Hungarian Grand Prix: Hungary a perfect reflection of Red Bull's - and Ferrari's - season so far


[01-08-2022 11:58 AM]

Ammon News - The first part of the Formula 1 season ended with a gripping race in Hungary that both summed up the championship so far, and effectively ended it as a competition as well.

Max Verstappen took his eighth win in 13 races this year with a consummate drive from 10th on the grid.

It was the 28th victory of the Red Bull driver's career and it might well have been the best. His team boss Christian Horner acknowledged it was "right up there".

Verstappen's drive combined caution, control, aggression, mature race management and pure pace into a performance that simply overwhelmed his rivals, albeit with a large helping hand from a Ferrari team who yet again seemed to shoot themselves in the foot.

Ferrari converted second and third places on the grid into fourth and sixth at the flag and put their title contender Charles Leclerc on a strategy that left their rivals - and Leclerc himself - puzzled.

It was not the first time this year, and the upshot is that Verstappen leads Leclerc going into the summer break by 80 points. Drivers simply don't come back from that sort of deficit - and certainly not when they are racing for a team who seem not to be able to get out of their own way.

A champion's performance
Verstappen's drive in Hungary summed up his season so far. He has been in outstanding form all year, and if anything seems to have stepped up again from the already outstandingly high level he showed in his titanic battle with Lewis Hamilton last year.

Horner puts that down to the weight lifted off his shoulders by clinching the title. And indeed Verstappen seems to have relaxed upwards into another level so far.

In Hungary, he was initially cautious off the line when he saw a gap closing on him, then clinical in gaining places quickly, to put himself on to the back of the lead group within 12 laps of the start.

Red Bull stopped him early to ensure he got ahead of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes ahead of him, but then he had to manage his pace in the second stint and not push too hard and close up to Carlos Sainz's Ferrari ahead in third place because of an overheating clutch that affected his shifts for the entire race.

By just after half distance, though, he was within a second of Sainz - and just over seven off Leclerc in the lead - when Red Bull went for the undercut again. It was the decisive moment of the race, and the one in which Ferrari handed it to Verstappen.

Trying to bank track position, they pitted Leclerc and put him on the hard tyre. But they had not done their homework well enough.

On Friday, in temperatures 14C hotter than on the cool and humid race day, Mercedes and a couple of other teams had struggled badly getting the hards up to temperature, and Mercedes had concluded as a result not to touch them in the race.

Sure enough, Leclerc struggled for grip immediately, and Verstappen pounced. He passed Leclerc next time around for the de facto lead - Sainz and Hamilton ahead had to stop again. Even a spin at the penultimate corner next time around could not stop Verstappen. He lost the lead, but had it back again five laps later, and it was game over for the race, and probably the championship as well.

In the Red Bull pit, Horner had not expected Ferrari to stop.

"I felt Ferrari were on a different strategy at that point," he said. "They obviously looked to bank track position but as soon as they fitted hards I felt a victory was possible.

"We expected them to be strong today, I think the temperature maybe affected them quite a bit. They boxed themselves into a corner strategically that opened things up for us."

Horner said there was "still a lot of racing to do" this season, but he was kidding no one. A second title is now within Verstappen's grasp.

Red Bull and Verstappen imperious
Pre-race, there was a series of events that summed up one of the key differences between Red Bull and Ferrari this season.

In Ferrari's defence, Red Bull were also considering the hard tyre in the race. In fact, they had originally planned to start on it.

But when Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez struggled for grip even on soft tyres on the reconnaissance laps to the grid, they changed their minds.

Verstappen said his most optimistic hopes pre-race had been for a podium.

"We wanted to start on the hard," he said, "but after the reconnaissance laps we were like: 'We are not doing that, we go on a soft.'

"It is about the feeling you need to have and the confidence to make those calls because everything was analysed around the hard tyre and we changed the strategy and went on the soft, remained calm even with some issues with the clutch and upshifts, right calls, right undercuts and we had the right tyres on the car all the time."

The same could not be said for Ferrari.

After the race, team boss Mattia Binotto and Sainz both said they felt there must have been some mistake in the set-up of the car, because it lacked the pace it had showed in the heat of Friday.

Binotto argued: "The car was not performing well, and if it is not performing well, it doesn't make the tyres work as well as they should and certainly not the hard tyres."

But he did not explain why, if that was the case, they then chose to cover Verstappen and fit the hard tyres. Certainly Leclerc had not wanted to.

"I said I wanted to stay on the medium as long as possible," Leclerc said, "but we pitted very early for the hard and we need to understand why.

