Sebastian Vettel limps to critical Budapest victory

Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen celebrate on the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix podium.

Sebastian Vettel has nursed his damaged Ferrari car to a championship-stabilising victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

The race should have been a breeze for the Scuderia, with both Vettel and teammate Kimi Räikkönen pulling away cleanly from the front row of the grid and building a small lead in the first stint.

Behind the red cars, however, was a rush at the first two turns.

Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo tussled with the slow-starting Mercedes into turn one, but the pair ended up colliding at turn two.

Verstappen locked up in the braking zone, knocking teammate Daniel Ricciardo off the circuit.

The whack was enough to spring a hydraulic leak in the Australian’s RB13, putting him out of the race.

It immediately prompted a safety car to collect the stricken machine and clean the fluid from the track. Verstappen was handed a 10-second time penalty for the overreach.

“It was amateur to say the least,” Ricciardo fumed to UK’s Sky Sports F1. “There was no room to pass.

“I don’t think he likes it when a teammate gets in front. You’ve got the whole race to try and repair the mistake, but the pass was never on.”

The safety car restart offered little in the way of position changes amongst the five remaining front-runners. Hamilton attempted to challenge Verstappen for his fourth place, but the Briton backed off, noting any move on the Dutchman would be too risky for his race.

Bottas and Hamilton, then Vettel and Räikkönen, stopped one at a time between laps 31 and 34, with Räikkönen, feeling switched on in the car, attempting to ‘overcut’ Vettel by closing up on the German before the window and acing his in-lap.

The Finn’s plan almost worked, falling short by a few fractions of a second, and he noted on team radio that he had the pace to stay out and take the lead.

This simmering tension was brought to boil on lap 40 when it became obvious Sebastian Vettel was suffering handling problems. Räikkönen complained as much over team radio, noting that Bottas and Hamilton were catching up from behind.

Neither Ferrari was able to use the kerbs, and the Mercedes drivers smelt blood — but both were suffering from radio issues that meant the team couldn’t coordinate their attack until lap 45, when communication was restored.

Mercedes’s first order of business was to order Bottas aside on lap 46 to Hamilton’s advantage, allowing the Briton a chance to attack Räikkönen and chief title rival Vettel for the lead.

Hamilton was immediately one second per lap faster than the Ferraris and 0.7 seconds quicker than his teammate, and by lap 53 the gap to Räikkönen was down to 1.5 seconds.

Hamilton harried Räikkönen for the five laps he was allotted by his team before he would be asked to switch back with Bottas, with Räikkönen badgering the Ferrari pit wall that his race was being ruined bottled behind Vettel.

Though his pleas fell on deaf ears, Ferrari’s gambling of its one-two for Vettel’s victory worked. Though Hamilton was granted an additional five laps, he was unable to find a way past on the difficult-to-overtake circuit, securing Ferrari its one-two finish.

“It was a really difficult race,” Vettel said relievedly. “Maybe it didn’t look like it, but I had my hands full from three or four laps after the safety car.”

“The steering started going sideways. I stayed off the kerbs to save the car.

“Towards the end it did come back a bit, but I really had to stay focussed the whole race.”

The German acknowledged that he had made life difficult for Räikkönen, who, with a 79-point championship deficit, would never have been allowed make a pass for the lead lest he affect Vettel’s title chances.

“I didn’t do a favour for Kimi. I couldn’t go faster [but] to be honest it doesn’t matter now, because we won the race.”

Räikkönen played a solid team game on the podium, noting that he contributed to a strong team result.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t get the win, but we won as a team,” he said. “I had a great car today … I had a good start but didn’t want to force the issue.

“After that I kept following for 70 laps. Obviously I wanted to win, but it’s great for the team.”

With the Ferrari one-two impenetrable, Hamilton attempted to give his podium place back to Bottas, but the race had planned a final twist: Max Verstappen, after running an impressively long first stint on the supersoft tyre to lap 43, was exhibiting extremely strong pace on his new soft compound and had Bottas’s fourth place in his sights.

The final three laps were fraught for Bottas and the Mercedes team, which was adamant about swapping its drivers but conscious Verstappen’s pace could threaten its place on the podium.

Bottas expertly judged his defence, however, and a centimetre-perfect piece of on-track teamwork saw positions change back on the apex of the final corner of the race, keeping Verstappen at bay in fifth.

“In the end I was getting a little bit worried as the gap [to Hamilton] was increasing,” Bottas said on the podium. “Thanks to Lewis for keeping the promise and letting me by at the end, because I gave him the shot to get by and pass the Ferraris.

“We couldn’t finish any better. I just want to thank the team.”

Sebastian Vettel carries an increased 14-point lead over Lewis Hamilton into the midseason break, with Bottas 32 points behind in the standings, and Ferrari has closed its gap to Mercedes in the constructors standings to 39 points.