Esteban Ocon scored his maiden Formula 1 victory after a chaotic first lap in a wild Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Frenchman, who hasn’t won a motor race since his 2015 GP3 campaign, cruised through the first-turn carnage on the first lap to hold second during the lengthy red flag, and he inherited second place on lap five after pole-getter Lewis Hamilton was forced to switch to slicks.
He led all but two laps around his pit stop thereafter, defending against Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel throughout, including through some slick work by his pit mechanics, to claim his long-awaited first victory.
But he owes thanks to two key players: Alpine teammate Fernando Alonso and Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, who both blocked potentially faster cars from mounting challenges during the truncated 66-lap race.
The Hungarian Grand Prix, run in its traditional European summertime slot before the midseason break, is always a stern challenge. Its series of slow and medium-speed turns are demanding and offer drivers little opportunity to rest, and the invariably hot and humid weather makes the weekend physically punishing in the cockpit.
The mercury was around 30°C all weekend, but in the afternoons the track was double that, which is the sort of surface temperature rarely experienced since the daytime Malaysian Grand Prix on the equator fell off the calendar.
It was the defining challenge for the tyres. The soft tyre barely lasted a full qualifying lap, and finding the right balance even on the medium tyre as the rears wore away through a stint was difficult.
Red Bull Racing, similar to last year, struggled badly in this regard despite the aerodynamic demands playing to the RB16B’s strengths at slower speeds. It meant Mercedes had the upper hand for just about the entire weekend, which it converted into a front-row lockout.
The heat was slightly less oppressive for much of the race, but of substantially more influence was the pre-race downpour that turned the field on its head.
MERCEDES’S COSTLY MISTAKES
Despite Hamilton eventually finishing second, the opening stanza of the race was a forgettable one for Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas misjudged his braking point for the first turn in the wet and took himself, Lando Norris and Sergio Perez out of the race while badly damaging Max Verstappen’s car.
Lance Stroll was doing likewise with Charles Leclerc, damaging Daniel Ricciardo’s car, which combined forced a 30-minute red flag.
The rain stopped and sun shone during the suspension, and when the cars set about on a second reconnaissance lap to the restart grid, all bar Hamilton peeled into the pits for slick tyres.
Hamilton took to what was a one-car grid with his intermediates and was forced to pit at the end of the lap, dropping to 14th and last.
It was a high-profile howler, but Mercedes had its reasons for not stopping Hamilton. For one, its pit box is at the beginning of the pit lane, and with the field bunched up, he would have had to have waited for most of the field to pass him lest he be pinged for an unsafe release, leaving him last or thereabouts anyway.
Staying out, on the other hand, left open the possibility that some other cars would’ve done likewise, gaining him places on whichever took to the grid with him.
It was a lose-lose situation for Hamilton, but the optics of being the only driver to stick with wet-weather rubber made it look worse than it was.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVES
But Hamilton dropping to the back meant Esteban Ocon, who had emerged from the first lap in second place, inherited the lead from Sebastian Vettel and Nicholas Latifi, and ironically it was the slowest of the three cars, Latifi’s Williams, that was most influential in Ocon’s win during the opening stint.
The FW43B is the second-slowest car on the grid — way off the pace of the Alpine and Aston Martin machines ahead — but passing around the Hungaroring is extremely difficult without a substantial pace advantage, usually thanks to a tyre offset. Latifi was therefore a cork in the midfield bottle, and as he defended against Yuki Tsunoda behind, Ocon and Vettel were able to sprint into the distance to build a healthy lead, turning the lead battle exclusive.
By the time Latifi pitted on lap 23, the gap to the leading pair was more than 17 seconds.
This meant that by the timing of Ocon and Vettel’s stops came around, they had only Alonso in their pit window, and at that time the Spaniard had to stop anyway.
Vettel had the quicker car and went for the undercut on lap 36, but his stop was slow at 3.3 seconds. His out-lap was ferocious and just about made up for it, but Ocon had a second in hand from his 2.3-second stop, and he emerged fractionally ahead upon rejoining.
HAMILTON’S AGGRESSIVE RECOVERY
That should have been Ocon’s race sewn up, but Hamilton’s recovery wasn’t to be discounted despite slow early progress through traffic — even for the Mercedes passing was difficult without a tyre offset.
To exploit the pace in the car Hamilton was switched to a two-stop strategy — he was one of only three drivers to try it — which got him out of the pack and into clear air near the back of the field on lap 19. It undercut him past the damaged Verstappen and Ricciardo plus Russell on the following two laps, but more than that, it positioned him perfectly in the field to win places from other drivers as they made their pit stops and pass those on older rubber as he moved forward. Again, this was thanks in part to the packed field behind Latifi.
His second stop on lap 47 cost him only a place to Alonso. He had 22 laps to make up 25 seconds to the lead. In six laps he slashed that to just nine seconds, but his progress was halted by the Spaniard, who put up a fierce defence of position.
These laps were crucial to Hamilton and Ocon’s respective victory chances. The Spaniard rebuffed the Briton’s advances until lap 65, and with five laps remaining Hamilton simply didn’t have the time to close the remaining nine seconds.
He got Sainz for third on lap 67 but crossed the line 0.877 seconds short of Vettel in second and 2.736 seconds short of victory.
SAINZ TRUSTS HIS GUT
Carlos Sainz finished fourth on the road — third after Vettel was disqualified for failing to provide a fuel sample after the race — but he could easily have been sucked into the undercut trap in the first stint had he not backed his feel for the conditions.
Sainz should have taken the restart behind Ocon and Vettel, but shuffling through the pit lane dropped him two places behind Latifi and Yuki Tsunoda, and he couldn’t find a way through in the opening stanza.
Ferrari, seeing first stops unfold behind him triggered by Hamilton, wanted to undercut Sainz past the Williams and AlphaTauri ahead, but the Spaniard insisted he stay out to use the pace he knew he still had in his medium tyres.
Tsunoda and Latifi stopped instead, on laps 22 and 23, but Sainz was allowed to run until lap 32, When he did stop, he’d easily cleared them — in fact he lost only one place, to Fernando Alonso, who at that stage was yet to stop. It paved the way to what eventually became a podium after penalties.
THE WINNER’S STRATEGY
Esteban Ocon: Intermediates (new) to lap 3, mediums (new) to lap 37, hard to lap 70.