The Hungarian Grand Prix, fraught with tension and laden with championship significance, was a fitting crescendo to the first half of the season.
Sebastian Vettel converted a dominant pole position into victory to stretch his title lead to 14 points over Lewis Hamilton heading into the midseason break, but it was the way he won the race — and the way Hamilton lost it — that has set the tone for the year’s closing acts.
The Budapest race was flawless for neither Ferrari nor Mercedes. Vettel’s car, victorious though it was, was hamstrung by steering problems from lap one, and intermittent cuts to telemetry and communication were plaguing the Mercedes garages, leaving the team and the drivers flying blind for much of the afternoon.
With the exception of Max Verstappen’s turn-two lock-up that punted Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo out of the race — the Dutchman received a 10-second penalty and apologised meekly afterwards — both Ferrari and Mercedes were forced to hold station.
Bit by bit, however, news of Vettel’s troubles made its way to Mercedes, and piece by piece Mercedes, its drivers in third and fourth, was able to construct a clear picture of the race.
The Silver Arrows smelt blood, and Ferrari knew its position was vulnerable.
With Kimi Räikkönen bottled up behind Vettel’s stricken car Ferrari had a choice to make: leave Vettel to fend off his rivals and allow Räikkönen to prance into the lead and guarantee a win for the Italians, or deploy Kimi into the rear-gunner role and attempt to defend a much-needed victory for Sebastian’s championship campaign.
Ferrari, having historically put more stock in winning the drivers title, made the obvious choice and gambled almost certain victory on Räikkönen’s defensive capabilities, much to the Finn’s chagrin.
Mercedes engaged in its own team tactics, moving aside Valtteri Bottas, who was struggling on the soft tyre at the time, to allow Hamilton to harass the red cars at the front, with the caveat that the places would be reversed if the Briton proved unsuccessful.
For the last 10 laps Hamilton harried Räikkönen for second place, but the Finn, all the while protesting over team radio that the strategy was compromising his race, was steadfast in defence.
Defeated on the hard-to-pass circuit, Hamilton and Bottas engaged in some deft on-track teamwork to swap places at the final turn of the final lap, defending against a resurgent Verstappen in the process. Bottas was returned to the podium, but Hamilton had surrendered three precious championship points.
It was an instructive illustration of the 2017 championship’s topography after 11 races.
“The truth is that if we miss out on the championship by those two or three points, everybody would say it is because of Budapest,” Toto Wolff reflected after the race. “Nevertheless, I think long term that standing by what you say and standing by your values is going to make us win more championships.
“Sometimes doing it the right way and standing by your values is very tough, and it was today. But what can I say? If you are not fast enough, at least you are sportsmanlike.”
It’s an attitude Mercedes carried throughout its dominant 2014–16 era when it faced no credible opposition, but with Ferrari now fast enough to win races, today’s picture is dramatically different.
Ferrari clearly does not share Mercedes’s sentiment, and indeed both Ferrari and Vettel will delight in Hamilton’s inability to limit the damage to his points tally.
For Ferrari it’s a matter of one for all; for Mercedes it’s all for one. The closing nine rounds of the championship will decide which philosophy can deliver a Formula One world championship.