Winning Slowly
2016 Hungarian Grand Prix
Text | Richard Kelley
Translation | Henry Lau
Photography | Charles Chan
Design | Ztephen Lee

The Expectations

For the past thirty seasons, the Hungaroring has had the reputation of being hot, muggy, dusty, twisty and very short on grip. It’s not a circuit to underestimate; with 14 tight turns linked together without a fast straight, aero drag adds no penalty to lap times so teams bring as much downforce as they can. Then there’s the physical setting. The 2.722-mile Hungaroring sits in a valley with little air circulation and high ambient temperatures. Teams are forced to open additional cooling vents to keep their power units happy.

While brakes aren’t overworked, the shorter straights and lower speeds leave little time to dissipate the built-up heat, so brake ducts are Monaco-size. And, when it rains, the dusty track surface turns to “grease” with grip to match. The circuit was recently repaved and with bumps removed and softer curbs installed. Sensors were installed to keep drivers from exceeding track limits; after three warnings, drivers will now receive a penalty.

Expectations were that the predicted high heat on Sunday would destroy soft tire compounds in less than 15 laps on full tanks.

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg set the outright fastest time in the second practice session just after teammate Lewis Hamilton hit the barriers. Hamilton had dropped Rosberg from the top of the timesheets by just 0.001s during the early laps the soft Pirelli tyre, but a few minutes later he hit the barriers at the exit of Turn 11 after losing the rear of his car. Rosberg would rally to reclaim the top spot.

It would be the same scenario in a Q3 heavily disrupted due to wet weather. Hamilton had been fastest after the first two runs in Q3, however on his final run, he had to slow when he encountered Fernando Alonso’s spinning McLaren. He ended up 0.143s slower than Rosberg’s 1m19.965s. Would Rosberg be able to convert his pole position into the lead out of Turn One and end his victory slide?

The Overview

In what has become a familiar script over the last five races, Lewis Hamilton took the lead into the first corner and led flag to flag to claim his record fifth Hungarian Grand Prix victory. More importantly, with his fifth victory in six races, Hamilton has now converted a 43-point deficit into a six-point lead in the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship.

Nico Rosberg followed Hamilton the entire distance, finishing 1.9 seconds behind. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo held on for the final podium step, despite the continuous threat from a determined Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari.

Ricciardo’s teenage team-mate Max Verstappen followed suit, battling nose to tail with Kimi Raikkonen for over 15 laps. At one point Verstappen snapped his Red Bull across the Ferrari’s nose as the Finn tried to pass, snapping off a front wing endplate. The stewards called no penalty, and the Dutchman finished fifth.

Both Mercedes drivers were swallowed up by the Red Bull duo of then Daniel Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen on the approach to Turn 1. Hamilton slipped up the inside of the cautious Rosberg and grabbed the lead at the apex of the first corner. Ricciardo briefly moved ahead of Rosberg before dropping back behind him at Turn 2.

Chased by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, these four circulated cleanly on the supersoft tyres up to their first pitstops. Verstappen was heard complaining over his radio that they were driving like “Grandmas.”

Unfortunately for Verstappen, his pit stop was slow, and he came out behind Raikkonen, who had clawed his way forward on harder tyres from his 14th starting slot on the grid. The time Verstappen spent in Raikkonen’s wake early in the race put him too far behind to take part in the podium battle at the finish.

At this point, Hamilton was stroking. His pace was so relaxed that the team warned him that should he continue his kicked-back pace, Rosberg would be given the first chance to pit in the next round to protect him from Ricciardo, who was lapping one-second faster at that point. Hamilton understood the warning loud and clear, instantly putting 2.8s between himself and Rosberg.

The eventual gap grew to about 4.4s and was enough for Hamilton to pit first for another set of softs. Rosberg following a lap later, and the Mercedes duo maintained their gap ahead of Ricciardo.

On lap 53, Rosberg was able to close to within 0.6s when Hamilton was blocked by the Haas of Esteban Gutierrez but once past, Hamilton restored the gap. It would fall to 0.6s again when Hamilton had a minor lock up under braking, but Hamilton always had everything well in hand. Rosberg couldn’t press any harder.

Farther back, Vettel hounded Ricciardo for third but couldn’t get past. It was the same case for Raikkonen, who now found Verstappen in his way as their individual tire strategies wound down. He tried everything, but other than a bit of contact, found Verstappen’s defense virtually impregnable. He finished a frustrated sixth.

Behind the top six was Fernando Alonso’s McLaren, followed by the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz Jr, Valtteri Bottas’ Williams and Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India.

Hamilton now leads the drivers’ championship for the first time this season with 192, trailed by Rosberg’ with 186.

The Plan

Hamilton drove like the three-time World Driving Champion, managing teammate Rosberg and his Mercedes team like a pro. His plan was to drive just slow enough not to ruin his tyres, but just fast enough for his competitors not to pass him – winning at the slowest possible speed, shades of fellow three-time champion Jackie Stewart’s playbook.

The Block

Verstappen should consider himself very, very lucky he didn’t get a post race penalty for defending his position from Raikkonen. The call could have gone either way. Raikkonen complained Verstappen had moved twice under braking going into Turn Two resulting in the contact that broke Raikkonen’s front endplate. Others called it just racing as Raikkonen had jinked right and then left as Verstappen seemed to assume his original track position.

The Quality Drives of the Day

Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz, and the spirited comeback from Kimi Raikkonen.

The Future

Nico Rosberg must get off the line faster in Germany next week. F1 is all about clean air these days, and Rosberg lost all hope as soon as Hamilton passed him into turn 1. Another loss to Hamilton will gnaw at his psyche during the mid-Summer break.

The Worse Day Ever

Jenson Button was the only driver not to finish as he retired his McLaren with eight laps to go when his car started smoking. The Briton had already served a drive-through penalty for receiving an “unauthorised radio communication” after reporting what seemed to be impending brake failure. It’s baffling that the FIA chose to penalise him when it was evident he was concerned his car had serious safety problems. A bit of consistency from FIA would be nice.

Now, its on to Germany and the Hockenheimring this weekend.