A busy month of July, with four scintillating Grands Prix, featuring a series of farcical Ferrari failures, has afforded Max Verstappen and Red Bull a distinct advantage, while the Mercedes Star continues its ascent.
Winning the Hungarian Grand Prix from tenth position, thanks to pitch-perfect strategic decisions by the Red Bull team, reigning champion Max Verstappen – with an 80-point lead over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in the drivers’ standings – is in a virtually unassailable position going into the Formula One summer break.
Given the tight and winding nature of the Hungarian track, the race was expected to benefit Ferrari; however, while the scarlet cars were quick throughout the practice sessions, both Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, performing significantly better since his first GP win in Britain, were pipped to the post in qualifying by the flying Mercedes of George Russell, taking his maiden pole.
Even so, the Ferraris were distinctly faster in race trim, with leading rivals Red Bull struggling on the Hungaroring. Sergio Perez did not even make the final cut in qualifying (starting 11th), and his Dutch teammate abandoned his final run with diminishing power from his Honda engine, ending up tenth on the grid.
Lando Norris qualified fourth for McLaren, ahead of Alpine drivers Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso (after the race, the Spaniard announced his move to Aston Martin next year) and Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes). With the threat of rain hanging over the circuit, the lights went out, and Russell, on soft tyres, defended his lead vigorously from the Ferrari duo (both on mediums) into the first corner.
Hamilton cleared the Alpines to move up to fifth, with Verstappen already in eighth, followed by his Mexican teammate. A virtual safety car – for contact between Kevin Magnussen (Haas) and Danni Ricciardo (McLaren), as well as Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel (who announced his retirement before the Grand Prix) and Alex Albon (Williams) – momentarily slowed the field’s progress, and at the restart, Russell again got the jump on the Ferraris.
Hamilton, showing excellent pace, persistently harassed Norris, with Verstappen and Perez badgering the Alpines of Ocon and Alonso. Both Red Bull drivers passed the Alpines within three laps, and Verstappen edged closer to Hamilton and Norris, who appeared to be struggling on his soft tyres.
On Lap 12, Hamilton breezed past the McLaren, soon followed by the Red Bull duo, but at the front, Russell still maintained a gap of 2.5 seconds over Sainz. The Spaniard soon received the hurry-up from the Scuderia (and his teammate) and closed the gap to 1.2 seconds by Lap 15. He was then called to the box but remained out on the track. Mercedes, however, fell for the ruse and pitted Russell from the lead.
Sainz pitted two laps later, but following a slow stop, he found himself behind the Alpine of Ocon. While he cleared the Frenchman quickly, it cost him time. Leclerc was now comfortably in the lead, 11.5s ahead of Hamilton and another 7.5s ahead of Russell.
However, Verstappen blitzed the sectors after his first pit stop and swiftly moved up to fourth. His pace threatened Leclerc’s position, and the Monegasque driver pitted for medium tyres, emerging ahead of Sainz and not far behind Russell, who was in the lead once again.
Meanwhile, after pitting for hard compound tyres, the Alpines immediately started falling off the pace and into the clutches of Ricciardo’s McLaren and the Aston Martins of Lance Stroll and Vettel. Leclerc, meanwhile, was on a charge and, by Lap 27, was within DRS range of Russell.
The two engaged in an entertaining tussle, with the Mercedes driver skilfully defending his position, but on Lap 31, Leclerc secured his passing move. Their tussle allowed Sainz and Verstappen to catch up, but Leclerc then started to stretch the Ferrari’s legs – extending his lead to 4.8 seconds by Lap 39.
Rolling the Dice
Red Bull then rolled the dice, pitting Verstappen. Ferrari reacted by pitting Leclerc, even though he made it clear that he was still comfortable on his set of medium tyres. For some inexplicable reason, the Scuderia fitted hard tyres, which, as proved by the Alpines’ pace, was not the wisest decision.
Verstappen, now past Russell, was swiftly catching up to Leclerc. On Lap 41, he glided past the Ferrari driver, struggling for pace on cold hard tyres. Sainz was still ahead of Hamilton, but Verstappen was now in a potential race-leading position, thanks to Red Bull’s brilliant strategy.
The Dutchman almost threw it away with a quick 360-degree spin in the penultimate corner. Still, even as Leclerc passed him again and Russell challenged him, he quickly recovered, passing the Ferrari driver once again on Lap 45. Another slow stop for Sainz (for soft tyres) saw him slip back to fifth, with Hamilton in the lead.
The Briton then pitted and emerged behind Sainz, while Russell challenged the struggling Leclerc and passed him on Lap 54. The Scuderia then pitted Leclerc again – and he emerged in sixth position behind Perez. Hamilton, now the fastest man on the track, passed Sainz and set off after his teammate, while Verstappen enjoyed the comfortable position out in front.
With five laps to go, Hamilton passed Russel for second position, with Verstappen still comfortably leading and winning by nearly eight seconds. With Russell completing the podium, it was a mirror image of the result at the French Grand Prix – another race that cost the Scuderia dearly when Leclerc spun into the barriers while comfortably leading the race.
This mistake, as well as a string of Ferrari failures, including mechanical woes and the team’s farcical strategy in Hungary, as well as a resurgence by Mercedes, has resulted in Leclerc’s championship opportunities slipping away, with Verstappen now leading the drivers’ championship by a massive margin with only nine races remaining.
Hungarian Formula 1 Grand Prix
1. Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing 1:39:35.912
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +7.834s
3. George Russell Mercedes +12.337s
4. Carlos Sainz Ferrari +14.579s
5. Sergio Perez Red Bull Racing +15.688s
Points Standings (After Hungarian F1 Grand Prix)
Formula One World Drivers’ Championship
1. Verstappen (Red Bull Racing) 258
2. Leclerc (Ferrari) 178
3. Perez (Red Bull Racing) 173
4. Russell (Mercedes) 158
5. Sainz (Ferrari) 156
Formula One World Constructors’ Championship
1. Red Bull Racing 431
2. Ferrari 334
3. Mercedes 304
4. Alpine 99
5. McLaren 95
Report by Ferdi de Vos | Images © Ferrari F1/Red Bull F1/Getty Images/Mercedes-F1/LAT