How do you win a race from 10th on the grid in Budapest? With perfectly timed pit stops, two undercuts and eight overtaking manoeuvres. How do you lose the race from the front? With the wrong tire choice too early.
The Hungaroring is actually not an overtaking track. The overtaking delta is relatively high at 1.5 seconds, even with ground effect cars. Under normal circumstances you don't win a race in Hungary from 10th place on the grid. Nigel Mansell succeeded in 1989 in a Ferrari from 12th place on the grid. But those were different times. Max Verstappen repeated history. And that wasn't a lucky coincidence. He even added a 360 degree pirouette.
The World Champion passed Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris, Alonso and Ocon again, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc twice on the track. He got past the Mercedes and Carlos Sainz with an undercut.
The early pit stops were a key to his eighth win of the season. A courageous decision, because Red Bull wanted to keep their hands off the hard tyres. With the first tire change on lap 16, Lewis Hamilton was due. Verstappen would probably not have cracked last year's World Cup opponent on the track.
Mercedes kept Hamilton three laps longer for two reasons. First, they wanted to protect front-runner George Russell, who had to forestall an undercut by the Ferrari drivers in his gearbox. Secondly, after starting on medium tires it was clear that Hamilton would have to take the soft rubber at the end of the race. You didn't want that too soon.
So he needed two long stints beforehand. However, team boss Toto Wolff said: "We should have stopped George and Lewis in quick succession. That would have prevented Max's undercut." In fact, the two Mercedes were ten seconds apart on lap 16.
Red Bulls Poker worked out
Even with the second pit stop on lap 38, Verstappen was ahead of the competition. That put him in front of Sainz and Russell without a duel and right in the slipstream of Leclerc.
Red Bull gambled that Ferrari would follow suit in a panic. Since Leclerc had used up his medium tires, he was left with the hard compound with 31 laps to go. Ferrari fell into the trap. game over The rest was routine for Verstappen. One after the other, his opponents turned into the pit lane. Russell on lap 39, Sainz on lap 47, Hamilton on lap 51.
Conversely, one has to ask how Ferrari was able to lose this race. Team boss Mattia Binotto was certainly right that the F1-75 was not in top form. In the heat of 33 degrees on Friday, as expected, he ran into Red Bull and Mercedes. As soon as it got colder, the superiority was over.
But Ferrari was still good enough to finish second and third. So you stood in pairs against a Mercedes.The other opponents ranked far behind. Hamilton in 7th place, Verstappen and Perez in 10th and 11th place.
Hard tires already a problem on Friday
This race just couldn't be lost. Even with a car that didn't reach its normal shape. Up until lap 39, the Ferrari command post did everything right, even if one could question whether it would not have made more sense to split the tactics right at the start instead of starting with both cars on medium tires. Sainz on soft tires would have been a bigger threat to Russell in the first stint than Sainz on medium rubber.
Nevertheless, Verstappen's early pit stop didn't bother him at first. The World Cup rival was not really on the radar. Sainz stopped two laps later, Leclerc five laps. Ferrari had thus created a tire delta from which they wanted to benefit later. Especially with Leclerc. With his first tire change on lap 21, he was predestined to drive long and end up attacking with soft tires.
Why on earth did Inaki Rueda and his strategy squad fall for Verstappen's early second stop? Securing the lead automatically meant putting Leclerc on the hard tires. And only those teams that opted for a one-stop race from the outset wanted to have anything to do with Pirelli's concrete mixture. That was just Alpine. But Ferrari must have noticed with Alonso and Ocon how long it took before the hard tire was finally in the window. And that it was still no better than a used medium.
Desperate act without success
Binotto defended the tire choice: "According to our simulations, they should be superior to the medium tires after ten laps. This assumption was obviously wrong. If we had known that, we would never have taken the hard tires either. We have therefore reacted to Sainz and put him on soft tires." The calculations had to be inaccurate because neither Ferrari nor Red Bull tested the hard tire extensively on Friday. Inferring from others what the tire can do, and at much higher temperatures at that, was bound to go wrong.
