Hamilton claims vital Hungary win
Lewis Hamilton fended off a race-long challenge from the Lotus drivers to claim a crucial victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix and reignite his season.
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 29/07/12 6:06pm
Lewis Hamilton fended off a fierce race-long challenge from Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean to claim a crucial victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix which reignites his championship challenge heading into Formula 1's month-long summer break.
In a tense race dominated by tyre tactics and tyre preservation rather than wheel-to-wheel action owing to the Hungaroring's notoriously tight confines, the McLaren driver found himself under concerted pressure for the entire race distance as first fellow front-row starter Grosjean and then, in the final stint, Raikkonen attacked him in a Lotus car that appeared slightly kinder on its tyres.
Required to make his set of medium tyres last for the final 29 laps in 40-degree track temperatures to avoid the three-stopping perils experienced by others - no more so than his own team-mate Jenson Button - Hamilton was initially reeled in at a fast rate of knots by Raikkonen and, after closing to within DRS-striking range, the Finn appeared poised to pounce.
Yet, with overtaking throughout the field proving all-but impossible, Hamilton's track position proved vital and he was able to withstand all that the former World Champion could throw at him. Ultimately, Hamilton eeked away slightly again in the final laps to win by a second from Raikkonen with Grosjean having to settle for the final podium position after being strong-armed out of the way by his more experienced team-mate as the Finn exited his second stop.
Hamilton's second victory of the season - and his third in six years at the Hungaroring - capped a near-faultless weekend in which he led the way throughout and conclusively proved McLaren are right back in the kind of form needed to close down Fernando Alonso when the season resumes after the August recess.
But while it proved a joyous Sunday for one McLaren driver, the other, Button, saw his afternoon unravel in dispiriting fashion as he slipped from an early position of third behind Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Alonso to sixth at the chequered flag.
A disgruntled Button later complained that he had been "stuffed" by the team's decision to switch him to three-stop strategy.
Vettel had been bottled up behind Button up until the Briton's second stop, and while he eventually visited the pits three times himself, the Red Bull made was able to run a significantly longer middle stint and still finished right on the tail of Grosjean, although fourth place in reality capped a frustrating 69 laps for the German driver.
After qualifying only sixth on Saturday, Fernando Alonso knew his race was going to be all about damage limitation but, despite not having the pace of McLaren, Lotus or Red Bull, the Spaniard characteristically boxed above his weight and superior tyre management saw him not only beat Button to fifth but Mark Webber as well, who finished eighth after a late third stop of his own wrecked what up until then had been an impressive recovery from 11th on the grid.
It therefore means that, despite Ferrari enduring its least competitive weekend since the early races of the season, Alonso actually increased his overall championship lead to 40 points over Webber, although Vettel and Hamilton are now both closer to the Spaniard - 42 points and 47 points back respectively.
The road back therefore remains a long one for Hamilton, but on the evidence of this weekend at least he currently has a significantly faster car at his disposal than his Ferrari rival.
Having flagged up the start of the race as the key area he needed to get right, Hamilton enjoyed a faultless getaway when the red lights went off belatedly - the initial start having been aborted for an as yet unspecified reason, which prompted an additional formation lap and resulted in Michael Schumacher shutting down his engine. That in turn set in motion a train of miserable events for the seven-times Champion which ultimately resulted in another DNF.
Hamilton's opening two laps were indeed sublime as, appearing to take advantage of McLaren's superior tyre warm-up over the Lotus, he opened up an immediate 2.1s lead over Grosjean. But although the top two quickly broke away from the rest - a pack led by Button, who had managed to overtake Vettel around the outside of turn two - the top two soon back to lap within a handful of tenths of a second of each other and Hamilton's advantage never crept beyond the 3-second mark.
Indeed as the short opening stint on the soft tyres progressed, it was Grosjean who proved the quicker of the two, and with Hamilton experiencing a slightly delayed first stop on lap 19, the moment was set for Lotus to bridge the gap still further when they brought Grosjean in for fresh tyres a lap later.
However, the Enstone team ran into problems of their own and their stop time - 4.9s - was actually seven tenths of a second slower than McLaren's own sluggish one, meaning Hamilton actually began the second stint with a bigger advantage than he had entered the pits with.
Yet, with Grosjean sticking on the softs and Hamilton taking on the slower medium tyres, the pendulum soon swung back in the Frenchman's favour and he began to stalk the McLaren in even more ominous fashion, closing to within DRS range only to then have his charge compromised once he got in the MP4-27's dirty air.
The status quo between the top two continued through the next round of stops but now it was Raikkonen, who had lost position to Alonso on the opening lap but, having jumped the Spaniard through the first stops, had bided his time behind Vettel in the second stint, who had found himself in the lead having yet to stop again while all four cars ahead of him pitted.
Having earlier been told to conserve his tyres, once in clean air Raikkonen suddenly unleashed a succession of fastest laps which not only brought him into play in terms of jumping Grosjean and Vettel, but for a brief moment Hamilton too before he was eventually forced to duck into the pits with a 13-seconds lead on lap 45.
He exited the pits just as his team-mate was coming down the main straight and, having the advantage of the inside line, he held it forthrightly to the point where Grosjean had to put two wheels on the run-off area as they went round turn one to avoid what would have been a disastrous collision with his team-mate
"A bit rude," was Sky Sports F1 commentator Martin Brundle's assessment but Raikkonen was nonetheless into second and renewed his assault on the lead, taking half a second or more out of Hamilton over the next phase of the race where he got to the same point Grosjean had earlier found himself.
Yet, like the sister Lotus, Raikkonen found F1's equivalent of an invisible wall appear once he got to within a second of McLaren, admitting over the radio to his engineer that unless Hamilton's rear tyres went off he had no chance of passing.
They didn't and Lotus's wait for a first victory goes on to Spa in September.
Still, a second two-car podium finish of the season strengthens the team's bid to finish in the top three of the Constructors' Championship - a strong haul that had earlier looked a near certainty at McLaren before their strategy with Button went somewhat awry.
In a move that even Button himself latter admitted to Sky Sports F1 he couldn't quite understand, his race engineer informed him mid-way through the race that they were going to have to switch to "Plan B" - code for a three-stopper - amid apparent concern over tyre life.
Yet, pitting him for the second time for soft tyres on lap 35, Button came out right behind Bruno Senna and with Vettel and Alonso pitting four and nine laps later respectively lost time and ultimately track position, before then pitting again for the final time on lap 46 and coming home sixth.
So very much questions to answer from one driver at McLaren over the long summer break, yet for Hamilton the Hungarian GP has been the perfect fillip for a renewed championship push over the final nine races. Game on.