Wins don’t come much more emphatic than from 10th on the grid at the Hungaroring.
Max Verstappen’s against-the-odds victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix was only the fourth time someone’s won in Budapest starting further back than the front two rows. Not only was it a clear underline on Red Bull Racing’s superiority in the 2022 championship race, it was also a neat encapsulation of the entire season to date as the sport heads into the mid-season break.
It featured a wildly slow then unexpectedly and inexplicably fast Mercedes that threatened to win the race but ultimately couldn’t manage it.
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It featured Ferrari somehow fumbling what should’ve been an unimpeachable pace advantage early in the weekend to finish off the podium and denying it lacks operational sharpness.
And as its centrepiece it featured Red Bull Racing executing most effectively, Verstappen seizing his opportunities and both ending Sunday with enhanced points leads.
You almost don’t need to have seen any other race this year to understand where the championship stands and predict where it’ll head when racing resumes at the end of August after the mid-season break.
REMINDER: FERRARI TARGETED TO ONE-TWO
There’s no team that needs the mid-season break more urgently than Ferrari, which contributed yet another way to ship more points to Red Bull Racing and Verstappen in an already bleak title campaign.
All this despite having explicitly targeted a one-two finish just days earlier.
It won’t shock you to know that the team’s embarrassing loss came mainly from the pit wall.
Slow pit stops meant it took longer for Leclerc to pass pole-getter Russell than it should have, and it cost Sainz the opportunity to pass the Briton at all.
It then made the fatal error of swapping Leclerc onto the unfancied hard tire for his final stint in a hasty attempt to cover the undercutting Verstappen — despite the fact every other car that had used the tire was struggling badly for grip.
Not only did it cost him the lead, but he was forced into making a third stop that left him an almost unbelievable sixth at the flag.
Ferrari protested after the race that the problem wasn’t its strategy but the car, which in the cooler Sunday conditions wasn’t exhibiting the dominant edge it enjoyed during Friday practice.
“Certainly we didn’t have the performance we were expecting,” team boss Mattia Binotto told Sky Sports. “Whatever the tyres, somehow the performance of our cars was not as expected.
“Today the car was not behaving well, I think that’s the point.”
Binotto isn’t wrong to make that argument, but he is exaggerating. Ferrari was slower than it was on Friday, but it was still the fastest car on track.
We can make a like-for-like comparison between Leclerc and Verstappen on the medium tire in the middle of the race, Even accounting for the Dutchman’s older rubber, the Monegasque was still quicker, or at least quick enough to take him on directly.
But the team let itself be spooked by Verstappen’s second undercut attempt with 32 laps to go. Rather than race to its own pace, run deep and switch to softs — which it did with Sainz — it brought Leclerc in immediately for the hard tire and suffered the consequences.
“I felt very strong on the medium. Everything was under control,” Leclerc told Sky Sports. “I don’t know why we needed to go on the hard.
“I said on the radio I was very comfortable on the medium and I wanted to go as long as possible on those tires because the feeling was good. I don’t know why we made a different decision.”
So really there are two key mistakes here. One is coolness under pressure in reading the race, and the other is misunderstanding the hard tyre, which the team thought would warm up after 10 laps but which in reality was never going to be effective. It’s not the first time it’s committed either foul this season.
Leclerc left Budapest with a whopping 80-point deficit to Verstappen and Ferrari is now 97 points adrift of Red Bull Racing. More worrying still, the team’s just 30 points ahead of Mercedes.
And with performance like that, would you be willing to back Ferrari to hold second?
MAX VERSTAPPEN PUTS ONE HAND ON THE TROPHY
If Charles Leclerc’s solo crash at the French Grand Prix effectively decided the destination of the title, Verstappen’s slick victory in Budapest gave him a chance to put one hand on the trophy.
An 80-point advantage is more than three clear race victories. He can now afford to finish second to Leclerc at every race, including the sprint in Brazil, and ship the point for fastest lap and he still won’t lose the title lead before the end of the season.
Before the mid-season break he’s been able to put the fate of the drivers championship completely in his own hands. No mean feat.
After last season’s down-to-the-wire blockbuster finale, you’ll be concerned to know we can start counting down the points needed to win the championship.
With nine rounds remaining, Verstappen can win the championship with just five more victories even if Leclerc finishes second to him in all of them. That puts him on track to claim the crown at the Japanese Grand Prix.
