If motor racing was an Olympic sport, Lewis Hamilton would have won gold for Britain in Hungary yesterday as he dominated the race and put himself firmly back into play in the Formula One title fight. He and his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button demonstrated their support for their national Olympics teams with Team GB stickers on their helmets.
If there was a race Hamilton needed to win, this was it. And though it was the usual dull affair that we have come to expect of this restrictive and unimaginative circuit, and almost devoid of any significant on-track overtaking, that was just fine with him. But it certainly was not a walk in the park for the British driver. He was under pressure from the Lotuses of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean from the minute the race started to the moment it ended, a lap prematurely thanks to Michael Schumacher stalling on the grid at the start and necessitating another formation lap and the reduction of one racing lap.
On an afternoon when the best that his title rivals Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber could muster was fourth, fifth and eighth respectively, the result was exactly the fillip that Hamilton and McLaren needed after a series of disappointments, and the perfect launch into the summer break.
Hamilton made an excellent start, which he described as his best of the year, and took the lead immediately from pole position – but he could not break clear of Grosjean. Button came through to third after Vettel got shouldered wide in a fight with Grosjean in the first corner. Alonso, Raikkonen and Webber followed them. Button was the first to stop for fresh tyres, on the 15th lap, followed by Vettel two laps later, then Hamilton on the 18th and Grosjean on the 19th. Raikkonen, however, lasted until the 20th.
Still it was Hamilton versus Grosjean as they all resumed, with Button continuing to hold off Vettel as Raikkonen climbed to fifth ahead of Alonso's outclassed Ferrari. This was the period when Hamilton, on the medium compound Pirelli tyres, seemed at his most vulnerable as Grosjean had switched to faster soft compound rubber. The Frenchman got the gap down to 0.9sec by lap 31, until some minor but costly mistakes set him back.
Button pitted again on the 34th lap, followed by Vettel on the 38th, Grosjean on the 39th and Hamilton on the 40th. Button took a set of softs, but the rest went for the more durable mediums. That appeared to hand the advantage much more securely to Hamilton, but Raikkonen made his soft tyres last until the 45th lap before taking some mediums. When the Finn rejoined he found himself and his team-mate heading side by side for the first corner, and did what any partner would do and shouldered the Frenchman wide. "He did what he had to do to keep me behind," a crestfallen Grosjean said later after dropping from potential winner status to a distant third as a result.
So now it was Hamilton against Raikkonen, and the latter was only 4.4sec behind. The Lotus has been very easy on its tyres all season, and at that stage it seemed inconceivable that Hamilton had the ghost of a chance of hanging on for another 24 laps. Raikkonen looked every bit the monosyllabic robot who snatched the 2007 world championship from under Hamilton's nose as he cut the gap until less than a second separated them by the 52nd lap. But that was as close as he could get.
He never let up, but admitted over the radio to his team that his sole hope then rested on the McLaren running into rear tyre degradation problems. That never happened, and a delighted Hamilton was able to speed home to the 19th victory of his career by a hair over a second after a superb drive.
Grosjean hung on for third, as Red Bull gambled on third stops for both Vettel and Webber. The German's almost paid off as he slashed a 14-second deficit to the Frenchman's Lotus to one second by the flag, but Webber could not deprive Bruno Senna's well-driven Williams of seventh place.
It was a case of muted 31st birthday celebrations for Championship leader Alonso, as he brought a less competitive Ferrari home fifth, ahead of Button, who had lost his chance of a podium place when a third pit stop, saw him trapped too long behind Senna. The result leaves the points situation nicely poised with Alonso on 164, Webber on 124, Vettel on 122, Hamilton on 117 and Raikkonen on 116 with nine races still left to run.
FIA Formula One Hungarian Grand Prix, Budapest
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1hr 41min 05.503sec
2 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 1:41:06.535
3 R Grosjean (Fr) Lotus F1 Team 1:41:16.021
4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:41:17.117
5 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:41:32.156
6 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:41:35.746
7 B Senna (Br) Williams 1:41:39.402
8 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:41:39.961
9 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:41:43.853
10 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:41:56.737
11 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India 1:42:02.786
12 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:42:08.390
13 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:42:09.109
14 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:42:09.997
15 D Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 lap
16 J-E Vergne (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 lap
17 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham at 1 lap
18 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari at 2 laps
19 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham at 2 laps
20 C Pic (Fr) Marussia at 2 laps
21 T Glock (Ger) Marussia at 3 laps
22 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-F1 at 3 laps not classified
23 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 60 laps completed
24 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 58 laps completed
1 Alonso 164pts
2 Webber 124
3 Vettel 122
4 Hamilton 117
5 Raikkonen 116
6 Rosberg 77
7 Button 76
8 Grosjean 76
9 Perez 47
10 Kobayashi 33
11 Maldonado 29
12 Schumacher 29
13 Di Resta 27
14 Massa 25
15 Senna 24
16 Hulkenberg 19
17 Vergne 4
18 Ricciardo 2
19 Kovalainen 0
20 Petrov 0
21 T Glock 0
22 Pic 0
23 Karthikeyan 0
24 De la Rosa 0