The Hungarian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Racer.com journalist Chris Medland.
Max Verstappen claimed his first career F1 pole with a scintillating lap of the Hungaroring, but his bid for victory was thwarted by championship leader Lewis Hamilton, who strategised his way past the Dutchman with an unexpected second stop.
It was a reward not only for risk but also for Mercedes and Hamilton’s excellent feel for the Pirelli tyres on a weekend that offered little time for practice owing to inclement Friday weather.
For the second weekend in a row teams started the race with limited useful practice data, but whereas in Germany extreme heat merely made practice times unrepresentative, in Hungary rain deterred drivers from undertaking long-run simulations in the first place.
Predicting strategy was therefore difficult, with teams and drivers required to feel their way through the race as it happened.
The difficulty in overtaking at this circuit is one factor that would weigh on any potential strategy, however. Even if a two-stop strategy were to be the theoretically fastest way to the flag, the risk of falling behind slower cars and being unable to pass them is too great here to make stopping more than once an attractive strategy in most situations — and indeed only three drivers undertook a two-stop race at the weekend.
The race-winning move
Despite its usual unattractiveness, the race was won by Hamilton making two pit stops.
His first stop for hards on lap 31, six laps later than Verstappen’s stop for the same compound, was the first critical part of the winning strategy, enabling the Briton to aggressively push Verstappen between laps 33 and 39. This had a deleterious impact on the Dutchman’s tyres, which were expected to run the full 45 laps to the end.
At this stage a second stop wasn’t on the cards — it wasn’t until the Mercedes car had to back off to keep brake temperatures and wear under control that the German marque’s strategists started considering an alternative path forward for their driver.
The second stop turned out to be the knockout punch. Whereas making more than one stop is normally unattractive, the sheer pace of the Red Bull Racing and Mercedes cars was so great that Hamilton was able to make his second tyre change without losing second place, allowing him an unimpeded run towards Verstappen in an aggressive 21-lap chase for victory.
The gap was 20 seconds on pit exit, giving Hamilton a required delta of a second per lap to have a shot at a last-lap pass. His initial pace was good, but a combination of traffic and Verstappen turning up the wick between laps 52 and 56 slowed his progress, seemingly putting the target out of reach.
“We motivated him over the radio,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “There’s one thing his father once said to me: ‘There’s just one sentence you need, and it’s, “You can do it”’. And we knew that he could do it.
“Even if the planner said we were running out of laps, we felt that by telling him that he would be catching him, we would maybe help, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Once clear of traffic, Hamilton rapidly closed the gap to be within five seconds on lap 63. By now Verstappen’s tyres were hurting from being pushed in his ultimately vain attempt to keep Hamilton at bay, and once Mercedes took the lead on lap 67, the Dutchman made a second stop of his own to get off his dead rubber.
Bottas’s slow recovery
Bottas waited until lap five to stop, with him and the team assessing the damage to his front win in the meanwhile. He fell to last and adopted the hard tyre in an attempt to run to the end, but his recovery was halted by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who was effectively on the same strategy, having started last on the hard compound with the intention of running long.
He was held up until lap 32, by which time his tyres were too far gone to pass the cars between him and fifth place, triggering his second stop on lap 46. That netted him the final gain of Lando Norris, leaving him in a disappointing eighth place.
Ferrari splits strategy with nothing to lose
Behind the battle for the lead Ferrari existed in a race of its own, with Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel too slow to challenge for victory but too fast to fall into the clutches of the midfield.
With nothing to lose but with the potential for something to gain were the leaders to crash or run into technical trouble, Ferrari split Leclerc and Vettel’s strategies, with the Monegasque receiving the convention medium-hard one-stop race and Vettel running with a medium-soft strategy.
Leclerc stopped on lap 27 and by lap 38 was only five seconds behind Vettel, who stopped on the following lap. Much like Hamilton, his deficit fell to 20 seconds, but by lap 67 he was on the sister car’s gearbox and made a move for position on the following tour.
As was the case with Hamilton, the more aggressive strategy paid off, albeit also with the benefit of Vettel not falling behind any other cars on pit exit, making it a straight fight for his desired position.
Slow stop costs Norris
McLaren has cemented its place as the leading midfield team over recent rounds, but it lost maximum points in Budapest due to a simple pit stop error.
Carlos Sainz jumped Lando Norris at the start to lead the rookie in places five and sixth after Bottas’s pit stop in the opening stint, but a slow rear-left change cost him approximately five seconds to Pierre Gasly, who stopped on the same lap, and Kimi Raikkonen who stopped one lap later. Both jumped him, demoting him to eighth.
Norris deftly held back Valtteri Bottas after his pit stop until the Finn made a second stop for the medium tyre, as per Hamilton’s strategy, and used the fresher rubber to pass him on lap 63, dropping him to ninth.
Undercut costs Kimi
Pierre Gasly had a particularly disappointing day for Red Bull Racing, falling from sixth to ninth at lights-out and struggling to make much of an impact on the slower midfield cars.
The Frenchman recovered three places by three distinct means. First, he was bumped up one place by Bottas’s early pit stop; second, he was a beneficiary from Lando Norris’s slow stop, gaining a place; and third, he undercut Kimi Raikkonen, stopping on lap 28 to the Finn’s lap 29, to make it back to sixth place.
Gasly should have finished at least ahead of Carlos Sainz in fifth, if not third ahead of the Ferrari cars that were substantially slower than his RB15.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 31, hard (new) to lap 48, medium (used) to lap 70.