MERCEDES’ MORAL DILEMMA
They played the team game perfectly in Hungary, but what price will Merc pay for doing the right thing?
Kimi Räikkönen could have won the Hungarian Grand Prix, but Ferrari ultimately didn’t allow that to happen, leaving him to act as a frustrated human shield for a car-troubled Sebastian Vettel.
Similarly, Mercedes could have allowed Lewis Hamilton to hold onto his third place, having prevailed upon his team-mate Valtteri Bottas to give that position up to allow Hamilton an opportunity to attack the vulnerable Ferraris. That they didn’t was perhaps laudable from a moral point of view, but it made for an incredibly tense final few laps of the race as Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff weighed up the pros and cons of ‘doing the right thing’ and swapping them back again – while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen closed in rapidly on them from behind. QUALIFYING Hungary’s combination of high-ish ambient temperatures and a compact, smooth-surfaced track layout with a preponderance of slow and medium-speed corners was never expected to favour the long-wheelbase Mercedes W08s.
Third and fourth in qualifying for Bottas and Hamilton, behind Vettel and Räikkönen, was probably the best Mercedes could have expected after Daniel Ricciardo was fastest for Red Bull in both Friday practice sessions and Vettel led a Ferrari one-two on Saturday morning. Still, Merc team boss Toto Wolff insisted Hamilton would have been “in the fight for pole position” if he hadn’t run wide at Turn 4 and been forced to abort his first run in Q3.
Qualifying also proved disappointing for the Red Bulls on one of the most engine-neutral circuits on the calendar. Despite another batch of chassis upgrades, and that sizzling practice pace, Ricciardo could do no better than sixth, with Verstappen P5.
RACE The tight nature of the Hungaroring means overtaking is almost impossible here and a good start is vital – so incidents are virtually guaranteed at Turn 1. Vettel and Räikkönen got away cleanly but then a brawl erupted behind: Hamilton tucked in behind Bottas and got boxed in as Verstappen plotted a successful course around the outside, and Ricciardo found a gap on the inside.
Hamilton lost two places, but gained one back when Verstappen took out Ricciardo at Turn 2, a clumsy shunt that would earn Max a 10s penalty. After four laps behind the Safety Car, Hamilton had a look at the inside at Turn 1 on the restart but declared it “wasn’t worth the risk”.
The first suggestions of Ferrari’s vulnerability came when Vettel reported that his steering had become offset to the left, and that the problem was getting worse. A message from the pitwall advised him to avoid heavy kerb impacts – not the fastest way around this circuit. Immediately behind, Räikkönen began to protest that he was being held up. Ferrari were in a quandary: should they let Vettel retain the lead, and leave both their cars open to an assault by Mercedes, or should they order them to swap places and allow Räikkönen to go clear, preserving a Ferrari victory but putting Vettel at greater risk? As the laps ticked by, no word came despite Räikkönen’s palpable agitation.
Mercedes might have been better placed to take advantage of Ferrari’s vulnerability had they not been stymied by technical issues of their own. A cracked fibre-optic cable was disrupting their communications, including the team radio, so Hamilton and Bottas had but intermittent contact with the pitwall in the opening phase of the race.
Bottas was the first of the leading group to pit, on lap 30, followed by Hamilton, Vettel and Räikkönen on subsequent laps. Räikkönen flew when Vettel pitted out of the way, and had he been
TEMPTED THOUGH MERCEDES WERE TO LEAVE HAMILTON IN THIRD AND BANK MORE POINTS, THEY SWAPPED HIM WITH BOTTAS AT THE FINAL CORNER
left out longer he might have undercut his teammate and emerged in the lead, but it was not to be, and he departed on Vettel’s tail. “I had the speed to stay out,” he fumed over the radio.
Serving his ten-second penalty would put Verstappen out behind Hamilton, so Red Bull kept him out until lap 42 to give him fresher tyres in the final phase. With the radio restored, Hamilton indicated he was faster than his team-mate and could challenge the Ferraris if Bottas gave way: “If I can’t catch and pass them I’ll let him back past.”
On lap 45 the Mercedes swapped places at Turn 1 and Hamilton made inroads into the Ferraris’ leading margin, helped by permission from the pitwall to engage a more potent engine mode for a five-lap push. Räikkönen began to feel the pressure as Hamilton got within DRS distance, forcing him to run closer to Vettel.
But Vettel lifted his pace, and when Hamilton ran wide at Turn 5 on lap 58 and fell out of DRS range, the battle was over. Now it was the Mercedes crew’s turn to sweat, since Verstappen was closing in on Bottas. Tempted though they were to leave Hamilton in third and bank more points, they swapped at the final corner.
The result leaves Vettel on 202 points and Hamilton on 188. Had Mercedes let Lewis finish third, the standings would have been 202-191. A small difference, but one that may take on greater import come Abu Dhabi.
If it does, Wolff admitted: “I’ll be the first person to shoot myself in the knee…”
On the final corner, Hamilton sportingly hands back the position Bottas had relinquished to him
Ricciardo is knocked out on the first lap after a clumsy move by team-mate Verstappen at Turn 2
Seb Vettel is affected by various handling issues, and team-mate Räikkönen holds station astern