Conclusions from the Hungarian GP
Lewis wins the race he had to win, Lotus change the game for Ferrari and Fernando, while Michael suffers the sort of afternoon that only nightmares dream about...
Last Updated: 30/07/12 4:20pm
Faultless Hamilton returns to the title fight Phew. Lewis Hamilton had to win in Hungary and he just about did. It was the closest of close-run things with the McLaren pushed to the brink by the two Lotuses, finally crossing the line just a solitary second ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. Though not one of the most exciting or dramatic victories of Hamilton's F1 career, it was nonetheless one of the most impressive - in part because undramatic victories are not usually part of his feted repertoire but mainly because of the amount of pressure, both external and internal, which he had to withstand in order to claim the only result sufficient to revitalise his faltering title chances.
The external pressure was apparent and appreciable from the outset, with Romain Grosjean pegging Hamilton's lead to a couple of car lengths through the first half of the race before Raikkonen took up the Lotus baton to hound the McLaren to the line. "I had to be at 100 per cent to keep them behind me," remarked Hamilton in the afterglow of victory. "The team didn't flinch and neither did I."
But even the anxiety of close pursuit paled alongside the internal pressure weighing down Hamilton as he made his own relentless pursuit of victory; sixty points in Fernando Alonso's debt, the weekend was already a must-win matter even before his domination of Friday and Saturday transformed Sunday into a must-not-lose ultimatum. That's pressure. If Hamilton couldn't win at the end of a weekend when only a single tenth of a second in Practice Three stopped him claiming a clean sweep of the timesheets, then...
No matter. A champion's drive has returned Hamilton to the championship battle.
Lotus change the game for Ferrari and Fernando
Yet such is the size of the advantage that Alonso has built up over his former team-mate in the six weeks since Canada that, even on a weekend of dominance for one and struggle for the other, Hamilton was only able to reduce it by a quarter this Sunday. With just nine races remaining and Alonso still bullet-proof from unreliability, the scale of the challenge is stark. Hamilton probably needs a couple of DNFs for Alonso as much as he needs three or four wins to reach the summit again.
Or does he? The Ferrari's lack of raw pace was brutally exposed in Budapest with the F2012 reduced to the fourth-fastest car in the field and Alonso almost nine-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton in qualifying. The Spaniard is a master of disguise but even Alonso cannot be expected to find a hiding place in the barren terrain of a dry Formula 1 track unless Ferrari wheel out their second major upgrade of the season for the September resumption. The emergence of Lotus as two-car bona fide frontrunners, both in Saturday and Sunday trim, is a game changer. From this far out, and Ferrari so far behind so many, Alonso won't be able to win playing damage limitation.
Lotus change the game for Ferrari and Fernando, part two
The crux of the concern for Ferrari must be that since winning the development battle in Spain, when the still-born F2012 suddenly came alive, they have suffered a serious defeat to one of their lead rivals in almost every race since: to Red Bull in Valencia, to McLaren at Hockenheim and, here at the Hungaroring, to Lotus - who are also reputed have a major upgrade in the pipeline for Spa in addition to the swanky DRS-plus system they've been trialling during the last two weeks.
Ferrari are not only short of ammunition but they're also under fire from all sides. Whilst there's some solace in the relief that Red Bull, McLaren and Lotus will also take points off each other, the point remains that even Alonso is surely destined to lose his grip on the championship unless the Ferrari is rapidly upgraded again.
As for Felipe Massa, meanwhile, the word on Budapest's paddock street is that the decision has been taken to jettison the Brazilian at the end of the season. No wonder. As the season meanders into its break, Massa resides just fourteenth in the standings. Almost as critically, Ferrari fell to fourth in the Constructors' Championship this Sunday. Even a one-driver team cannot overlook the exposure of such a glaring liability when it's their name which is being debased.
Button's calamity saves Hamilton
Conversely, the absence of a competitive team-mate remains a salient advantage in Alonso's bid to win the Drivers' Championship. Whereas Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel have rewound to their 2010 parity and Lotus are prepared to cajole both of their drivers to the point where literal collision is inevitable, Alonso's domination over Massa has made Ferrari his personal fiefdom. He is in no danger of ever suffering from sibling rivalry from the sister car.
Hamilton does not yet possess such security at McLaren, but the question will soon be asked about when and if Button will be prepared to play rear-gunner to his team-mate. Yet one of Sunday's neat ironies was that Hamilton's owed a large debt to Button not defending the lead McLaren because while the sudden decision to switch Jenson onto a three-stop strategy had the immediate and threatening effect of releasing a hitherto-frustrated Seb Vettel, it was also the instant realisation that three-stopping was an error on a circuit with worse traffic problems than Piccadilly Circus that stopped McLaren from proceeding with their plan to switch Hamilton. Had they done so, his title hopes would have been turn to dust. As the old saying goes, there's more than one to skin a guinea pig.
