22.493 (20) 1’19.041 0.207
20 20 Kevin Magnussen 28.353 (16) 28.488 (20) 22.365 (18) 1’19.206

Speed trap

Position Number Driver Car Engine Model Max kph (mph)
1 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas Ferrari VF-23 308.7 (191.8)
2 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren Mercedes MCL60 308.0 (191.4)
3 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari Ferrari SF-23 307.3 (190.9)
4 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas Ferrari VF-23 306.6 (190.5)
5 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin Mercedes AMR23 306.6 (190.5)
6 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes AMR23 306.0 (190.1)
7 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull Honda RBPT RB19 305.9 (190.1)
8 2 Logan Sargeant Williams Mercedes FW45 305.8 (190.0)
9 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari Ferrari SF-23 305.7 (190.0)
10 23 Alexander Albon Williams Mercedes FW45 305.3 (189.7)
11 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault A523 305.3 (189.7)
12 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo Ferrari C43 305.0 (189.5)
13 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Mercedes W14 304.9 (189.5)
14 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull Honda RBPT RB19 304.9 (189.5)
15 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine Renault A523 304.6 (189.3)
16 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo Ferrari C43 304.3 (189.1)
17 4 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes MCL60 303.7 (188.7)
18 63 George Russell Mercedes Mercedes W14 303.3 (188.5)
19 3 Daniel Ricciardo AlphaTauri Honda RBPT AT04 299.7 (186.2)
20 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda RBPT AT04 299.0 (185.8)

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Over to you

Do Mercedes or McLaren have any realistic hope of containing Max Verstappen? Share your views on the Hungarian Grand Prix in the comments.

2023 Hungarian Grand Prix

Browse all 2023 Hungarian Grand Prix articles

Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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18 comments on “Hamilton has pole but Verstappen’s strongest threat may be behind him”

  1. Based on the long run lap times could Zhou in an Alfa Romeo could be the biggest threat to Red Bull’s winning record, at a track where Ocon won in a Renault and Hill nearly won in an Arrows.

    1. Not to mention the track where Alonso took his debut win lapping both teammate Trulli, and the eventual world champion Michael Schumacher, Riccardo picked up a win over the dominant Mercedes in 2014, and Kovalainen took his only win (ahead of Glock). Interesting results do tend to happen at the Hungaroring.

      1. Could be a Norris debut win tomorrow. If Hamilton and Verstappen get messy at the start, or eat up their tyres battling each other, there’s two pacey Mclarens behind them.

    2. The Alfa’s had great pace all weekend indeed and what a great lap by Zhou. I am a bit doubtful about the race though and it hasn’t so much to do with pace. Where as Lewis, Verstappen and the McLaren’s don’t have a lot to lose – the Alfa’s do, opportunities for good points don’t come so often for them and they might be more progressive and careful as the cars around them – but let’s see! Would be great to have Zhou or Bottas on the podium (or close to it)z

      1. Yep. Zhou said in the post quali interview, that they are trying to be the best of the rest behind Max, Lewis, McLarens and even checo or charles showed he had to not race them. Because AR is P9 (9 points) in constructor championship and P7 (Williams and Hass both are on 11 points) is just 2 points ahead. Every points counts for lower teams. I think Zhou target for P7 and Bottas for P8. That’s 10 points and with that AR will have 19 points in P7 and they can breath for 2-3 races with 8 points ahead of any teams lower than them.

        1. I also think with Daniel Ricciardo’s sudden promotion back into f1 at AlphaTauri, its given the other drivers gee-up, since the same fate might befall them if they’re not pulling their weight. This is one of those rare tracks where it’s much more about skill around the corners than all-out pace down the straights.

  2. Jhshdh

  3. Do Mercedes or McLaren have any realistic hope of containing Max Verstappen? – No.

    1. They do. Hungaroring is very difficult to overtake on, and if Verstappen falls to 3rd, 4th or 5th at the start (which is possible as if he starts from the firsty side of the track) and then is stuck behind until the first pitstops, then the race is done for him.

    2. I hope starting on the right side of the track slows down Verstappen: it will allow the McLarens to pass and make for an even better race for everyone.

  4. @Will Wood.

    Why does the article start with ” somebody did SLH a favor”? Why not highlight that SLH in a slower car managed to take pole?

    At the first sign of Lewis having some success you start of with a ” he should be grateful article”?

    If you sumup the cons and pros in Hamiltons F1 career do you Will Wood feel that F1 has been indifferent/ aided or hindered SLH:s career?

    Personally reading your article makes me a mit wary.

    1. notagrumpyfan
      23rd July 2023, 7:49

      Actually, the article starts with a reference to LH expressing “his heartfelt gratitude”.
      But I guess there will always be driver fans who think their hero is treated unfairly.

      IMO @WillWood is the least biased of all contributors on this site (maybe a bit generous towards Alonso), and I enjoy how he always includes some interesting statistics and nice-to-knows into his articles.

  5. Lewis didnt make the optimum last part of the map, but luckily Verstappen messed up his 2nd shot and also didnt utilize his cars pace in the first run. Lets see if Verstappen can keep his wits together at the start, as he usually is unable to drive clean against Hamilton.

    1. You mean Hamilton can’t drive clean versus Verstappen.

      1. At least Hamilton didn’t do a Russell.

        What on earth happened to Russell? This was yet another rookie mistake from the driver looking to take over from Hamilton. He had everything to lose in that position, why didn’t he just take off after Hamilton? Never mind building a gap?

      2. Its the crashkid who always searches the contact.

      3. Andy (@andyfromsandy)
        23rd July 2023, 12:29

        In the last coming together with Verstappen and Hamilton, Verstappen was adjudged to be at fault. Verstappen even made a stupid comment that he didn’t care he ruined Hamilton’s race.

        Although not life threatening Verstappen made that rather childish move while sim racing to take out a competitor who had perhaps wronged Verstappen earlier in the race.

  6. You can see here on the best sector times how hamilton did a better job than verstappen: verstappen putting the sectors together had at least 2 tenths margin.

Comments are closed.