Among our highlights of The Race’s 2021 content is the story on how Fernando Alonso worked overtime to get an F1 victory for his Alpine team-mate Esteban Ocon, picked out by F1 writer Scott Mitchell.
Fernando Alonso played a key part in ensuring Alpine Formula 1 team-mate Esteban Ocon won the Hungarian Grand Prix by holding off Lewis Hamilton during a crucial phase of the race.
But Alonso relied on information he gathered himself from what he could see on the trackside big screens to understand the role he was to play.
Ocon took the lead early in the Hungarian Grand Prix after avoiding two separate accidents at the start.
As well as holding off Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel when the race began properly, he was under growing threat in the closing stages from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who eventually finished third on-the-road.
Alonso had already been a useful ally for Ocon during the first stint of the race thanks to remaining in Vettel’s pitstop window for an extended period of time despite having lost ground early on while stuck in the train led by Williams driver Nicholas Latifi and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda. That gave Alpine more strategic flexibility for Ocon.
But Alonso had a vital job to do for Alpine after Hamilton made a pitstop for fresh mediums on lap 47 of 70.
At that point Hamilton was 23s behind Ocon and running fifth, with Alonso his first target and 15s ahead.
Alonso kept him behind for long enough to ensure the Mercedes driver didn’t have enough laps left to threaten Ocon after making the pass through Turn 1 on lap 65, despite quickly overtaking Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz afterwards.
“On the fight today, no the team didn’t tell me anything, but I knew more or less what the situation of the race was,” said Alonso after the race.
“I was looking at the big screens. I knew Esteban and Vettel were fighting, they were two corners in front of us and with 20 laps to the end and with Lewis coming two or three seconds faster, that was enough to win the race probably.
“So I knew that every lap I could hold him behind that was gold for Esteban’s win.
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I felt honestly that I could not hold him more than one or two laps but on the last couple of corners he seemed to struggle a little bit to follow me and then it was enough to open a gap on the straight and defend.
“I think he learned a couple of different lines in the last three corners after 10 laps behind me and he was able to pass Carlos just in one lap applying those new lines, so that was it.”
It had only taken Hamilton seven laps to close the initial 15s gap to Alonso. During the five laps before he caught the second Alpine, Hamilton was gaining on leader Ocon at a rate of two-and-a-half seconds per lap.
But once he caught Alonso, Hamilton’s gains flatlined.
During the 11 laps from lap 54-64, the pace of Hamilton and Ocon was near identical with Hamilton on average losing 17-thousandths of a second per lap to him.
Several times, Hamilton attacked Alonso around the outside of Turn 2 before having to back out. He was able to get a run on the Alpine driver and at least threaten a move around the outside of the fast Turn 4 after these attacks, but backed out of all of them.
This included his attempt on lap 63 that resulted in Alonso’s right-rear and Hamilton’s left-front briefly rubbing, leading to Hamilton complaining over the radio.
A look at the race trace plotting the gap from Hamilton to Ocon during the Hungarian Grand Prix shows just how effective a roadblock Alonso proved to be with his outstanding defensive driving.
Given Hamilton’s pace after the stop and the fact he was only 2.7s behind Ocon at the chequered flag at the end of lap 70, it’s likely he would at least have had a shot at victory had he cleared Alonso earlier.
Alpine sporting director Alan Permane declared Alonso’s role “oh, undoubtedly crucial” when asked about the significance of his defiance to Ocon’s win.
“If he’d got past him on the first lap, like he got past Carlos on the first time past, I’m sure Lewis would have been there,” Permane continued.
“I think what we would have done was just drop back a bit, give Seb the DRS and use that to protect a little bit.
“I don’t know if we would have held him off. Maybe. Esteban, don’t forget, pitted one of the last, so he had very fresh tyres. He was in control in that last stint, but who knows.”
Ocon’s win is not only the first for the Enstone team as Alpine, with its previous victory coming as Lotus with Kimi Raikkonen in the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, but also the first time Alonso has seen an F1 team-mate win since he partnered Hamilton at McLaren in 2007.
But he said he was “OK” with not being the Alpine driver to take victory and was delighted for the team, which he is now in his third stint with.
“We don’t have the chance to win a race and you need very special circumstances,” said Alonso.
“Today those circumstances were there and the luck was in our side and I’m so happy for the team, all the guys, mechanics, engineers, people at the factories – they have been working very hard into this car and also the 2022 project.
“It’s going to be a very demanding second part of the year as well, so to have this kind of result before the summer break is just an amazing feeling. So I’m very, very happy for them.
“There’s a lot of big smiles on everyone’s faces, and also for Esteban. When you are young and you succeed and you win a grand prix, that will be forever. I’m so happy for that.”