Leclerc knew where he had lost the race: "I got the wrong tires too early. Switching to the hard tires was the killer for me." Ferrari's excuses that Sainz even finished fourth despite the right strategy and tires, suggesting a problem with the car, overlooked the fact that the Spaniard wasn't a winning driver that day. Leclerc had surpassed his teammate by 6.7 seconds in just 17 laps. He had the speed to win.
The third pit stop was obviously driven by desperation. With the lap times on the hard tires, it was clear that Leclerc would not keep the two Mercedes. He would then have stood in Sainz's way and perhaps even pushed his team-mates into Perez's arms.Ferrari hoped that the world championship runner-up on soft tires would at least get the extra point for the fastest lap and get past Perez. Both didn't work.
Mercedes splits tire tactics
Mercedes already knew on Friday that hard tires can only be used as an iron reserve for emergencies. "We drove it in the first practice session and found that it's not a good racing tire even at 47 degrees asphalt temperature. How would it be then at 27 degrees? Red Bull and Ferrari didn't use it on Friday, they decided to use it later postponed. That was our lead. We never planned a one-stop race. It wouldn't have been possible without the hard tires. But we didn't want them," explained the engineers.
Mercedes already split the tactic at the start. Soft for the fastest Russell, medium for the seventh-placed Hamilton. "George was too well placed for our car, Lewis too bad. If we had given George a medium at the start he would have had to run the soft at some point and that would have made him vulnerable to faster cars. Had he started on medium against the If Ferrari lost, it would have been game over by then. His job had to be to keep them behind for as long as possible to protect against undercuts later on on the medium tyres."
With Hamilton, the plans were exactly the opposite. "Lewis was faster than the cars in front of him. We figured some of those would be making one stop. So we had two options. Take the soft and try to gain places right from the start. But we'd have two Alpines and do a McLaren in one go? Not really. The best we could do was take the medium and attack to push the stoppers in front of us to the limit."
Fear of the tires collapsing
Hamilton was deliberately sent long during his pit stops. The command post believed the soft tire could do a maximum of 20 laps. The temptation was there to make the second stop earlier. "We drove into Sainz's undercut window. The lap on which Sainz stopped was too early for us. We preferred to wait four laps longer. We would probably have delayed another lap if Perez weren't in ours drove through the pit stop window."
In the case of Russell, too, the engineers were concerned that the tires would collapse before the end of the race if the second stop was too early. The fact that the Mercedes quickly brought their tires up to temperature for the first time had to have consequences in the long run. Albeit not as drastic as expected.
"Lap 39 was the first moment we could risk it. We also had to watch out for Sainz." Mercedes accepted that Verstappen would create the undercut."Red Bull was able to make courageous decisions from their starting positions," team boss Toto Wolff defended his own tactics.
Alpine's stopgap worked
In midfield, only Alpine delivered the breakaway. The French were the only team to commit to a one-stop race from the start. What looked like a mistake at one point paid off in the end. McLaren didn't make up any points as Daniel Ricciardo wore himself out in a battle with the Aston Martins and was penalized for colliding with Lance Stroll.
Aston Martin was faster than Alpine with two stops, but not by the 20 seconds that an extra pit stop cost. Lando Norris would have been out of reach for Alonso and Ocon either way. The McLaren driver took two seconds off the Alpine in the first stint and ten seconds in the second.
Aston Martin was forced to split its tactics. Lance Stroll had only reserved a used set of media for the race. In addition, two approached sets of the soft mixture. He had to drive one of them at the end of the race. An ambitious task with 24 remaining laps.
Sebastian Vettel had two sets of medium after the start on soft tyres. One new, the other used. With that he was able to attack in the last stint. Stroll let him pass voluntarily. Things got really tight for the Alpine. Vettel was just a tenth of a second behind Ocon and 2.9 seconds behind Alonso.