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INSIDE FORMULA ONE

A MAN OF HIS WORD

Hungary was the last race prior to F1’s annual summer break. With Mercedes lording it over faster tracks like Canada and Silverstone, Ferrari had to win on the tight and twisty Hungaroring. But it wasn’t straightforward.

As you read this, F1’s annual mid-year hiatus is over, while the second half of the season is alive and well and living in the aftermath of the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps.

At the time of writing, however, we had no idea of how things would have panned out in Belgium, as almost anything bar a McLaren Honda victory could have been on the cards. End-of-summer heat, light rain, heavy rain, torrential rain, mist, retirements, violent accidents (in particular through Raidillon at the top of the hill, straight after Eau Rouge) plus massive pile-ups (as we’ve had many of, most memorably in 1998 when chaos and carnage erupted on a soaking wet track, or again in 2012, straight after the start, when Grosjean triggered mayhem by taking to the air and shaving a tear-off from Alonso’s visor, on a dry track, nogal).

Any of this – or even all of it – could have been repeated on 27 August 2017.

What we’ll be most interested in, though, as the F1 circus now rolls on to the Gran Premio d’Italia for the end of the European leg op die Grand Prix season, are the respective fates that befell Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at Spa.

We’ll get to that in due course in the next article for Driven.

But first, back to the last event of the season’s opening half, in Hungary.

HUNGARIAN GP

It was a critical race for Ferrari, to put it lightly. Up until Monaco, way back in May, Vettel and his SF70H Maranellian stallion had been the game’s dominant duo. They were victorious in Australia, Bahrain and the Principality itself, yet – with a bit of luck – could have won in China, Russia, and Spain as well, even though Circuit de Catalunya has always been a happy hunting ground for Mercedes.

After Monaco, the tide seemed to turn in Hamilton’s favour. He won in Canada and was solidly on course to do so in Azerbaijan until – bizarrely – the headrest of his Mercedes came loose.

In Austria Lewis failed to find optimum settings, but a Bottas victory seemed to suggest that the Merc F1 W07 Hybrid could be the car to have for the second half of the season, especially when Hamilton dominated the British GP weekend.

Silverstone wasn’t only a flag to flag victory. It was a Friday morning to Sunday afternoon demolition of the opposition.

The W07 seemed to have found its stride, and how. A car that’s been called a “wild steed” and a “diva” by team insiders, was catapulting Hamilton straight back into title contention.

Ferrari, therefore, had to win in Budapest, not only to stem the turning tide and re-establish the Scuderia’s morale and equilibrium, but also because it is imperative to maximise whenever a track suits your car, as the alternative might be a double whammy: eight fewer points than you should have scored in favourable circumstances plus eight points extra for a possibly undeserving opposition equates to a 16 point swing.

That’s drastic.

AGILE SF70H

Ferrari was under the cosh then, particularly since Red Bull’s Ricciardo dominated the time sheets on Friday, the team having finally figured out the correlation problem between wind tunnel results and track performance that’s been plaguing the RB13 since debut.

Now, the tight and twisty Hungaroring is, like Monaco, tailor-made for Ferrari’s agile SF70H, not so much because of quicker directional changes courtesy of a shorter wheelbase, but because it’s easier to balance the Ferrari’s front and rear axles and work the Pirelli tyres to perfection, ensuring lively front end bite plus a stable rear with plenty of traction, without decimating the rubber.

Given that the SF70H never showed snap oversteer like so many other cars in Hungary – the track boasting freshly laid tarmac and therefore a smoother surface this year – and given that the red cars could be set up with sharp pointy noses, the Ferraris came alive in both drivers’ hands.

Räikkönen, in particular, revelled in his steed’s characteristics but a small mistake entering the chicane on his final lap in quali robbed him of pole.

Locking out the front row nevertheless bode well for a Maranellian onslaught on Sunday and the drivers duly delivered, Kimi riding shotgun for Seb after the latter clouted a kerb and bent his steering. The Finn’s willingness to play the supporting role undoubtedly helped him to a contract renewal for 2018.

Behind the scarlet pair, the race went haywire for Red Bull when Verstappen took out team mate Ricciardo on the opening tour, incurring a ten-second penalty that let Hamilton through into fourth. Such was the Brit’s pace that Merc effected a positional swap with Bottas, on condition that Lewis reversed the order if he failed to overtake the Ferraris.

MAN OF HONOUR

Hamilton was hard at it but Kimi held firm, protecting Seb all the way to the flag, which immediately shifted the focus back to Lewis who was – with a lap to go – seven seconds clear of Bottas, with Sainz and Perez slotted in between.

On top of that, Verstappen was hot on Valtteri’s heels, fuelling Red Bull’s hopes that their man might slip through as well, if and when Hamilton lifted to let Bottas back into third.

The tables had thus been turned. Ferrari’s fears of a double whammy prior to the race now loomed large in the Brit’s world of possibilities. He was running third but could, in the blink of an eye, finish fifth.

Lewis Hamilton was thus confronted by the bigger test, not of his skills, but of his integrity.

Would he back down on track?

Or, would he back away from his own conscience?

In an age when T.S. Eliot’s “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” has taken a grip on the world, and on a planet where “I, Me, Mine” reigns supreme – never more so, by the way, than in the egomaniacal little universe of motor racing – the Hammer stepped beyond the nauseatingly selfish instincts of his own fraternity and came through like a shining beacon of honour and integrity.

He kept his word. He passed the test. He is a man of his word.

This writer, for one, salutes him. It is hard to imagine his title opponent doing the same thing. During the infamous Multi-21 incident of the Malaysian GP in 2013, Vettel was, in fact, presented with a chance to act honourably, not by backing down and letting his team mate through, but just by keeping position after he was ordered not to pass Mark Webber, to save both Red Bulls.

When Webber relaxed, Vettel pounced.

To some people, winning is everything. To others, doing the right thing is more important.

Lewis Hamilton might miss out on this year’s F1 title by less than three points.

But he did the right thing. There is nothing amiss with his ethics.

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