By: Sergio Álvarez
Yes, we agree, there was no surprise at the Hungaroring. You could smell the final result even from the plantations of the countryside at Mogyorod, while you were approaching the track complex. The twisty Hungarian layout was going to suit the Ferrari SF70-H as well as the high-speed corners of Silverstone had been kind to the traits of the Mercedes W08. Remember Monaco?
For Mercedes, it almost became the perfect damage limitation job, nonetheless. Lewis Hamilton could have left the Hungarian GP with the smallest possible deficit despite his problems to commit to the entry of corners with the aggressiveness that he tends to apply, but for a gentlemanly gesture that enabled Valtteri Bottas to recover the podium position that he had ‘lent’ to his title-contender teammate. If you take into account that Bottas had already lost almost 10 seconds to Hamilton by that time, it’s amazing how nobody at Mercedes imposed a target distance into which Bottas should have stayed. Sebastian Vettel now enjoys the fact that he has gone on holidays with a margin over Hamilton of 14 points, instead of the 11 points of difference that he would be facing if Hamilton had maintained the third place gifted by the other Mercedes.
But let’s tell the whole Hungarian story. Temperatures started to rise on Saturday and they exacerbated the Achilles heel of Mercedes. Judging by Friday performances, a three-way fight between the top teams for the pole position was on the cards, but finally nobody was able to mount a serious challenge to Ferrari in Q3. It consisted of a duel between Vettel (getting it right in his first attempt, getting it wrong at Sector 3 in his second attempt) and Räikkönen, the latter losing pole for a small braking misjudgement in the chicane. Oh dear, how much he still must be lamenting it. Bottas got surprisingly close, almost as surprising as was the small margin between the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and a Hamilton that was really struggling. He had to abort one of his Q3 laps and never felt comfortable during qualifying.
At this stage, Mercedes still had a card that played close to its chest: it was its rhythm with the soft compound. Come Sunday, Hamilton warned on the radio that he did not believe that the Super Softs were going to last half the race and consequently they would not allow him to do a single stop. But then the Red Bulls clashed on the first lap and the incident dissipated any concerns about the Milton Keynes cars undercutting the Silver Arrows.
(The place where this key moment happened, Turn 3, was the viewpoint from where Support Series journalists watched the F1 race. I was well aware in advance that for sure any attrition at the Hungaroring would happen at that corner, and there was no surprise for me when the polemics of the race imploded right there, nor when Alonso overtook Sainz around the outside. However, I opted to renounce to the witnessing of it all, considering that I would have plenty of time to watch F1 cars round there on the following week of testing. I finally watched the race from the point where Intermediate 2 is placed, what at least allowed me to watch how Mercedes protégé Ocon slightly impeded the progress of Hamilton, and the subsequent hand agitation of the British champion.)
What the Safety Car ultimately did was to allow a one-stop race for everyone at the front. When Vettel started to slow down his pace, it was not a matter of taking care of his Super Softs, but of a strange steering failure that provoked a predilection for the car to go towards the left on the straights. Was Ferrari going to surrender one of its best chances to recover its Drivers Championship advantage?
But this is Hungaroring, mind you. Put a Kimi between you and the Mercs and challenge them to overtake him in first place. Naturally, Räikkönen’s frustration could be felt from the general admission viewpoints, but Ferrari has made up its mind about how to manage those delicate situations, now that we are starting the second half of the season. Just beyond them, a quicker Hamilton (once everybody was on Softs) had made the promise of letting Bottas past if the Finn let him by at this stage, in order to put more pressure on the Ferraris. But with less than 10 laps to go, Hamilton admitted on the radio that his only chance was to force a mistake of the red cars. Such slow was the pace of the Top 4 imposed by Seb Vettel, that it was McLaren’s Fernando Alonso who took a last minute fastest lap.
Time will tell if Hamilton was too gentle for his own good. He kept his promise and lost three golden points in what has become a hard-fought championship, but this action could pay back at the end of the year if Lewis needs critical help and Bottas has a good memory.
But the eyes of Iberianmph were on GP3 and F2 more than ever. And it was worth it, because the spectacular incident between Markelov and Rowland in the final stages of the feature race was the typical controversy about who had turned the steering wheel before the other guy. Markelov tried a risky move that put him on the grass when Rowland committed to his defense. Once there, the Russian lost all control and ended up against the tyre barrier of Turn 1. It reminded people of Schumacher squeezing Barrichello against the pit wall a few metres before the point where this F2 clash took place; but I would go for comparing it with last year’s coming together between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in the first lap of the Spanish GP. On Sunday, sprint race maestro Nobuharu Matsushita claimed his second victory of the year in the short distance format. Trident’s Luca Ghiotto looked like a threat to him in the first laps, but his tyres surrendered well before those of his competitors. At least Ghiotto forced Matsushita into a mistake at Turn 4, where he clinched the outside kerb and went slightly wide. The Japanese driver admitted to have pushed too hard while trying to make a gap.
Mr. Leclerc? All his weekend was compromised by a technical infringement by the Prema team that stripped them of what would have been a record string of poles in F2. But it was a pleasure to see him recovering places and fighting through the grid. It proved that the Monégasque driver from the Ferrari Academy has the full set of skills.
Meanwhile, GP3 hosted a lacklustre weekend for the leader of the championship, George Russell, another young driver of the Mercedes programme. He was not able to start in Saturday’s race, allowing all of his ART team-mates (and championship rivals) onto the podium. Third-placed Anthoine Hubert (a hard fought podium after a fight with Boccolacci) later admitted to Iberianmph that he did fear the possibility of Russell’s problem replicating on his car, but it did not bother him that much provided that it was something out of his control.
The sprint race on Sunday resulted in a Top 4 covered by all the Trident drivers, the winner being arguably the most improved GP3 driver of the year, a certain Giuliano Alesi.
All the fights are set for the showdowns of GP3, F2 and F1 seasons… Watch this space.