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Hamilton's win was on the Button

2013-07-29 07:53

HOW CLOSE IS THAT! Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel (behind) and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton up close and personal at the Hungaroring circuit in Budapest on July 28 2013 during the Hungarian F1 GP which Hamilton won. Image: AFP

DIETER RENCKEN

Ultimately two factors delivered Lewis Hamilton’s maiden win for Mercedes: a stonking qualifying lap on the tight and twisty Hungaroring and a strangely on-form Jenson Button/McLaren combination which created a 12-second cushion for the leader.

Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso tripped and fell about behind the McLaren which started on Mediums (to their Softs) so was mixing it with the front-runners after they pitted first time round.

Let’s dispense with that demon qualifying lap first: it was over in a flash – 79.388sec, in fact, or 0.38sec quicker than Vettel at a circuit on which Lewis simply excels. So much does he love the layout that in his six previous races at the (invariably) hot and dusty natural amphitheatre 20km east of Budapest, the 2008 champion has won three times for a strike rate of 50%. Come 4pm and he would improve that to 64%...

VITAL TENTHS LOST

That crucial starting advantage was all it needed for Hamilton to storm into a lead he was not to lose during the 70-lap race save during pit stop re-shuffles. But it always was going to be fraught behind him, what with Grosjean third, followed by Nico Rosberg in the second Mercedes and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, last-named in for a long afternoon after the Scuderia failed to set the Spaniard’s DRS system in race trim – enabling him to erroneously deploy the overtaking device three times before his team twigged.

Thereafter he was instructed to use it only when given the go-ahead verbally and of course the team erred on the side of caution, losing him vital tenths at every opportunity. It was a costly error for, apart from the 15 000 euro fine the team incurred, Fernando’s eventual fifth cost him second place (by one point) in the title chase to Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), who was second, but 11sec behind Hamilton.

Back to the Button train: when Lewis emerged after his first stop (Lap 9) on Mediums, he fell in behind seventh-placed Button, who held up his former team mate for three laps before being muscled past. Vettel then had a go… and another… and another – and so on through to Lap 25 when he eventually made it after coming under extreme pressure from Grosjean/Alonso.

Vettel made light contact with Button, which damaged a front-wing end plate and destroyed the Red Bull’s aero balance.

HARSH PENALTIES

Grosjean, too, tangled with Button; worse, in the process he cut across the chicane then failed to cede advantage, attracting a 20sec post-race penalty. However, a similar incident destroyed his podium (even victory) chances for he was handed an instant drive-through for leaving the track while dicing Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.

Both penalties were adjudged extremely harsh by paddock sages. Yes, he went off-track, but that’s racing in +40C ambient temperatures with track temperatures peaking at 57C on a track second only to Monaco in virtually every respect save the glamour. Give a dog a bad name…

By the time they’d fought their collective ways past Button, Lewis was well down the road and cruising, rolling back to conserve tyres and engine during one of the hottest GP’s yet. In the past decade only Bahrain 2005 was hotter; F1 statisticians needed to delve back to Dallas 1984 to find another 40-degreer. Ultimately it was this cushion that enabled Lewis to care for his tyres on a car which in the cooler conditions of Spain and Germany simply ate its Pirellis.

Pirelli had switched back to 2012-spec construction after a spate of spectacular failures but still no one – including the Italian company’s motorsport director Paul Hembery – expected the rears fitted to Mercedes to last in the scorching conditions.

“I’m delighted for them,” Hembery told Wheels24, “and I hope it means they really have solved their issues as it bodes well for the second half of the championship.”

SHIFTER WENT SOUTH

By the time Lewis’s three stops (all for Mediums after starting on Softs) washed out on Lap 50 it was Raikkonen behind the leader, with Vettel (S, M, M, M) right up the black car’s chuff - and then some, for during the final laps they ran side-by-side, causing Vettel to melodramatically demand from his team that the two-stopping Raikkonen (for Mediums) be docked a drive-through for failing to leave the great Vettel sufficient space. As if - it is such incidents that raise questions about Vettel’s mind-set…

Mark Webber in the second Red Bull was in for a long race immediately his kers and gearshift went south during qualifying. Repaired, the Australian selected the opposite strategy to the rest, starting on Medium to their Soft and playing spoiling games where/when he could as he climbed up the order to an eventual fourth.

Alonso, too, went the conventional S, M, M, M route, but Ferrari’s woes seemingly got to him for the first time in three years and post-race his head seemed to drop - with Ferrari’s cage being further rattled by news that his manager had held discussions with Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner, who needs to fill the seat soon to be vacated by Webber. That should concentrate Ferrari’s mind during F1’s summer break...

Sixth went to Grosjean after a topsy-turvy afternoon, the Lotus driver’s 20sec penalty proving insufficient to drop him behind Button in seventh, for on the road Romain, who paid four visits to the pits lane for three swops of rubber (M, M, M after starting on Soft) plus penalty, was 21.524sec up on the McLaren, in turn three seconds ahead of Massa.

SIGNIFICANT VICTORY

Rounding off the top 10 were Button’s team mate Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado, whose point for Williams could eventually prove to be worth the equivalent of about R150-million for the battling British team as it struggles to re-establish itself. Significantly, McLaren’s drivers put in the longest stints of the race on the respective compounds during their two-stoppers, Button stretching his final set of Mediums to 33 laps and the Mexican getting 15 laps from the Softs bolted on for his middle stint.

For Lewis his 22nd career victory was particularly significant, for Nico has taken two wins for Mercedes this season (to add to his 2012 win in China) whereas Lewis has generally been out-classed by the German despite regularly out-qualifying his former karting team mate. Clearly frustration was building within Lewis, whose personal life has recently got in the way of his racing. Now that demon has been expunged: he has won with Mercedes after six years at McLaren.

“You know, I think this is probably one of my most important wins,” he said. “To move to Mercedes and win is a real privilege. It’s been a great weekend after what I expected to be one of my toughest.”

SUPREME IRONY?

He added through tears of joy, referencing a group tyre test undertaken earlier this month by all save Mercedes after his team was found guilty of illegal testing earlier in the year: “The team worked extremely hard and we brought a lot of upgrades. We just bolted on the [new] tyres and they worked.”

Was it supreme irony at work that Lewis, arguably the hardest driver of all on tyres, won the season’s toughest race or did Mercedes really learn an enormous amount about tyre management in Barcelona in May? Probably a mix of both – but don’t overlook the crucial role played by his former McLaren team mate
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