Daniel Ricciardo’s second career F1 win was even more emphatic than the first in Canada seven weeks ago. The Red Bull driver overtook Lewis Hamilton and then Fernando Alonso with two incisive moves in the final laps of an extremely eventful Hungarian Grand Prix.
All three drivers deserved to be on the podium for different but equally dramatic reasons: Ricciardo for his strategic nous and the ability to strike cleanly when necessary; Alonso for giving Ferrari their best result by far this season thanks to making his final set of tyres last for almost half the race; and Hamilton for achieving the near-miracle of finishing a strong third despite starting from the pit lane at a track where overtaking is supposed to be even more difficult than usual.
Hamilton’s start from the back had been caused by major fire at the beginning of qualifying; the second time in a week that his car had let him down at a crucial moment. If good luck was to go his way, then it came within seconds of the start when, going into the second corner, his cold brakes snatched and pitched the Mercedes into a spin, Hamilton just scraping the barrier. Meanwhile, team-mate Nico Rosberg’s good fortune was about to desert him.
Starting from pole – and compounding Hamilton’s frustration even further – Rosberg was almost ten seconds to the good when Marcus Ericsson crashed his Caterham. Unfortunately for the top four – Rosberg, Valtteri Bottas (Williams), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Alonso, the Safety Car was called just after they had passed the pit entrance. As the rest, led by Jenson Button (McLaren) and Ricciardo, piled into the pits to get rid of Intermediate tyres prompted by a shower not long before the start, the erstwhile leaders were losing time and about to slip down the order.
Button’s great opportunity was lost when McLaren’s weather forecasting seemed different to everyone else as Button was alone in returning with a fresh set of wet-weather tyres. Ricciardo took the lead as Button made the inevitable return to the pits on lap 15, positions remaining the same until lap 22 when a crash for the Force India of Sergio Perez triggered a second appearance by the Safety Car.
The race was at one-third distance and prompted a variety of strategies as teams decided what to do next with Soft and Medium tyres that were very close in terms of performance and endurance.
Ferrari decided not to stop, putting Alonso into a lead no one had expected. Rosberg also stayed out and moved into third but his attention was focussed on the fact that a typically energetic charge by Hamilton had brought him into fifth place, not far behind Vettel. These three were covered by less than two seconds, and were soon joined by Ricciardo on his fresh tyres. As Rosberg started to edge ahead, Hamilton knew he needed to do something about Vettel. His problem was solved when the reigning World Champion put a wheel on the artificial grass edging the exit of the final corner and, unlike Perez, managed to miss the pit wall on the opposite of the track.
Ricciardo was poised to move up the leaderboard when the Mercedes pair stopped, Rosberg on lap 32 (for the Soft) and Hamilton seven laps later for the Medium. This discrepancy in Mercedes tactics would once again stretch the meaning of ‘team-mate’ as the race moved into the final third.
It was clear Rosberg in fourth place would need to stop once more whereas Hamilton, running third, was looking to run to the finish if he could. When asked to allow his team-mate through, Hamilton refused, saying he was not going to lose time because Rosberg was a couple of car lengths behind. “If he wants to overtake me, then let him do that,” was a response bound to trigger post-race debate just as surely as Mercedes attempt to dictate tactics in the first place.
While this airwave activity was going on, Ricciardo had lost his lead with a final stop that dropped him to fourth, the top three being Alonso, Hamilton and Rosberg. That became third for the Red Bull when Rosberg made his third stop with 14 laps to go.
The man to watch had become Ricciardo with his fresher tyres and impressive self-confidence when sizing up two of the most difficult drivers to overtake. On lap 67 he ran round the outside of Hamilton at Turn 2 and placed himself perfectly to grab second place at the next corner. With momentum at a peak, he dived down the inside of Alonso at Turn 1 on lap 68 to take the lead. Rosberg, meanwhile, had charged from seventh to fourth and, in the process, restricted Hamilton’s gain of extra points to just three. Nonetheless, Hamilton was happy with that, given that he had faced a bleak afternoon and came within a fraction of ending it all against the barrier.
The championship – and F1 – is in good shape going into the summer break. Round 12 will be in Belgium on 24 August.