Mark Hughes: The details that preserved Ocon's unlikely win - The Race
Formula 1

Mark Hughes: The details that preserved Ocon’s unlikely win

Aug 2 2021
By Mark Hughes

As the Valtteri Bottas-induced chaos played out at the start of this race, Esteban Ocon backed his Alpine out of a possible move on Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, opted instead to move left and concentrate on the exit. In that moment he laid the foundations for his first grand prix victory and the Enstone team’s first since 2013.

Aug 02 : Hungarian Grand Prix review

Sebastian Vettel made a terrible start back in 10th – and that was a blessing in disguise for him, meaning he missed the carnage, this laid the foundation for his second place, pushing Ocon hard the whole distance. The difference between them might just have been the 1s delay suffered on the Aston’s left-rear as he made an undercut attempt for the lead. His subsequent disqualification for being unable to provide a 1-litre fuel sample would have been even more heart-breaking had he managed to find a way past the Alpine.

Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin F1 Hungarian GP

A recovering Lewis Hamilton had the pace to have devoured them both before the end – but was delayed in his recovery by Fernando Alonso’s super-intense defence of his fourth place. It took 11 laps of thrillingly close wheel-to-wheel dicing between them for Hamilton to finally find a way past his old nemesis. In this way, Alonso helped secure team-mate Ocon the victory, around the very place at which Alonso first won a grand prix, 18 years ago.

There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet and at 40 years old he is in supreme form. The only real difference between him and Ocon on the day was the randomness of that first corner chaos. Ocon grabbed that opportunity with both hands and delivered a flawless performance under the most intense pressure.

In the heightened tension of a title battle between Red Bull and Mercedes in the aftermath of the Silverstone incident, it was deeply unfortunate that Bottas’ mistake on a wet track in the opening seconds of the race ruined Red Bull’s Hungary weekend. He left his braking too late and, downforce robbed by the McLaren of Lando Norris which had just passed him for third, locked up, hit the McLaren into Max Verstappen and cannoned himself into Sergio Perez.

Toto Wolff tried to apologise later to Christian Horner, but the Red Bull boss didn’t want to hear it, wanting to know if Wolff would pay the heavy damage bill – the second for the team in two races after a clash with a Mercedes.

Hungarian GP F1 start Sergio Perez

But even before that drama had played out, Red Bull seemed set for a difficult weekend. The RB16B just couldn’t be balanced around the Hungaroring and between Friday and Saturday the team had to remove downforce on a downforce-rewarding track just to get a semblance of a driveable balance. Even with the smaller rear wing, Verstappen’s front wing angle was unchanged – confirming they’d simply ran out of front wing angle adjustment with Friday’s bigger rear wing.

No matter what they did, the understeer was unmanageable. Hence Verstappen qualifying only third, 0.4s adrift of Lewis Hamilton’s pole, with Bottas between them, and having needed to revert to soft tyres just to ensure he got the Red Bull into Q3.

In the straightforward running of this weekend – without the randomising rain about 25 minutes before the start – this would likely have been a Hamilton-led Mercedes 1-2, with Verstappen a distant third.

Neither Mercedes nor Red Bull won of course, but Hamilton salvaged 18 points courtesy of a charging recovery to third on the road (second after Vettel’s disqualification) from a strategic rock and hard place on the restart. Verstappen could manage only two in a heavily damaged Red Bull. Which puts Hamilton back in the lead of the championship.

Everyone had driven to the grid on slick tyres on a dry track. The rain came as the cars sat on the grid and had their slicks replaced by inters. So no-one really knew how much grip there was in the braking area. Hamilton’s start was good, taking him straight into the lead from Verstappen. Bottas’ was poor, Norris’ was fantastic, the McLaren slicing between Bottas the pitwall to go third.

Then the Bottas lock-up and the skittled Red Bulls, Norris’ car taking terminal damage in the incident, Bottas out on the spot. As Ocon had backed out of that move on Leclerc, so it opened an invitation to Lance Stroll that he’d have been better advised to turn down. As he flicked to the right of Ocon, he was already too late on the brakes. As the Aston slewed sideways he desperately took to the grass on the inside but that only delayed the inevitable and he crashed hard into Leclerc, ripping open the Ferrari’s radiators and flicking it into Daniel Ricciardo, damaging the McLaren’s front wing and floor.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

The Bottas incident promoted Ocon and Vettel massively. The Stroll incident was great news for those who’d started near the back, putting Carlos Sainz’s 15th-starting Ferrari fourth from Yuki Tsunoda’s 16th-starting AlphaTauri and Nicholas Latifi’s 17th-starting Williams. Alonso was next, in seventh, steering his way around the carnage and taking a hit on the front wheel from Stroll’s spinning car. He was ahead of Russell’s Williams. Fifth-qualifying Gasly was forced to take to the extremes of the run-off just to avoid the slewing Perez and rejoined near the back.