Raikkonen enters the title fray as a light-coloured dark horse
If only Kimi Raikkonen could qualify a little better. Three times the Finn has finished in second place this season and in none of those races did start higher than fifth - and in Bahrain he started as low as eleventh. Throw his third-place finish at Germany from tenth into the mix and it's abundantly clear where Kimi is lacking.
Yet such was his speed on Sunday that it appears what really scuppered his victory bid was Lotus' failure to charge his KERS unit for the start of the race. After a slow exit out of the first corner and then a lock-up into the second, Raikkonen was passed by Alonso in one of the race's few on-track overtaking moves. The result was catastrophic and race-losing: by the time Alonso finally pitted on lap eighteen to release the Finn from following the rear-wing of the F2012, Raikkonen had lost over fifteen seconds to Hamilton. After staying out for two extra laps in order to jump the Spaniard, Raikkonen was already six seconds clear on Alonso on lap 24 despite being in the process of saving up his tyres for the long second stint which transformed the race. The Lotus isn't just quick, it also seemingly possesses the ability to keep the soft tyres in quick shape for longer than any other car in the field.
Indeed, it's eminently arguable that Raikkonen would have still won the race during his final stint after bumping aside Romain Grosjean with relative comfort but for the Hungaroring simply being outgrown by Formula 1's relentless advance. At any other circuit on the calendar with the special-case exception of Monaco, the Lotus would surely have found a way around the slower McLaren.
Nonetheless, the point this segment is ponderously reaching is that whilst Raikkonen ultimately lost the battle in Hungary, he did plenty enough to enter the fray as a contender to win the war. Given that just a point separates Raikkonen from Hamilton in the standings, they both have an equal amount of experience of winning championships and the Finn currently appears to boast the better machine, Kimi must now be considered as much a title challenger as Lewis - if not more so.
Red Bull need time out of the limelight
Sebastian Vettel sounds in need of a holiday. His expression of frustration to the restrictions that the Hungaroring is infamous for applying reeked of unedifying petulance and lingered as the soundbite of another unpleasant weekend for Red Bull. On four separate occasions this term, the team have been required to change their car by the governing body, a splatter of coincidences doing serious damage to their image. And when the name of the team is a brand name, that matters.
But the RB8's wings might not have been clipped just yet
One of the obvious clues that the teams are finally close to understanding the Pirellis is that so much focus has reverted back to the cars. Whereas the priority for the opening months was managing and comprehending Pirelli's fickle rubber, it's the cut and thrust of the development war that is now dominating the agenda. Lotus will be the centre of attention in Spa when they run their 'extra DRS' unit, but a recurring mystery for the last few weeks has been the whereabouts of the pace that Red Bull developed for Valencia. It could be that their wings have been clipped by the controversies which raging around them through July, or it could be that the pace is still there and has simply been muddied by dirty air.
In short, put Vettel out front again and he could disappear into the distance.
Hungary was an altogether different story, however, and held up first by Button and then by Grosjean when the Lotus caught Alonso at the halfway stage, Vettel's pace was seriously stymied for approximately three-tenths of the entire race. "Our pace was very good and much better than the actual result," the World Champion later reflected in rather more sanguine fashion compared to his radio outburst. "We need to do better in qualifying and then at the start; then it's a different race."
Quite so, although even just a little overtaking would have gone a long way. In its near-complete absence, Red Bull's decision to pit Vettel with ten laps remaining made wonderfully-cynical sense; from fourth, he returned to fourth but also in prime position to benefit if either Lotuses or Hamilton fell off the proverbial cliff. Smart stuff.
The only shame was that Vettel returned to the track just ahead of Alonso because the fun would have been to see the World Champion try to find a way around the hardest defender in F1 armed with a car two seconds quicker than Alonso's but restricted by a track that doesn't believe in overtaking.
Maldonado leaves no case for the defence
The debate about Pastor Maldonado keeps requesting its old argument back. The Venezuelan has the speed for F1 but not, it seems, the skill. And the 'it seems' is coming close to clear proof.
All that can be said in his defence following his leery punt into Paul di Resta's Force India is that at least his barges into the sides of Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton do not appear to have been personal after all; he simply cannot control his car in combat with another.
Bruno Senna's sudden improvement courtesy of what sounds like a minor detail - a change of brake duct which has generated extra heat to his front tyres - brought a degree of relief for a Williams team now faced with an awkward predicament, but there was none at all for Di Resta. Beaten on three successive weekends in both qualifying and the race by his team-mate, the Scot needs Nico Hulkenberg to take a momentum-puncturing break as much as Vettel needs some time on a beach with a book about adversity.
Schumi suffers the sort of day only nightmares dream of
And then there was the afternoon of Michael Schumacher to consider, a litany of embarrassment, bad luck and disaster from pre-start to early finish. Adding accusation to the insult of - deep breath now - apparently causing the aborted start by stopping at the wrong grid slot, shutting down his engine in error, receiving a drive-through penalty instead of a fine, collecting a puncture when he was wheeled off the grid, and then being forced to retire from the race when his car broke down, he's now also been criticised for not respecting the blue flags and costing Grosjean second ahead of Raikkonen.
Now there's a man truly in need of a holiday.