Ocon wins but Hamilton happiest at halfway mark

Esteban Ocon won his maiden grand prix, but an exhausted Lewis Hamilton left Hungary happiest, having turned a once massive title deficit into a slender lead.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

This is a Formula 1 season to remember.

The Hungarian Grand Prix ended the first half of the campaign with an unforgettable bang – that bang having reverberated from another first lap crash to Esteban Ocon claiming a maiden win, which enabled Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes to reassert control on the championship for the first time since early May.

Ocon will embark on his summer holiday satisfied to have finally made good on his young promise. The Frenchman debuted to much fanfare part of the way through 2016, having been prodigiously successful through a junior career that included defeated Max Verstappen to the 2014 Formula 3 title.

But his F1 career was troubled, and by 2019 he was left without a seat thanks to backroom politicking working against his Mercedes affiliation. His return in 2020 was rusty, and few rated his chances with the returning Fernando Alonso as his teammate this year.

Yet the 24-year-old has stood his ground ably such that he was rewarded with a three-year contract just five rounds in, and he repaid the faith with the Enstone team’s first win since 2013.

His race-long defence against four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in the faster Aston Martin car made the victory sweeter, and Alonso’s duel with Lewis Hamilton, decisive in running down the lap counter for the Briton’s charge up the field, gave the grand prix and old-school spectacle value almost unfamiliar in the perfection-driven modern Formula 1.

For 11 laps the two world champions engaged in a titanic battle. Alonso put on a masterclass of defensive driving, hanging on the key apexes and running Hamilton as wide as permissible in hard-but-fair combat. To Hamilton the blue Alpine must have looked twice as wide as any other car, his two-second-plus advantage reduced to nothing in the face of the Spaniard’s obstinance.

Eventually the effort of keeping back the rampaging Hamilton tipped Alonso into the smallest of errors at the first turn. Hamilton seized his opportunity and thrust forward, but he could finish only third on the road, which became second after Vettel was disqualified for failing to provide the required fuel sample.

But a podium was as good as could have been hoped for from last after five laps. The Briton had escaped the five-car pile-up on the wet first lap, but the track had dried by the time the race was restarted after a half-hour clean-up, and the Briton was the only one of the 14 remaining cars not to switch to slick tyres.

The comical image of Hamilton lining up as the only car on the restart grid while everyone else was in the pit lane won’t easily be forgotten.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff described it as karma for the first-lap crash caused by his teammate, Valtteri Bottas. The Finn had botched his start in the slick conditions and misjudged the braking zone in his eagerness to recover, spearing into the back of Lando Norris, who struck then title leader Max Verstappen while Bottas wiped out his Red Bull Racing partner, Sergio Perez.

Perez retired with a broken engine, while Verstappen suffered so much damage he could manage only two points for ninth. For the second race running a Mercedes had wiped a Red Bull off the track.

Hamilton’s second place was enough to complete a 41-point turnaround in his championship fortunes to lead the title chase by eight points. Mercedes is back on top of Red Bull Racing by 12.

A championship fight that seemed perilously close to a Verstappen walkover has been revived with new vigour after a Hungarian thriller, and with 12 rounds remaining crammed into 15 weeks, the race to the finale in December has all the hallmarks of a classic.