Perez’s car lost all its water as he tried to limp back, damaging the Honda power unit terminally. Leclerc stopped before that happened. Verstappen’s car lost a big chunk of floor and all its right-hand barge board. In the gap between the red flag and restart the Red Bull mechanics managed to replace the floor, replace and reconnect damaged hydraulic pipes but simply ran out of time to also replace the barge board. Verstappen later spent a lot of time trying to find a way by the Haas of Mick Schumacher, “who probably had more downforce than Max today,” as Horner described the extent of the aero damage.

Only Lewis Hamilton was ahead of Ocon and Vettel – and his race was about to be made a whole lot more complicated by the red flag thrown to clear up the debris. Most of the other cars that might ordinarily be expected to beat an Alpine or an Aston were out or, in Verstappen’s case, severely compromised. Given the difficulty of overtaking around here, it put Ocon/Vettel in a realistic position to win this race almost from the off.

Those chances were only enhanced as the red flag was thrown. In the half-hour it took to clear the track, the sun came out. Everyone drove the safety car-led out-lap to the grid still on inters but it was immediately obvious to them the track was ready for slicks. The option is there to pit at the end of the lap and everyone except Hamilton took it, making for the bizarre spectacle of a grand prix starting with just one car on the grid, the rest lined up at the end of the pitlane.

So, why did Mercedes choose to do that? “The outcome showed that it was the wrong decision in hindsight,” said Toto Wolff, “but the thinking behind it was correct and I defend it absolutely.” It was to do with Mercedes being the first garage in the pitlane. If it had brought Hamilton in, and the rest had followed, the team would have had to wait for an age for a gap in the traffic that would have allowed it to release Hamilton. There would have been a multiple loss of position. Subsequent analysis suggests he’d have been around sixth/seventh in the queue.

The thinking was that teams would split their strategies and bring just one car in and that Hamilton would be able to do that opening lap on his inters fast enough that he’d lose fewer places than by being blocked in by the traffic. But literally everyone else came in and such was the pace of the slick-shod field as Hamilton did his lonely opening inters-shod lap, that the last of them was only 13s behind as he made his stop on the subsequent lap – and the pit stop loss is 20s. So he was a solid last and then some.

The further up the pitlane the garage is, the more advantageous in this heavy pitlane traffic situation. What the relative pit garage placings had also done was jump Tsunoda past Sainz, with Latifi jumping them both, to go third. This was fantastic news for Ocon and Vettel. Latifi’s Williams on a track where passing needs a 2s advantage was able to keep the pack queued behind him as Ocon/Vettel pulled away at around 0.5s a lap or more. Sainz would otherwise surely have been in super-strong contention for the victory. As it was, by the time he’d stayed out for 32 laps to overcut his way back up to third, he was 7s behind the leading Alpine and Aston. His pace was significantly better than theirs and he cut that gap down, but it was from too far back.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

Russell actually rejoined ahead of Ocon but had used the pitlane slow lane to jump the queue. He was instructed to surrender the places he’d made up – hence his dropping back to seventh. Behind him ran Raikkonen, Ricciardo (with a replaced wing but heavily damaged floor), Schumacher, Verstappen, Gasly, Giovinazzi and Hamilton.

From last place, even in by far the fastest car, with all the other fast cars sidelined, this race did not look winnable for Hamilton. It took him until lap 11 even to find a way by Giovinazzi, such is the overtaking difficulty. Not only was there the turbulence, but run for any length of time close behind another car and the brake calliper temperatures reach critical levels. This was also a problem for Verstappen, who took 14 laps to find a way by Schumacher’s Haas, and even then it involved a bit of running off track and some wheel-banging.

Mercedes was always going to two-stop Hamilton, though they didn’t want to telegraph it so early. With a car so much faster and with a tyre age offset, it could feasibly overtake, pretty much uniquely. it brought him in early, on lap 19, and fitted a fresh set of hards. Red Bull and McLaren responded a lap later with Verstappen and Ricciardo but they didn’t have the pace to make it work – Hamilton flashing by the Red Bull as it exited the pitlane and going around the McLaren through Turn 1.

Both Alfas by this time were solidly at the back, Raikkonen having taken a 10s penalty for an unsafe release (which had taken out Mazepin), Giovinazzi taking a stop/go for speeding in the pitlane.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

Ocon and Vettel were rarely more than 1.5s apart up front throughout the first stint – which for them was a long one. Any undercut attempt by Vettel was delayed by Alonso in the other Alpine always being in Vettel’s pit stop window, despite him being in the Latifi queue until the Williams pitted on lap 23.

This was an unsuccessful response to a Tsunoda undercut challenge the lap before. With those two out of the way, Sainz and Alonso jumped to third and fourth and were able to step up the pace. Alonso had just been about to fall out of Vettel’s window – ie Vettel could have pitted and exited still ahead of Alonso – before Latifi stopped. But now that Sainz and him were lapping faster than the leaders, so that window closed again, thereby extending Vettel’s stint.

This is where the contrasting strategies of Hamilton and the leaders became entangled. On his second set of slicks, Hamilton had made good progress, his pass on Tsunoda around the outside of the fast Turn 4 being particularly exciting. Freed from the AlphaTauri Hamilton was set to eat quickly into the pitstop window of Sainz/Alonso – and Ferrari, encouraged by Sainz, brought their car in while he still had a pit stop’s gap over the Mercedes. That was lap 32.

