The last race before the summer break in the 2018 season and it’s at the Hungaroring Circuit in Hungary. A fast-paced track layout with limited overtaking opportunities that would put Red Bull Racing on the back foot as compared to the quicker cars of Mercedes and Ferrari. As it happens, Sebastian Vettel and this year’s Ferrari would have the pace advantage on this circuit and had won here last season.
During free practice, both Ferrari and Red Bull Racing were setting faster times than either of the Mercedes drivers but things got really mixed up in qualifying thanks to the rain. In the dry and with higher track temperatures, Vettel and Max Verstappen set faster lap times in Q1 before the wet sessions of Q2 and Q3 on the intermediate and wet compound tyres. From Max’s previous outings in the wet, I suspected to see the youngster on the front row but he just could not find the pace and was only seventh fastest. His teammate Daniel Ricciardo was having a hard time himself and could not make it through to Q3 for the second time in a row and would start 12th on the grid. Kimi Raikkonen managed to outqualify Vettel for the first time since Australia this year but it was a Mercedes front row lockout. Lewis Hamilton took pole position with an impeccable fast wet lap and Valtteri Bottas would be starting in second. Even more surprising than Red Bull’s lack of performance was the brilliant drive from Carlos Sainz to qualify 5th fastest in his Renault and for both Toro Rosso Honda cars to be in Q3 with Pierre Gasly starting 6th on the grid.
Race conditions on Sunday were dry and warm, just the way Ferrari would prefer but they’d have a lot of work to do with both cars starting behind the Silver Arrows. Lewis got off to a great start while Vettel was able to get past Kimi in the opening sequence of corners and by then Verstappen was already up into fifth. Expectations were high to see an exciting performance from Ricciardo to make his way up the order but a first corner collision with Marcus Ericcson saw the Red Bull driver drop down a few more places. However, Red Bull’s weekend got much worse when their front-runner, Max, at the 2018 Hungarian GP had to retire on Lap 6 due to an engine problem with some choice words on the team radio to express his frustration. From this point on it would be down to strategy for the championship contenders as Hamilton was starting on the UltraSoft compound, same as Bottas and Raikkonen, and Vettel in P3 on the Soft compound tyre.
When Kimi pitted on Lap 14, it was clear that he was on a two-stop strategy with Bottas pitting on the next lap. By Lap 16 Ricciardo had moved up to seventh and the Aussie was showing off his late braking overtaking skills into Turn 1 time after time as he climbed up the order. Lewis was doing the fastest laps on his UltraSoft compound tyres and his prolonged high-pace stint was a surprise to him, his team and to Ferrari. By Lap 22, we got a snippet from the team radio that said they were putting Vettel on Plan C which is clearly not ideal halfway through an incident-free race. As Seb was closing the gap, both lost pace as they made their way through the backmarkers. Finally, Hamilton pitted on Lap 25 for the Soft compound tyres and came back on track in P2 between Vettel and Bottas. It was up to the German to make the most of the clean air on the older tyres and was able to lap faster than Bottas. He needed to have a time window to pit and rejoin behind Lewis but ahead of Valtteri. However, he lost a chunk of his lead as he got caught up in the cars he was lapping.
On Lap 39 of 70, Kimi came in for his second stop to switch to the UltraSofts followed by Vettel on the next lap. However, Seb’s stop was hindered by a minor hiccup when fitting the front left tyre and as a result, he rejoined the race just behind Bottas. A few laps later, it was both the Ferraris hunting down Bottas as Daniel’s pitstop on Lap 45 saw him drop back to P5 but Lewis was simply out of their reach. Hamilton was helped by Bottas’ pace slowing down the Ferrari drivers in his dirty air and cruised across the finish line to take the win. His surprisingly excellent stint on the UltraSoft compound tyres being a big factor in this victory that extends his lead over Vettel in the F1 Driver’s Championship before the summer break.
Valtteri was doing an impressively prolonged stint on his Soft compound tyres after his early pit stop but he was under constant pressure from Vettel. He was doing such a good job as Mercedes’ roadblock that even Raikkonen had caught up to within a second of Vettel despite his second pit stop. But what we saw next is the reason why Bottas is not recognized as a champion in the making even though he is driving one of the best cars on the grid. He has been unfortunate this season, he’d done 50 laps of the Hungaroring on those tyres, but like before he folded under pressure in the final laps and lost the chance for a Mercedes one-two in Hungary. On Lap 65, Vettel had passed him around Turn 1 and then shut the door down the inside line of Turn 2. Bottas was left with no grip and no place to go so he locked up, bumped into the back of Vettel and even sustained damage to his front wing. This allowed Raikkonen to get past him as well to take P3 with Ricciardo catching up rapidly. Few laps later, Bottas was defending against Ricciardo who was trying to pass him around the outside, but he locked up and banged into the Red Bull to hold the position. But in a magnanimous gesture from Mercedes, he was told to hand P4 back to Daniel and the Aussie was able to get past the Finn on his next overtaking attempt. Bottas was still given a 10-second time penalty by the stewards for the incident.
