Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have long exhausted the range of superlatives available to describe their various weekends of domination, and Anglo-German pairing dealt another sobering blow to those hoping for a close title fight at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Hamilton was flawless throughout the weekend. His pole time was a new track record, his lap having squeezed the maximum from his W11, as evidenced by the almost full second gap between him and the closest non-Mercedes challenger, Racing Point’s Lance Stroll.
His race was similarly masterful. He grew his advantage to more than three seconds on the damp opening lap, and once he was on slicks he was untouchable, quick enough to even make a late stop for softs to take the point for fastest lap.
It was a foreboding weekend for anyone with designs on blocking Hamilton from equalling Michael Schumacher’s record seven titles.
The Hungarian Grand Prix was the second weekend in succession affected by rain, this time the downpour coming on Friday, effectively washing out FP2, and on Sunday before the race.
The lack of representative practice on Friday meant comprehensive long-run data was hard to come by, and the downpour that day and on Sunday morning meant the track was perpetually green, turning the usually stable Hungaroring into a treacherously green circuit.
Mercedes had no problems, but Red Bull Racing, expected to challenge at a historically strong circuit for the Milton Keynes team, was missing. Aero upgrades failed to make a mark and instead caused massive instability in an already nervous car.
Breaking the Friday curfew to make further tweaks did nothing to prevent a dismal qualifying performance, leaving the team out of victory contention, allowing Racing Point to assume the mantle of second-fastest team.
But rain on Sunday morning, officially turning the race wet, offered the Bulls salvation, if only just.
Pole was crucial to Hamilton’s win, edging teammate Bottas into second on the grid by a tenth of a second. It kept him out of the early chaos of the damp first lap.
Holding the lead after switching to slicks was essentially job done, and the gap he built before his first stop on lap 37 was so large and his feel for the tyres so secure that a second set of used mediums was enough to get him to the end.
Or, rather, it would have been — his gap was so large in the final 10 laps that a switch to used softs on lap 66 was made without losing him the lead, allowing him to snatch a bonus point for fastest lap and cap off a complete weekend.
Hamilton was helped by a lack of pressure from Valtteri Bottas. The Finn was close in qualifying, but a false start on the grid — he said he was thrown by a light on his dash when all five red lights were on for the race start — dropped him to seventh on the first lap and forced him into a long recovery drive.
He gained no places with the switch to slicks but was up to fourth behind Lance Stroll by lap 17. By lap 22 he was within two seconds of the Racing Point, but such was the pink car’s pace in Budapest that Bottas could find a way past.
The Finn pulled the undercut trigger with another set of mediums on lap 33. His deficit to Stroll was 0.6 seconds, and his out lap guaranteed him Stroll’s third place. The Canadian emerged seven seconds in arrears after his stop on lap 35.
When Verstappen made his own stop on lap 36 for a set of hards he emerged with an eight second lead on Bottas, which the Mercedes driver closed to nothing on lap 46.
Mercedes converted from a marginal one-stop strategy to a two stop on lap 49, pitting Bottas for hards. The team was looking for one of two outcomes: either Verstappen felt the need to pit, falling into the undercut trap, or he would run out of tyres towards the end and be easy meat for Bottas.
With nothing to lose, Red Bull Racing left Verstappen out in a carbon copy of his battle for the lead with Hamilton one season earlier. Bottas caught him with two laps to go, but with the best of his tyres used and with lapped traffic making the already narrow track difficult to navigate, the Mercedes driver ran out of laps to get the pass done and settled for third.
That Verstappen was in a position to secure second place was a miracle on its own given the Dutchman had crashed his car on the way to the grid from pit lane.
Verstappen slid into the barriers at turn 12 in the greasy conditions breaking his front wing and front-left corner of the car. He returned to the grid expecting to be withdrawn from the race, but his mechanics undertook repairs that, according to team boos Christian Horner, would have ordinarily taken 90 minutes in less than 20, allowing him to start from the grid.
In race trim the problems that afflicted the car in qualifying, leaving him seventh, weren’t nearly as evident. A sizzling start put him up to third behind Hamilton and Stroll, and an inspired call to stay out on intermediate tyres til lap four, thereby avoiding pit lane chaos on lap three, when most others made their stops, meant he jumped to second on the other side.
He wasn’t a match for Hamilton’s pace, but now was Stroll a match for his, allowing him to establish himself in second and ride out Bottas’s late charge.
Alex Albon similarly found renewed pace in race trim. Immensely frustrated to start 13th, he jumped to ninth after the switch to slicks and passed both Ferrari drivers to run seventh at the end of his first stint. He was undercut by Vettel for the final stint, but the RB16’s pace on five-lap-younger tyres enabled him to chase down the German on lap 66 for what by then was fifth place.
The rain of Sunday morning had stopped in time for the race, and by the time the cars took to the grid the circuit was right on the cusp of being ready for slicks.
Everyone took wet tyres to the grid, but on the formation lap, but with a dry line clear, both Haas drivers were called into the pits to switch to the medium tyre, trading slicks for a pit lane start. They’d both also receive 10-second penalties for being instructed by their team before lights-out, illegal under the regulations.
It was nonetheless a masterstroke. The rest of the field swapped onto slicks by lap four, leaving Magnussen and Grosjean third and fourth on the road.
The difference thereafter was made by Magnussen’s stubborn defensive driving that kept him fifth by his first pit stop. He emerged from pit lane still in the points and was able to grind out a result in the midfield, which he said proves the car is more competitive in race trim.
Grosjean defended less ably, complaining of front wing damage caused by Alex Albon as the Thai passed him, and was almost 20 seconds and six places behind his teammate at his own stop and finished 15th.
Penalties dropped Magnussen and Grosjean to 10th and 16th respectively.
Rain threatened to return to the Hungaroring for the duration of the race, keeping team and drivers primed for a switch back to wet-weather tyres.
Ferrari was one team to overtly gamble on early rain, switching Charles Leclerc from intermediates to softs rather than mediums. The softs degraded rapidly on the punishing and green circuit, but the team figured he wouldn’t need them long if another stop was imminent.
But the rain stayed away and Leclerc was forced to make another stop on lap 20, effectively ruining his race on the spot. He dropped into the lower reaches of the field and recovered only to 11th by the flag.
Lewis Hamilton: intermediate (new) to lap 3, medium (new) to lap 37, medium (used) to lap 66, soft (used) to lap 70.