But Alonso stayed out, accepting that he’d be overcut by Hamilton, as Alpine suspected the Mercedes might be stopping again. In that way, Alonso continued to thwart Vettel from making the undercut attempt on Ocon. Aston eventually pulled the plug from 2.4s behind Ocon on the 36th lap. There was a delay on the left-rear which cost around 1s.

“I could see on the big screen Esteban was leading, Lewis had been catching at 2s a lap, so I knew he could be up with them unless I could hold him off.” :: Fernando Alonso

But on his fresh hards, he gave it everything on his out-lap as Ocon was flat-out on his in-lap. The Alpine stop was 1s faster than Aston’s but such had been Vettel’s out-lap pace that it was touch and go as Ocon rejoined, Esteban having to get very defensive through Turns 1 and 2.

That small pit delay almost certainly lost Vettel the chance of taking the lead of the race at this point, which would have put him on course for victory.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

Alonso led the race for a few laps before making his stop on the 39th lap and rejoining fifth, around 8s behind Hamilton who was a couple of seconds behind Sainz but with his rear tyres beginning to suffer now, as he’d been pushing them in the knowledge that he’d be stopping again, just as he’d done here in the previous two years.

On his fresher tyres, Alonso was flying and eating fast into the gap to Sainz/Hamilton. “I was catching Carlos and Hamilton quite quickly and setting fastest laps. I was thinking at this stage I will overtake them and try to win the race!” Alonso recalled. But it was a mirage.

Hamilton made his extra stop for a brand new set of mediums on the 47th lap with 23 still to go. He rejoined fifth 22s off the lead but was soon lapping at a different rate to everyone else. With Ocon and Vettel in the mid 1m 22s and Alonso in the mid 21s, Hamilton was in the high 18s/low 19s… He was on a mission. “Lewis you can win this,” Toto Wolff had radioed earlier. “At the time he said it I thought I want some of what they are smoking,” recalled Hamilton later. But it was as if he was beginning to believe it as he slashed the deficit to Alonso. He was upon him by the 54th lap and the leaders were only 8s further up the road.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

Aided by DRS, Hamilton got a run on his former team-mate down to Turn 3, moved for the outside and was run out wide. He had more momentum up the hill as they approached the fast blind exit of Turn 4 and Alonso again made it plain it wasn’t happing, squeezing him out before the entry, wheels almost touching at 160mph in sixth gear. The almost exact same sequence played out on the next lap and variations of it over the next few laps. “I didn’t think I’d be able to keep him behind for more than a couple of laps,” said Alonso, “but then I realised he was having difficulty getting close to me through the last two corners and so wasn’t able to get close enough on the pit straight.”

The intensity of the duel was remarkable and occasionally a little scary as these two very great drivers duked it out. Eventually, Hamilton tried an offset line to Alonso through the final turn and into the 65th lap he was close enough to make the DRS count, forcing Alonso to go defensive and, turning in from a shallow angle, he locked up his inside front briefly. It was enough for Hamilton to get the momentum out of the corner and ahead down into Turn 2. But those 11 laps of fighting had cost him valuable time to the leaders.

Had Alonso been instructed to hold him off? “No, I could see myself the situation. I could see on the big screen Esteban was leading, Lewis had been catching at 2s a lap, so I knew he could be up with them unless I could hold him off.”

Having figured out the offset line on Alonso, it didn’t take anything like as long for Hamilton to find a way by Sainz, though the actual pass on the pit straight was quite dramatic as they came to lap Ricciardo, with Sainz trying to put the squeeze on the Mercedes. Hamilton was through – but there were only four laps to go and he was 9.5s adrift of the lead. Even so, he was upon Vettel’s rear wing as they took the chequer. Just underlining again the crucial part Alonso had played.

The defeated Vettel was frustrated to be so close to victory, but on reflection very happy for Ocon. “It’s easier to fight at the front like we did now,” said the delighted victor. “To manage the opponents that are behind is easier than to fight in the midfield. So my whole time in Formula 1 I had pretty good training for that. Seb was putting a lot of pressure, he gave me a hard time but you know, when you are ahead, you have clean air. You are the one who is dictating the pace on such a track.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

Sainz was able to fend off Alonso for fourth. Gasly came through brilliantly well from the back to sixth and after being allowed through by team mate Tsunoda on the way, he pulled out sufficient time on him to be able to pit for a new set of softs near the end, on which he set the race’s fastest lap.

Latifi made great use of his early track position advantage to take his first points, with eighth across the line, one ahead of team-mate Russell, taking his first points for Williams. He’d driven a great race from his compromised position, keeping Ricciardo behind him lap after lap and making up 20s on the cars ahead in his second stint. Verstappen in his damaged car managed to relieve Ricciardo of 10th shortly before the end. “There was a lot of oversteer and understeer from the downforce loss,” related Max. “Disappointing but on the other hand I was incredibly lucky to continue after the crash.” The points scrambled from such a difficult day could yet prove crucial for him.

Ocon couldn’t keep the grin off his face and heads into the summer break with a nice glow.

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