In the end, Lewis took the top spot on the podium with a Ferrari driver either side of him as Vettel finished second and Raikkonen in third. Daniel finished in P4 despite being beaten around over the course of the race and Valtteri had to settle for a disappointing P5 result. Hamilton is now 24 points clear of Vettel with nine races still to go, some of which include tracks that are advantageous in their layout to Ferrari’s performance. This race result also broke the pattern that had been observed so far in the season, something that I’ll discuss in depth in a separate article. Red Bull have a lot of work ahead of them to give their drivers a reliable car for the second half of the season. Another big concern for the team would be the fact that Daniel still hasn’t inked the 2019 contract to stay with the team as of yet. His delay might have something to do with Ferrari not confirming whether they’ll keep Kimi for 2019 either.
In the rest of the grid, or ‘Formula B’ as some call it these days, there was plenty of interesting stuff happening during the race. The most impressive performance came from Gasly who started and finished in P6 in his Honda-powered Toro Rosso who even had the pace to build a gap away from Kevin Magnussen. His teammate Brendon Hartley had qualified well to start eighth on the grid but finished the race in P11 and out of the points. The Haas team managed another double-points finish in Hungary. Magnussen started ninth and finished seventh while teammate Romain Grosjean started and finished his race in tenth. But the best strategic drive was from the McLaren camp who went the furthest of the middle order on the Soft compound tyre and were able to pit and rejoin the race with both drivers in the points. However, it was only the birthday boy Fernando Alonso who managed to secure some points with his P8 finish after starting 11th on the grid. Stoffel Vandoorne had qualified 15th fastest and was running in the points till a technical problem ended his race on Lap 50.
Sainz started fifth on the grid at Hungary and was even running in P3 for a brief period but he crossed the line in P9 after being beaten by McLaren’s strategy. His teammate Nico Hulkenberg was not able to do much in Q2 as the Renault team were working on the car and fitting some new bits on it for Sunday. Nico started 13th on the grid and crossed the line in P12. The Alfa Romeo Sauber team had a pretty disappointing race given their performance in the season so far. Ericcson qualified 14th fastest and finished in P15 while wonderboy Charles Leclerc qualified 17th fastest and had a disastrous Sunday. At the start, Leclerc was caught between the two Force India cars and the resulting damage ended his race on Lap 1 itself. The Williams had a typically slow weekend with Lance Stroll starting from the pit lane to finish last and Sergey Sirotkin started 19th and crossed the line in P16.
Force India might not be known as Force India for much longer as the team entered administration just before the race weekend. That’s kind of bankruptcy for a team in F1 but news reports suggest that there are buyers lined up to take over the team that has been the best of the rest for the last two seasons. Force India has been facing financial issues for some time now and even more so from the start of this year with the staff and drivers being unpaid since last year. Sergio Perez who had a key role in this legal step has publically clarified his reasons for doing so and said that he acted in the long-term interest of the team and his racing career. Over the course of the weekend, it seems both drivers had all these distractions on their minds. Perez qualified started 18th on the grid and finished P14 while Esteban Ocon started and finished just one place ahead.
That wraps up the first half of the 2018 Formula 1 season as the racing action takes a month-long break before resuming at Spa, Belgium. As always, share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to subscribe to The Auto Loons for plenty more to come.
Final Race Standings:
- L. Hamilton Mercedes – 1:37:16.427
- S. Vettel Ferrari +17.123
- K. Raikkonen Ferrari +20.101
- D. Ricciardo Aston Martin Red Bull Racing +46.419
- V. Bottas Mercedes +60.000
- P. Gasly Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +73.273
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- F. Alsono McLaren Renault +1 Lap
- C. Sainz Renault +1 Lap
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- B. Hartley Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +1 Lap
- N. Hulkenberg Renault +1 Lap
- E. Ocon Force India Mercedes +1 Lap
- S. Perez Force India Mercedes +1 Lap
- M. Ericsson Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +2 Laps
- S. Sirotkin Williams Racing Mercedes +2 Laps
- L. Stroll Williams Racing Mercedes +2 Laps
- S. Vandoorne McLaren Renault DNF
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing DNF
- C. Leclerc Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari DNF