After claiming his fifth win of the season in Hungary, Lewis Hamilton climbed atop his Mercedes and punctuated his victory with a ‘dab’, the trademark celebration of the ‘most valuable player’ of America’s NFL – the Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
It was a fitting tribute to a man with whom Hamilton shares so many parallels. Both are gifted black athletes. Both hold strong claims of being the best in their fields. Both have unwavering self-confidence, bold social media personas and a sense of personality and celebrity that some of the more conservative fans of their respective sports find difficult to reconcile.
Hamilton may now have claimed the lead in the drivers’ championship at long last, but while few would begrudge him celebrating this, there is one fact about Cam Newton that he would do well to keep in mind. Despite being both the NFL’s best performer and best showman last season, Newton ultimately lost his championship battle to a less fancied but more understated and more cerebral rival. Hamilton now has ten races left to ensure the same fate does not befall him in 2016.
Red Bull split the Mercedes …for one corner
The narrative that ‘Mercedes could actually be beaten this weekend’ has been pushed ahead of so many races and yet quickly proven to be false with such regularity since the V6-era began that you could forgive fans for being cynical about the idea of Mercedes’s supposed vulnerability this weekend.
But when Max Verstappen came within 0.002 seconds of Nico Rosberg’s fastest time in third practice on Saturday, few could help but salivate at the prospect of a true four-way battle between Mercedes and Red Bull come race day.
True to form, Mercedes showed once more in Hungary that they are at their most exposed at the very start of the race. As the lights went out, Hamilton got a marginally better getaway than his pole-sitting team mate, but with a long run to the braking zone, the inside line and momentum on his side, even a slightly better start was enough for him to assume the lead as the field rounded turn one.
Rosberg, with his team mate on his inside, then had to contend with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull charging through the cement dust and driving clean around the outside of him.
Aware of how disastrous this was to his chances of victory, Rosberg quickly mounted an equally brave counter-attack around the outside of turn two, using his team mate on the inside as a pick and successfully reclaiming the place from the Australian.
So it was Hamilton who led the pack up the hill towards turn four for the first time, with Rosberg, Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari in hot pursuit. For most of the first stint, the top five were covered by a relatively small margin of around ten seconds.
Button endures “race from hell”
In their best race weekend since rejoining forces with Honda, McLaren found themselves in the promising position of having Fernando Alonso in sixth and Jenson Button in eighth on pure merit.
But anyone who may have felt that this was almost too good a start for the team was proven right on lap five when Button slowed – his brake pedal having suddenly lost all of its natural resistance.
“Jenson, do not shift. Do not shift, we’ve lost hydraulic pressure,” came the instruction, with the team later informing their driver that they were choosing not to retire the car despite the issue.
“Oh fantastic…,” Button lamented, sarcastically. “The race from hell, this is going to be.”
Unfortunately for Button, this is now the post-Silverstone world in which giving a driver illicit instructions over radio is considered misconduct serious enough to warrant a drive-through penalty, which the stewards wasted little time in awarding the McLaren driver.
Button was less than impressed. “So the brake pedal going to the floor isn’t considered a safety issue?,” he rhetorically asked the team. “That is… quite interesting. I think someone needs to read up on what is safe and what isn’t.”
Rosberg comes closer, but not close enough
By now, the pit window was open and Ferrari played their hand by pitting Vettel first of the front runners on lap 14. It paid dividends for the Scuderia, who were able to successfully get both their cars ahead of Verstappen’s Red Bull by the time the 18-year-old pitted two laps later.
On the soft tyres, Hamilton did not appear to be as comfortable as he had been on the super softs he started on and soon both Rosberg and Ricciardo began to close the gap, with Rosberg getting within DRS range on lap 21.
Rosberg was unable to get enough of a slipstream on his team mate to attempt a genuine attack on the lead of the race and Hamilton later explained that he had been taking extra care of his tyres in the warmer temperatures.
Ricciardo continued to slowly grind down the gap by a couple of tenths each lap, until Red Bull decided to pit the Australian for the second and last time at the half way point of the race, leaving him with a long final stint on soft tyres.
It felt like an admission that Red Bull knew they had little chance of beating Mercedes on pure pace and were prepared to roll the dice to see if they could still snatch a victory with an unorthodox strategy.
With both Mercedes making their final stops on laps 41 and 42, it seemed as if Hamilton was now in full control of the race. But Rosberg behind, having been in such a position so often in recent years, was determined to not allow his team mate to cruise to a championship lead and never fell more than three seconds behind Hamilton at any point during the closing stages of the race.
Traffic is always a concern given the twisty nature of the Hungaroring and there were some considerable traffic woes for the leader. Especially at the hands of Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas, who was the recipient of both a drive-through penalty from the stewards and a middle finger from Hamilton after failing to yield for the Mercedes through three blue flags.
