Lewis Hamilton is not only poised to take grand prix victory 100 when he starts the Hungarian Grand Prix from pole, but the Briton is facing the unlikely chance to retake the championship lead from Max Verstappen in time for the midseason break.
Hamilton’s championship campaign has been revolutionised dramatically in the last 14 days. On Sunday morning at the British Grand Prix Hamilton had had pole taken off him by a fast-starting Verstappen in sprint qualifying and was staring down the barrel of painful extension of his title deficit.
Fast-forward two weeks, a lap-one crash at Silverstone and sizzling-hot qualifying hour in Budapest and Hamilton trails by just eight points, has Bottas starting alongside him on the front row and has Verstappen in third on the inferior tyre strategy.
If the top three finish in qualifying order, Hamilton will take a two-point lead into the midseason break, while Mercedes will jump back ahead of Red Bull Racing by 12 points.
And the circumstances are as surprising as the situation itself. Red Bull Racing had mercilessly flogged Mercedes at the two races in Austria, and though an update for the German marque had tightened the fight in Britain, the Milton Keynes squad still appeared to have the faster package overall.
Undoubtedly Mercedes had more performance to squeeze from its updates, but the Hungaroring should also have favoured the RB16B, which is the stronger slow-speed performer. While it’s true that Red Bull Racing struggled badly for balance here last season, handing Mercedes one of its most dominant wins of the year, and also that modern F1 machinery has sped up this track, the ease with which Hamilton accounted for Verstappen in qualifying was unexpected.
It was so easy in fact that Mercedes was the only team confident of using the medium tyre in Q2, earning it a healthy slice of strategic flexibility, while Verstappen and Sergio Perez in fourth will start on the brittle softs.
It’s just the latest fascinating twist in the enthralling 2021 F1 season.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
|15||Carlos SAINZ||No time|
|20||Mick SCHUMACHER||No time|
Distance: 4.381 kilometres
Lap record: 1:16.621 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Track record: 1:13.447 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: high
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: low
Downforce: very high
Safety car probability: 20 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 365 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.7 seconds
Fuel consumption: medium
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.7 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.9 seconds
Track position at the end of the first lap is key at the Hungaroring, where the narrow and twisty old-school layout does little to make overtaking easy without a substantial pace advantage. Pole position certainly puts Hamilton in the box seat to control the race, but the race start is also his principal weakness this weekend.
The Briton estimates his medium tyre will give away around five metres on the run to turn one relative to the soft compound. Though there’s a gap of 16 metres between him and Verstappen directly behind, Hamilton’s lacklustre start record from recent races presents the Dutchman with a potential opportunity.
If he managed to take the lead, he could potentially pull off a one-stop race. It’s far easy to control the race at a slow pace at this circuit, which could allow Verstappen to extend to the one-stop window, though he would leave himself open to an undercut from a faster following Mercedes.
Can we expect a repeat of the first lap of Silverstone, both drivers battling hard knowing the value of the lead at the last corner? A crucial difference is the presence of Bottas in second, for whom a decent start would act as a useful block against Verstappen’s forward forays. Undoubtedly Mercedes will coordinate its drivers off the line pre-race to ensure Bottas is maximally useful not only into the first turn but also strategically through the race.
But even in the thick of the grand prix, assuming positions remains as per the grid, it’s difficult to see how Red Bull Racing can pressure for the lead. The soft tyre is extremely prone to overheating in the hot Budapest summer, with the track surface registering above 60°C in both afternoon sessions so far this weekend. It almost certainly locks Verstappen into a two-stop race, which even if theoretically on par with the one-stop open to Hamilton, will force Verstappen to deal with traffic twice during the race, costing him valuable time which in turn will deprive him of the grip advantage he’ll need to force a move.
Hamilton, on the other hand, will have the advantage of having the one-stop open to him, and Mercedes will also be able to observe how the soft deals in the early heat if a two-stop strategy proves a useful alternative. Being able to run long and potentially keep track position at the pit window gives Mercedes a better chance of timing a stop with the rain hanging around on the radar, though the thunderstorms have proved unpredictable in their arrival this weekend.
Track position is equally important in the lower reaches of the top 10, where getting as far up the road as possible before the first stop window will be crucial to minimising the number of one-stopping bottom-10 starters as possible. The undercut to the medium tyre will be effective from around lap 15, but an undercut to the hard tyre will be difficult to achieve without an aggressive level of wear.
Those starting outside the top 10 will have the race come to them in a one-stop scenario, particularly Daniel Ricciardo and Lance Stroll, nominally out of the position in 11th and 12th. They will be able to rise into the two-stopping midfielders in the middle of the race, though both will be vulnerable later on, when their tyres lose performance to those on newer rubber.