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Hungarian GP 2012

JULY 30, 2012

Race Report - Hamilton hits back as Lotus threatens

Lewis Hamilton, Hungarian GP 2012
© The Cahier Archive

BY TONY DODGINS (@TonyDodgins)

Lewis Hamilton's third Hungarian GP win and his second victory of 2012 underlined the effectiveness of McLaren's latest developments to the MP4-27, which had been clear in Hockenheim.

Despite the dominanace of his pole position, Hamilton knew that the race would be a different matter. Against a background of limited dry weather running on Friday, yet again, and with track temperatures in the high forties, Hamilton knew that while the pace was clearly in his car, he needed to make the tyres last.

The leading Renault-engined cars: Lotus, Red Bull, Williams, could all have been expected to have more benign tyre usage and Hamilton knew he had to be focused and disciplined.

He proved exactly that, under pressure in the early stages of the race from fellow front row starter Romain Grosjean, then in the latter stages from Kimi Raikkonen. But at no point was their a chink in the McLaren armour.

The first start had been aborted when Michael Schumacher, a man just short of his 300th GP, pulled up in the wrong place! Schumacher, confused about the abandonment of the start, then switched off his engine and had to be pushed off the grid. A puncture and a resultant penalty for speeding in the pitlane compounded a comedy of errors. "One of those days..." Michael said.

At the start proper, the race reduced to 69 laps after the extra formation lap, Hamilton made his best start of the year -- an area that has previously been a weakness.

He rapidly opened himself a 2s gap to Grosjean, breaking the DRS zone, which proved to be of limited assistance in Hungary, and maintained it at that level. Button had stuck it out with Vettel into Turn 2 on lap 1 and gone around the outside of the world champion to run third, and dropped just over 3s back from Grosjean by the time 10 laps were down. You suspected that Jenson was in tyre conservation mode.

Behind Vettel though, a 3.5s gap to championship leader Fernando Alonso after 10 laps was more than just tyres -- the Ferrari clearly did not have the pace to trouble the front runners at Hungaroring, and was masking the pace of Raikkonen's Lotus.

Mark Webber had made a good start from his 11th slot on the grid, up four places, and played his part in helping Hamilton hold off Grosjean.

McLaren had been right to fear the Lotus race pace and many expected Lotus to go for the undercut by stopping early. The problem was, as the two-stop pit window opened, around lap 17-18, Webber was just 15s behind the Lotus.

The significance of that was that Webber, alone among any drivers with significant pace, had started on Pirelli's prime medium compound and Lotus feared that the Australian might run a significantly longer opening stint. Without sifficient time to stop and re-emerge in front of the Red Bull, Lotus couldn't therefore risk the undercut attempt.

As things transpired, Webber pitted just one lap later than the Frenchman, who came in on lap 19, one after race leader Hamilton. The status quo at the front was thus maintained.

Button made an early first stop (lap 15) to cover any undercut attempt from Vettel, but it put him on the edge of needing a three-stop strategy, which is what the team ultimately went for but which Jenson thought was the wrong call. At his second stop he emerged behind Bruno Senna -- having his strongest race for Williams -- and lost a lot of time.

"I got a radio message that I had to overtake," Button said, "but that's asking the impossible at Hungaroring. I think I could have stayed with Plan A and made the tyres last. I don't know why we pitted so early each time. At the second and third stops we pitted very early and the tyres were still in good shape."

Button's third stop brought him out ahead of Senna but behind Alonso's two-stopping Ferrari. Sixth was the most that Jenson could therefore manage, in a car that his team mate proved had the pace to win.

Raikkonen drove a fine middle stint, closing to within 2.5s of third-paced Vettel when the world champion made his second stop on lap 38.

Grosjean, within a second of Hamilton as the second stops approached, did come in first this time and this was the biggest threat that Lewis had faced. The Lotus stop was okay but when McLaren responded by bringing Hamilton in on the next lap, the overall stop time was a second quicker and Hamilton held on.

"We didn't get the chance to jump him on the pit strategy and that was the key today because overtaking here is really too diffiuclt," Grosjean said.

His face betrayed his disappointment at not only failing to win, but also losing second place to team mate Raikkonen.

At the point Hamilton and Grosjean stopped for the final time, Kimi was 4.5s behind them on a 20-lap old set of used option tyres. Leading briefly and on a clear track, Raikkonen did two fastest laps before the tyres started to go away by around half a second and he headed for the pits.

Grosjean, meanwhile, had failed to clear Alonso at his second stop, which cost him time, and was under pressure from Vettel who, like team mate Webber, would ultimately make a third stop.

Raikkonen would not jump Hamilton after his quick four laps, but he was told on the radio that it was going to be close with his team mate, and indeed it was!

"Actually," Kimi says, "I made a mistake with the pit lane speed limiter and was on the button 5m beyond the line, so I should have been comfortably clear."

With the pair together as they went into Turn 1, Raikkonen ran Grosjean out wide and took second place.

From lap 46 to 52, Raikkonen reduced Hamilton's lead from 4.4s to under a second and there were still 17 laps to go. Lewis didn't panic though and kept Raikkonen under control by making sure he was quick through the final turns, never giving Kimi the opportunity to get close enough to pull off a DRS pass.

"These guys were super-rapid today," Hamilton conceded, acknowledging the Lotus performance. "If they had qualified at the front it would have been impossible to get past them."

But he was still buoyant about a win that puts him right back in the championship hunt. Fernando Alonso's fifth place in Hungary and his consistency over the season has given him a 40-point advantage at the top of the championship but eight points cover second to fifth (Webber, 124; Vettel, 122; Hamilton, 117; Raikkonen, 116).

Without sufficient Friday tyre data and taking into account what they had seen from previous races, Red Bull pulled in both Vettel and Webber for a third stop in the expectation of tyre drop-off from their rivals in the closing stages, but it didn't materialise.

The strategy had no impact on Vettel's result but Webber's fifth place ahead of Alonso became eighth place behind the Ferrari, Button and the excellent Senna. That was costly for Mark, robbing him of six points and presenting Alonso with an extra two, for a net swing of eight points.

It wasn't quite that simple though. Staying out would have required 30 laps out of the set of new options that Webber had taken on lap 39 (he had started on primes remember) and he also had an issue with the differential, which wasn't locking properly. At one point he was told to try straightening his corner exits to prevent spinning up the inside wheel but it will undoubtedly have been a factor in the team electing not to gamble on making the tyres last.

Felipe Massa was not a significant factor in the race but anyone who finishes a 69-lap grand prix within 12s of Fernando Alonso has not perfomed shabbily. While the paddock speculated about possible replacements in 2013, Felipe continued to do everything he could to keep alive his chances of holding onto his seat.

Nico Rosberg claimed the final point for Mercedes after a weekend that had turned into something of a trial for Ross Brawn's troops.

As F1 heads into its month-long summer break, it really is difficult to say with any conviction who will ultimately emerge on top. Alonso has to be favourite given his lead but his run can't go on for ever and McLaren is clearly back in the hunt. Lotus and Raikkonen have to be the dark horses. A significant rear wing / exhaust development that they were satisfied with in Hungary but did not race, is expected to have a strong pay-off at high speed venues like the forthcoming Spa and Monza. As much as half a second some suggest -- a worrying prospect for the opposition...