Hungary Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton lights up rain-soaked Hungaroring as Mercedes strike a blow in Ferrari battle

As the heavens opened it was Hamilton who once again came to the fore, leaving Ferrari with nowhere to go at a track they expected to dominate at

David Tremayne
Budapest, Hungary
Saturday 28 July 2018 17:14
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Ferrari had the upper hand virtually all through practice, but the weather gods threw all that out of the window as qualifying took place at the Hungaroring on Saturday afternoon to the soundtrack of thunder and the driving rain that brought hearts into mouths and spectators to the edge of their seats in the best session of the season.

Sebastian Vettel won the first two rounds, comfortably setting the pace in Q1 and Q2 which were both affected to differing extents by the weather. Lewis Hamilton could only manage fourth in both, the conditions largely a lottery as the scene was set for a dramatic denouement.

It began with everyone running the blue-striped extreme wet Pirelli tyres, such were the conditions. Though no further heavy rain was forecast for the 12-minute session, the track was very wet all round.

Former world champion Damon Hill, who scored his first grand prix victory here 25 years ago for Williams-Renault, said of the track: “It’s exciting, actually, because when you go round here you are just trying to find a few tenths, and you think that you have to try and tidy up every slide. You have to concentrate all the time. It’s very good fun to drive on this circuit. It’s very technical, but it’s a bit like a giant kart circuit. There are so many corners and so many different types that it’s almost better to find an average rather than to be overgood on one part and lose out on another. It’s really a matter of being very precise throughout the lap.”

In the conditions at the start of Q3, that need for precision was multiplied further. So was the timing, since all of the front runners intended a switch to fresh wet tyres partway through.

Max Verstappen set the initial pace, followed by Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, before Hamilton, always superb in the wet, moved to the fore. Against expectations, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen appeared to struggle, down in fourth and third places respectively. Hamilton, meanwhile, went faster still, trimming from 1m 37.564s to 1m 36.648s. Vettel moved to second on 1m 37.733s, but was quickly displaced by the on-form Raikkonen with 1m 37.362s, before Bottas reclaimed the position with 1m 37.052s. Then Raikkonen seized pole position on new wets with 1m 36.186s, but Vettel’s first lap on them yielded only 1m 36.938s for fourth, before he improved to 1m 36.210s to grab second place. At last, situation normal.

But Mercedes weren’t finished; Hamilton and Bottas now had fresh wet tyres, too.

“Our team brought their A game in those conditions,” Hamilton affirmed. “A lot of work goes into understanding days like this and how to react. They are in the forefront of professionals, and both of us did what was necessary and didn’t make mistakes.”

Lewis Hamilton mastered the wet conditions like he has so many times before

Bottas’s big effort momentarily lifted him to the pole as the tension mounted, with 1m 35.918s. But then Hamilton emerged from the spray in 1m 35.658s and the job was done, for the 77th time in his career. Neither Vettel nor Raikkonen improved, leaving them fourth and third still, while Verstappen complained bitterly about his Red Bull, as he was left in a lowly seventh place on 1m 38.032s after Carlos Sainz pulled out a brilliant lap of 1m 36.743s to put his Renault fifth ahead of Pierre Gasly’s impressive Toro Rosso-Honda on 1m 37.591s.

“I’ve never had such poor balance in the wet,” the Dutchman lamented, but he was better off than team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who failed to get through Q2 and will start 13th on the track on which the team had been expecting so much.

Bottas, of course, was disappointed. “I thought I had pole at the end, only for Lewis to do a better lap,” he said. “He was quicker as the track all the time was drying, but it’s great to have a one-two. I left something on the table this afternoon, and I look forward to studying all the data to see where I can do better.”

Cars needed the full wet tyres after the second thunderstorm hit (Reuters)

Raikkonen, too, was glum, though it can be difficult sometimes to tell.

“Obviously it is not ideal, and it was disappointing where we finished, because I think we had the speed,” he said. “But the important thing is that the car was nice to drive and enjoyable in these conditions, but I was a bit unlucky with the last change to new tyres and got behind a Haas. It was hard to improve after that, but we’ll keep trying. Tomorrow is another day.”

Assuredly it is, but it remains to be seen whether it will be another wet one. Either way, Hamilton suggested that he was confident that Mercedes could retain their positions at the front even if the track is dry, so long as they make decent starts.

Lewis Hamilton conquered the wet conditions in Budapest

Since everyone set their times on wets in the second qualifying session, which determines the tyres on which you have to start, there will be free choice if it’s dry. Mercedes looked competitive with Ferrari on the soft-compound Pirellis, but struggled on the faster ultrasofts.

“We didn’t struggle on the softs and for us I think it was the better tyre,” Hamilton said. “But I think it would be highly unlikely that we’d compromise our front-row positions by starting on them. I think everyone will go for the ultrasofts if it doesn’t rain.

“Who knows where Ferrari get all their power from, but good for them. But it’s put a lot of pressure on our engine guys in Brixworth and our chassis guys in Brackley are working flat out to bring improvements, so it’s a great horse race this year where everyone is trying to be at 100 per cent all year. That’s very difficult.

Hamilton celebrates after taking pole position ahead of Bottas and Raikkonen

“It’s great for the team to have a one-two, and, jeez, we couldn’t have expected this. Ferrari have been quickest all weekend, so we just tried to be as close as possible, but then the heavens opened and it was fair game.

“But it was so tricky out there. At the beginning in Q1 it was dry for part of the lap, then towards the end it was getting wetter and wetter so it was difficult to arrive in a corner and know what grip there was. On extremes you were looking for a clean line and tiptoeing around. I’ve not done any ballet, but you know when you have to tiptoe… I was up and down, up and down, it was an emotional rollercoaster. But now we are in the best positions to do our best as a team keep the red cars behind us.”

He paused, and became reflective, as is his wont these days.

“You only get certain moments in life, that you can never get back. On that last lap I was thinking, ‘I’m 33 and I will never get this chance here again. Next year will be different in some way.’ So everything you work for comes down to that moment. The amount of pressure you put on yourself is massive, but I’m sure it’s the same for all of us.”

And on Sunday, with a new deal of the cards, that pressure will begin all over again. For 70 hard laps.

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