The Hungarian GP promised much in its final stages as ominous pace from Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton applied pressure to Sebastian Vettel, but the race ended up being played out like a Cold War.
As Sebastian Vettel crossed the line to win the Hungarian GP and to seal his fourth win of the season to date, the feeling was that he hadn’t won the race through sheer pace, but kept onto the lead after his Ferrari’s dominant qualifying pace and good start left his Raikkonen and Hamilton in a state of checkmate.
In such a finely balanced season where performance advantage has ebbed and flowed between Ferrari and Mercedes, the race in Hungary could have been far more of a grandstand finish than it turned out. Having struggled for pace in qualifying and the first stint, the Mercedes – particularly in the hands of Hamilton – was far stronger than Vettel. Concern was mounting in the Ferrari camp over how much of an effect Vettel’s pace (or lack thereof) would have on Raikkonen’s battle with Hamilton as the Fin was being pushed into the Brit’s clutches.
Whilst this was a race that yielded little of much-craved on-track racing, solace should be taken that Ferrari and Mercedes challenged one another in a race that on Saturday was predicted by Hamilton to be a Ferrari procession. However, the lack of overtaking and not extending their first stints like Max Verstappen cost Raikkonen and Hamilton a chance of victory. Equally, fans missed out on a battle between Hamilton and Vettel in the closing stages.
With Raikkonen, it was a no-brainer that Ferrari maintained track position with Vettel – the only Ferrari contender for the championship. Hamilton’s strategic error was due to a race-long radio communications error, which left him unable to inform the team of his desire to stay out like Verstappen (forced into the extension by a 10-second stop go penalty for taking out his teammate Daniel Ricciardo) did to great effect.
During the second stint, Raikkonen questioned whether he should be allowed past Vettel as he enjoyed a better-balanced car. But unlike Mercedes, who swapped Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton for third and fourth before subsequently reversing the switch on the last corner of the race, Raikkonen wasn’t warranted past his teammate, which in the end paid off for Vettel’s championship and Ferrari took away maximum constructors’ points.
Vettel had to nurse worsening steering problems during the race later conceded that Raikkonen was quicker during the race:
“Kimi had good pace and could go a lot faster than me for the majority of the race,” Vettel told Autosport. “It was a tough one. I was hoping for a bit more of a quiet afternoon.”
Mercedes’ hopes of engineering their way round at least one of the Ferraris proved futile. Hamilton initially set the pace when he was released by Bottas, but was unable to convert his far superior pace into an overtake. Eventually, he nobly gave the place back, claiming to be a ‘man of his word’, but he was no doubt quicker, and Mercedes could have justified allowing him to keep third place as he gapped Bottas by eight seconds and the threat from Verstappen made the last-corner switch risky to execute.
Furthermore, in the eyes of Ferrari, such a gesture was likely seen as a weakness and only strengthens their logic of running a determined number 1-2 driver hierarchy.
In theory, in a race where a car unquestionably quicker than its rivals ahead should have made for thrilling viewing, but instead such a battle was quashed by the seemingly impossible task of overtaking. Even the DRS was made obsolete as drivers could only dip under the required one-second gap momentarily before the tyres, brakes and engine temperatures spiked.
The difficulty was reinforced by scorching track temperatures of up to 54 Celsius. Interestingly, as the race developed the track temperature came down by several degrees, coinciding with Mercedes’ resurgence. Ultimately, a number of elements were likely in play, not least Vettel’s handling issues and Mercedes preferring the harder compound.
It is suspected that Ferrari’s pace on Saturday was track specific, with the tight, slow-speed nature of the Hungaroring suiting Ferrari in a similar way to their fortunes in Monaco. But whilst the extent to which Vettel was losing time is unknown, there is still concern that Mercedes have a slight pace advantage in race trim.
With the first half of the season down and neither team with an obvious advantage, when F1 reconvenes in four weeks’ time in Belgium, this already fascinating season will become even better.