The Budapest weather did its best to mix things up a little, the Hungarian Grand Prix starting on a wet but quickly-drying track, which made some nice dramatic side stories.
Especially the unlikely one where Max Verstappen crashed his Red Bull on the out-lap but the mechanics replaced a trackrod and suspension pushrod on the grid in 20 minutes flat – making it possible for him to drive a storming race to second from a starting slot of seventh.
But the pre-race rain didn’t fundamentally change the overpowering superiority of the Mercedes/Lewis Hamilton combination.
In fact the wet early laps probably enhanced it a little, as well as giving Verstappen a helping hand in his recovery.
“He’d almost been off three times on the reconnaissance lap before he actually did,” laughed Christian Horner.
It’s a tricky car but Verstappen, just like Hamilton, had been keen to find the grip levels and where the wet lines were. He was pushing, so as to enhance his performance later – and in that sense it worked, for his mighty opening few laps set the foundation for his result.
He’d thought it was game over though – and he was unstinting in his thanks and praise for Leeroy, Ollie and the boys afterwards. These guys incidentally had pulled an all-nighter on Friday into Saturday, making wholesale spec changes just trying to get the tricky car into a shape the drivers could exploit.
Given the current limitations of the Red Bull and Ferrari in qualifying, the Mercedes W11’s Saturday superiority was vast. Hamilton’s advantage over Valtteri Bottas in the other car was slim – and that looked set to be the only hope of a good contest.
Bottas had been talking on Saturday evening of how much he was looking forward to the run down to Turn 1 with Hamilton, and the left-right of Turns 2 and 3 and fighting it out there. That’s where he lost out to Lewis last year, within seconds of the start and he clearly didn’t want a repeat.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff had been talking too about perhaps breaking with recent policy and allowing the drivers offset strategies. It would only be fair in a season where the title looks set to be an in-house battle.
But that was rendered moot by Bottas’ hyper-attuned senses.
Sitting on the wet grid, everyone on inters, the start procedure was going to be even more crucial and exacting than normal. The Mercedes dash features a four-light indicator when the revs are in the chosen range. If the revs fall out of that range the lights go out. The throttle is extremely sensitive and it’s relatively easy for the revs to drop out of that sweet spot.
They did so and Bottas, waiting for the gantry lights to go out, reacted to the dash lights blinking off – and released the clutch. He immediately pulled it back in. And thereby didn’t go past the sensor that would have triggered a jump-start penalty.
But it meant when the gantry lights went out a fraction of a second later, he was in recovery mode and got horribly bogged down, Lance Stroll straight past him, two Ferraris spearing either side, a gung-ho Verstappen way out on the outside of everyone taking improbable speed into there to go third, right behind Stroll. But with all of them already struggling in the spray to see which way Hamilton had gone.
Hamilton pulled out over 3s on that opening lap – and the rest of the his race was just about housekeeping. Which is not to understate the brilliance of performance. But the hardest work had already been done.
Thereafter he and the team just had to decide the optimum moment to get onto slicks (very soon after the start) and divide up the 70 laps in a way that didn’t make them vulnerable to the forecasted rain shower later on.
Red Bull jumped Verstappen past Stroll by keeping him out for an extra lap – and that was Max up to second, albeit almost 8s behind Hamilton. The gap would only grow from there – the Red Bull is just not in the same league at the moment. But both men had absolutely maximised their possibilities.
Bottas made a strong recovery from his faux-pas but getting past the slower cars cost some time. By the time he arrived on the tail of Verstappen, the race was 70% done and he clearly wasn’t going to find a way by on track. The Mercedes is a much faster car but not by enough, especially as his front-left medium by then was in a worse state than the Red Bull’s front-left hard.
So Mercedes made the exact same tactical throw of the dice it did with Hamilton last year for the win, again against Verstappen but for second this time. It didn’t quite work out, a bit of traffic delay – and Verstappen’s superb response on old tyres – all that prevented a Mercedes 1-2.
It’s a track position sort of place, the Hungaroring. There was some great overtaking – usually wheel-to-wheel around the long loop of Turn 2 – but fundamentally your race complexion was going to be set by track position.
The Haas team bought itself a load of that by bringing both cars in before the race even began, and getting straight onto slicks. That put Kevin Magnussen in an early third place as the rest of the field followed suit three or four laps later.
Obviously, he trickled down the order from there – but only very gradually. His tenacious performance netted him ninth place in a car that can’t break out of Q1 (though he was later time-penalised down to 10th for falling foul of an arcane bit of regulation, promoting Carlos Sainz Jr’s McLaren).
Stroll, in the eyebrow-raising Racing Point that he’d qualified third, albeit 0.9s off Hamilton, was a faultless but distant fourth. The difference between him and team-mate Sergio Perez was the wetter side of the grid that put ‘Checo’ seventh into Turn 1 and the drier side that Lance took advantage of.
Stroll ultimately kept himself just out of reach of the Red Bull of Alex Albon, who had a busy race fighting past the McLarens, Renaults and Ferraris his traffic-compromised 13th grid spot had put him behind.
On a track far kinder to its limitations than the Red Bull Ring, the Ferrari was good enough for Sebastian Vettel – quicker all weekend than Charles Leclerc – to take the fight to Albon and Perez, ultimately finishing between them. But lapped.
Daniel Ricciardo – as ever, quite superb in combining tyre life with pace and thereby able to pit his Renault late – finished on the tail of that contest, and comfortably bested Leclerc, who had gone with the soft tyre choice that Vettel had rejected, and paid the price by finishing outside the points. He was so slow on the soft it held up faster runners behind – notably the pitstop-delayed McLarens – and thereby protected Magnussen.
The soft was a deeply problematical tyre around this place’s long corners on a cool day, prone to blistering the left-front after a handful of laps.
Only Mercedes and Racing Point were quick enough to avoid using it in Q2, which in a dry race would have just exaggerated their advantage over the rest, as it would have forced the soft starters onto a slower two-stop.
The soft warmed up quicker than the medium or hard – which could have been vital if the promised rain shower had ever arrived. But it never did, save for a few spits. Trying to dovetail the mid-race stop with the rain (so as to potentially get straight onto inters and thereby save an extra stop) became the preoccupation of the strategists, quite unnecessarily as it turned out.
The phantom shower and the actual hard rain about an hour-and-three quarters before the start skewed a few of the results, but not the basic shape of the competition.
“It was very, very slippery in those laps to the grid,” noted Hamilton. “That really helped me gauge where the track was but already when we started it had dried quite a lot and there is this balance of going over the limit and risking it.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon race, so you’ve really got to be cautious not to throw it all away and of course when you’re in the lead, you don’t have any turbulence from the car ahead so it makes it a little bit easier to manage it and try and find the right balance.”
By the 44th lap of the 71-lap race he had built up more than a pitstop’s worth of gap over Verstappen. So there was a free pitstop there to be had. He eventually took it, had a used set of softs fitted with just four laps to go – and took the fastest lap point just to rub his imperious victory in even further.
“At the time before the stop, Valtteri had the fastest lap,” pointed out the winner and new championship leader. “I had the gap, and felt that it was necessary to get that point, particularly as I felt that I’d earned the gap that I had.
“Things like the extra pitstop, coming in, all these different things do add to the risk factors. But, we’re a professional team and so long as we continue to keep our heads on, stay focused, I believe it was the right decision to make.”
God only knows how fast the Mercedes is going to be at Silverstone, a circuit that should really suit its strengths.