Yet again, Rosberg was unable to fully capitalise on his rival being held up and could not get within striking distance – something Rosberg later attributed to the Hungaroring’s notoriety for being a difficult place to overtake.
Verstappen and Raikkonen fight over fifth
By far the most intriguing battle on the track was the almost-race long duel between Verstappen’s Red Bull and Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari over what ultimately became fifth place. Having started 14th on the grid, Raikkonen had made superb work of a long opening stint on softs to find himself ahead of Verstappen after the Red Bull’s initial stop.
Despite the benefit of new tyres, Verstappen could not find a way past Raikkonen and was forced to spend 13 frustrating laps staring at the rear wing of the Ferrari as his hopes of a podium slowly ebbed away.
In an almost karmic reversal of fortune, it was Raikkonen who then found himself exiting the pits after his final stop behind the Red Bull, who he rapidly caught thanks to his brand new super soft tyres.
Raikkonen could smell blood in the water and with DRS allowing him to close right up to Verstappen on lap 57, the former world champion made his move on the short run down to turn two.
Verstappen looked to take the racing line on approach, but opted to defend the inside line at the last second. Raikkonen – already in the process of switching left to attack to the inside – was forced to abandon this attempt and clipped the rear of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing.
“He moved right and then back left as I was going there!,” exclaimed Raikkonen. “Knocked the ****ing front wing off.”
Thankfully, despite the contact, neither driver appeared to suffer any major problems from the collision. Even though it was the only incident involving two cars of the entire race, the stewards did not even feel the need to investigate the contact, much to Raikkonen’s bemusement after the race.
Hamilton takes the win and the championship lead
Suddenly, with just a handful of laps remaining, three seperate duels had broken out in the top six. Raikkonen continued to try and break Verstappen’s robust defences, Vettel was now within touching distance of Ricciardo’s third-placed Red Bull while, out front, Rosberg was now around a second adrift of victory after Hamilton had run wide at turn 12 after a rare lock up.
But with so limited opportunities for overtaking and tyre performance beginning to fade in the closing laps, the advantage definitely belonged to the leading cars.
Vettel was the only one who got close enough to try even a half-move, when he attempted to dive past Ricciardo around the outside of turn one in similar fashion to how the Red Bull had passed Rosberg at the start, but quickly running out of road in the process.
Hamilton duly held on to claim his fifth victory of the season, his fifth around the Hungaroring and take a six point lead in the drivers championship – his first of the year.
A relieved Ricciardo crossed the line to take the final place on the podium, while Verstappen would not be denied of fifth despite the onslaught from the chasing Ferrari.
What had started with Red Bull eyeing a possible challenge for the win ended with the team having done well to have kept the Ferraris at bay.
While so much attention will be made to Hamilton and Rosberg’s personal battle over the second half of 2016, the increasingly fascinating scrap between Red Bull and Ferrari could well provide some of the most exciting on-track action of the rest of the season.
Fernando Alonso capped off a consistently strong weekend by securing seventh in his McLaren and taking what he described as “best of the rest honours”.
It was a fitting result for the two-time champion, who had finished seventh in every single session over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend – underlying how Alonso had truly maximised the performance of the McLaren and achieved as good a result as the team could realistically have hoped for.
Carlos Sainz’s performance was also far more deserving of appreciation than it received, converting an excellent qualifying position into solid points with eighth place to highlight once again how mature and capable the young Spaniard can be.
Sainz’s drive will only serve to heap even greater pressure on Daniil Kvyat, who was nowhere near his team mate after being significantly out-qualified and then being hit with a sloppy five-second time penalty for speeding in the pit lane during his first stop.
Tables turn for Rosberg
It’s a credit to Nico Rosberg’s abilities as a driver that he has denied his three-time world champion team mate the top spot in the drivers’ championship for half of the 2016 season.
Mercedes demonstrated just how much they value Rosberg’s skills by formally re-signing him for two more years just this week – hardly surprising for a driver who has provided them with six and a half seasons of service, almost twenty wins and has contributed to what will certainly be three constructors’ titles come the end of this season.
But after the chequered flag flew at the Hungaroring, signalling that it was now Lewis Hamilton who sat atop the standings for the first time in 2016, there was a strange sense of inevitability that hung in the air, a mood that appeared to be reflected in Rosberg’s podium demeanour – a feeling of magnanimous acceptance.
For despite having been 43 points down on his rival at one stage, there was little to suggest Hamilton had felt much in the way of pressure or urgency to recover that deficit. After all, even Rosberg himself realised that so much could change over the course of the sport’s longest ever season.
“As I’ve always said, I’m not counting the points,” Rosberg explained after the race. “There’s still a long long way to go.”
But whichever way the title goes in 2016, the Hungarian Grand Prix will likely prove to have been a paradigm shift – the moment when Nico Rosberg was forced to feel the pressure of having to play catch-up for the first time.
How he responds next weekend in Germany could set the tone for another championship fight between the two Mercedes rivals.
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