Lewis Hamilton said a mistake by his Mercedes team denied him victory at Sunday’s superb Hungarian Grand Prix.
Alpine driver Esteban Ocon claimed one of the most unlikely wins in the sport’s recent memory, with Hamilton delivering a brilliant comeback drive from plum last to third – later upgraded to second following Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification for a breach of fuel regulations – on an unforgettable afternoon.
A rain shower 30 minutes before the race set in motion an almost unbelievable sequence of events.
At the getaway, Hamilton’s slow-starting Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas assumed the role of the Hungaroring bowling ball. McLaren’s Lando Norris, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and, crucially, Max Verstappen were Bottas’ helpless skittles.
It was the perfect strike for pole-sitter Hamilton, who not only emerged from the first-corner madness in one piece but also saw his title rival drop from second to 13th.
The race was red-flagged for 25 minutes to clear up the debris and as Red Bull hastily patched up Verstappen’s wounded machine with duct tape, and Perez and Bottas were forced to retire from the race, Hamilton looked certain to cruise to the flag.
But during the delay, the sun emerged and the circuit was virtually bone dry.
At the end of the formation lap, the 14 remaining drivers, bar Hamilton, peeled in for slick rubber. The curious decision by Mercedes meant the seven-time world champion was the sole man to take his marks on the grid for the most bizarre of re-starts.
Hamilton stopped the next lap around, dropping him to 14th and last.
“We obviously all started on the intermediate tyres, and during the formation lap I tried to give information to the guys,” explained Hamilton.
“I kept telling them it’s dry, dry, dry and they said to me ‘stay out’. I don’t understand it. We don’t make it easy for ourselves. It’s a mistake from us.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff refuted his superstar driver’s claim.
“It was 100 per cent the right decision and I stand by it,” said Wolff.
“In the end, you need to make the call out there and judge whether it is dry enough. I thought that within one lap it couldn’t dry up like it did.
“You have to take it on the chin – that it was the wrong outcome but the decision was right. I don’t think it was an error.”
Back on track, Hamilton took aim at his team over the radio: “Come on, guys, get on it for the rest of the race.”
“We are on it, Lewis,” came the reassuring reply from his race engineer, Peter Bonnington. “Verstappen still has damage. You are easily going to be the fastest man out there. We can still win this.”
Hamilton had the bit between his teeth.
In fairness to Mercedes, an early stop for a change of rubber ignited his comeback and took him ahead of a struggling Verstappen.
By lap 30 of 70, Hamilton was up to sixth – following a mighty move around the outside of Pierre Gasly at the high-speed turn four – and then fifth as he took Gasly’s Alpha Tauri team-mate Yuki Tsunoda.
“What is our target?” he yelled over the radio.
“We are fighting for a podium,” said Bonnington. “It is going to be hard but you can do it.”
Fernando Alonso pitted and Hamilton was up to fourth, but on ageing rubber he was running out of steam and Mercedes rolled the dice to bring Hamilton in for his third stop of the afternoon.
With 22 of the 70 laps to run, Hamilton emerged from the pits 25 seconds behind Ocon but taking more than three seconds out of the Frenchman’s lead. Suddenly a shock win appeared on the cards.
A breathless Hamilton asked the questions: “Where am I? How many cars have I got to overtake?”
Bonnington replied: “Four cars for the win.”
Wolff then made a rare appearance on the radio. “Lewis, you can win this,” he yelled.
Hamilton was suddenly just 10 seconds away from his 100th victory, and one that would certainly rank among the finest of his career. But Alonso had other ideas.
The world champions dramatically went wheel-to-wheel on laps 55 and 57, and on lap 63 came within millimetres of contact on the uphill drag to turn four.
But with five laps to run, Alonso afforded an opening to Hamilton at the first corner and the Mercedes man did not need a second invitation.
On lap 67, Hamilton raced past Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz at the first corner to seal third, taking the chequered flag less than three seconds behind Ocon.
Verstappen finished 10th. The Dutchman was 33 points ahead of Hamilton just a fortnight ago but heads into the summer break eight points adrift.
“Again, take out by a Mercedes and that is not what you want,” he said, referring back to the controversial crash with Hamilton at Silverstone a fortnight ago that left him in hospital and saw the British driver penalised.
Bottas was punished by the stewards this time around with a five-place grid penalty at the next round in Belgium, while Vettel was referred to the stewards after his car was “unable to provide an adequate fuel sample after the race”.
The FIA announced on Sunday evening that Vettel had been disqualified from the race after stewards were unable to take the required litre sample of fuel from the German’s Aston Martin, which crossed the line second behind Ocon.