And perhaps Verstappen winning the next five races is unlikely — he’s yet to win more than three in a row this season — but with Mercedes potentially in the mix, he may have a team to pick points off Ferrari and Leclerc, in which case just finishing with one or two cars between him and the Monegasque regardless of their finishing position would probably be enough to get the job done.
The weekend wasn’t perfect of course. A power unit problem was part of the reason he qualified poorly, and a clutch issue spun him around in the race, temporarily costing him the lead. He’ll also need to serve a penalty for a new power unit at some point in the second half of the year, having installed his third and final motor this weekend.
But the gap is easily wide enough to absorb that pressure, and with Leclerc needing at least one more round of power unit penalties, it’s extremely difficult to imagine a scenario in which Verstappen doesn’t win the title with at least two rounds to spare
MERCEDES UNEXPECTEDLY FAST BUT UNSURE ABOUT PERMANENCE
Mercedes arrived in Budapest in the brace position, appeared to be justified by its lackluster Friday performance, but by the end of the weekend it had collected its first pole of the year with George Russell and a second straight double podium.
Lewis Hamilton had even been on a late an unlikely charge for victory that team boss Toto Wolff said could’ve ended in success had he qualified higher up the grid rather than suffer a DRS failure in Q3.
What’s more, the Hungaroring layout should have been a struggle circuit for the car, which tends to prefer faster tracks — Hamilton almost won at Silverstone, both drivers showed good pace in Austria before crashing out of qualifying, and the team got both cars onto the podium in France.
Wolff, however, said it was less a case of not understanding the reasons for its speed in Budapest but rather figuring out if those reasons applied universally or only to the specific characteristics of the Hungaroring.
“It’s not that we have no clue why the car has been fast,” Wolff said, per The Race.
“We had directions during the season where we believed it would unlock the potential of the car, and it didn’t.
“So here we have another direction, and that was very quick on the stopwatch.
“But I don’t want to have another false dawn and we come to the realization tomorrow and Spa that it didn’t reap the benefits that we were hoping to have.
“In that respect, let’s just wait and see where this is going.”
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In that respect Mercedes must be frustrated to have to wait three weeks to try to validate its progress, though the triple-header comprising three distinct track types will be the ultimate test of its solution.
The team is long out of championship contention, but the W13’s fortunes are still relevant to the title outcome.
Potentially now quick enough to contend for regular merited podiums and perhaps victories at some tracks, how well Mercedes does on any given weekend will decide three things: how soon Verstappen wins the title — or, if you’re extremely optimistic, whether he wins the title; where Ferrari will finish in the constructors standings; and whether Leclerc will finish second in the drivers standings.
George Russell is now just 20 points behind Leclerc in the battle for a second, with Hamilton 12 points further back, and the team is now only 30 points short of Ferrari in the teams title battle.
It’s too late for the major prizes, but the minor placings are still very much up for grabs.
McLAREN STILL IN TOUCH FOR FOURTH DESPITE RICCIARDO PENALTY
The battle for best of the midfield is similarly still very much alive, with McLaren maintaining its four-point deficit to Alpine in fourth on the constructors title table.
This was an improved weekend for Woking, one week after it introduced its major upgrade package at the French Grand Prix. Not only did Lando Norris again outqualify both French cars, but this week he retained his place ahead of them despite a slow first pit stop, ensuring maximum midfield points with seventh place.
He had Alpine’s unlikely one-stop strategy to thank in part. Alpine did n’t have a second set of medium tires for either driver, having burnt through them during practice, and so he had little choice but to go long, meaning he neither could challenge the leading Briton.
Daniel Ricciardo was the only weak point for McLaren. The Australian had been marginally off Norris’s pace through the race but quick enough to be running behind him before the first stops, even makingthat excellent double pass around the two battling Alpine drivers to hold the place.
But his struggles really started during his final stint on the hard tire and intensified once he was lapped, costing him precious tire temperature each time he was waved a blue flag.
The lack of grip on the white-walled tire was also behind him running wide and into Lance Stroll at turn 2, earning him a five-second penalty, when he was trying to let the Canadian by.
It left him out of the points, allowing a superb drive by Sebastian Vettel to be rewarded by one point, the German having recovered from 18th by avoiding that troublesome hard tire.