"Stopping for the hard was the turning point. We just need to get better.

"I don't think we should have reacted to Max. It was a snowball effect and we lost more than we should have."

Could Leclerc have won?
Had Leclerc stayed out, the race would have become one of him chasing down Verstappen on fresher soft tyres in the closing stages, and there is no way of knowing who would have come out on top, although Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff thought Ferrari had thrown away another win.

"I don't know what the reasons were, why they decided to drop the medium or not use the soft at the start, but that cost them the victory," Wolff said.

As it was, so bad were the hard tyres that Leclerc had to stop again for softs 15 laps later. And even that might have been a mistake.

It put him behind Perez as well, when if he has stayed out, he might have been able to stay ahead of him, although fifth rather than sixth would have been scant consolation in the circumstances.

It is far from the first time that Ferrari's strategy has been called into question this year. In both Monaco and Silverstone, they converted a lead for Leclerc into fourth place. There have been races when Sainz has seemed to be running strategy from the car, and certainly questioning what has been going on.

Leclerc tried to put a brave face on it, pointing out the huge performance step Ferrari has made from 2021 into 2022. But he admitted, too, that they have problems to fix.

"As a team, looking where we are coming from in the last two years, it is an incredible step forward," he said. "On the other hand, there is another step we need to do and we are working on that. But I am confident we will do it."

Binotto was asked afterwards whether he felt changes were needed after so many errors.

"If we look at the balance of the season, there is no reason to change," he said. "We need to address what was wrong today, which means first to understand and then to address and then be back competitive.

"We knew the hard was not as great as the medium, but it should have been faster after 11 laps into the stint. And it was a 30-lap stint. It did not work as we were hoping.

"We would not have fitted them if we knew they had been as bad today. Why they didn't work is back in the explanation of why the car was not as fast as we were hoping so there is something wrong with the car and the way we set it up for the conditions today and gave a harder life to the tyres."

Had they considered not responding to Verstappen's stop?

"We considered it and discussed what would have been best," Binotto said, "and that was the choice we made, which was certainly not the right choice today."

Hopes rising at Mercedes
It has been a bad July for Ferrari. It began with hope that, after a dire run in May and June, they might be able to salvage the championship battle, following Leclerc's dominant victory in Austria.

But in Britain, France and now Hungary, things have fallen apart from a variety of reasons, and in both drivers' and constructors' championships they are far closer to Mercedes behind them than Verstappen and Red Bull in front.

George Russell and Mercedes could not quite turn their brilliant pole from Saturday into a victory, but it was still a strong race for the team, and the second consecutive one in which they have finished second and third.

By Sunday, they had drilled down on to an explanation for their remarkable turn of speed on Saturday - it was all about them having the tyres in the perfect window, and Ferrari not, as Russell had suspected after qualifying.

It was a prosaic explanation for a romantic story, but such is the way of things sometimes in F1.

In the race, the true pace of the cars became apparent.

Russell fought valiantly to hold off the Ferraris in the first stint, before succumbing to the inevitable after Leclerc ran longer to his first pit stop and emerged with fresher tyres.

The team went as early as they dared with his second stop, but still he was running out of tyres by the end, which enabled Hamilton to catch and pass him, after switching to the soft tyres after a long middle stint. Both drove superbly.

There were questions, though. On Saturday, Hamilton had abandoned his final qualifying lap when his DRS overtaking aid failed at the start of it.

In hindsight, he regretted the decision, because he realised he might have been able to qualify a little higher if he had just kept going - he would have lost the 0.3secs advantage the DRS gave, but benefited more than that from his fresh tyres compared to the used ones he had on his first run.

Could Hamilton have battled Verstappen for the win had he started, say, fifth rather than seventh? "Maybe," said Wolff.

There are, however, plenty of positives for Mercedes going into the summer break.

They have a series of upgrades coming for their car, and they expect a technical clarification regarding bouncing to affect Red Bull and Ferrari's performance when the season resumes in Belgium at the end of August.

Hamilton said: "This weekend, there was a potential for a win. You saw George on pole. I think if we had both been up there, we probably could have worked a bit better together as a team. One of us would have had to support each other strategy-wise.

"But if we are able to take this pace into the second half of the season for sure we can start to fight with the guys.

"This is the first time we've been able to fight and battle with a Ferrari. That's huge for us. The Red Bulls probably still are ahead. The fact that Max started 10th and spun and still was 10 seconds ahead says enough about their car.

"But I think we still have made huge progress and huge steps. And so to have this consistency and two double podiums in these last two races gives us great hope and a huge push for the second half."

*BBC




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