In 1997, Damon Hill looked set for an entirely unheralded victory for Arrows in the Hungarian Grand Prix, having endured up until that point a desultory season as reigning F1 World Champion. The 1996 title-winner may have ultimately agonisingly come up one lap short due to throttle linkage failure. Twelve years on, and following a similarly soul-destroying campaign, Lewis Hamilton has gone one better – with his first triumph of the year in Budapest.
Having not been up on the podium all year – indeed, having scored just nine points prior to arriving at the Hungaroring this weekend – the result marked a remarkable turnaround for a driver and team who in winter testing had lagged a gaping 2.5 seconds shy of the leading pace. Jenson Button step aside – Lewis Hamilton is back in the building.
In taking the chequered flag a lowly seventh, indeed, the world championship leader saw his margin atop the drivers' standings further reduced as Mark Webber came home third for Red Bull Racing, though he at least had some respite as Sebastian Vettel dropped out with accident damage, reversing the positions of the two energy drinks-backed challengers in the chase for the coveted crown and putting the Australian in the driving seat for the for time since Shanghai back in April.
The podium was completed by Kimi Raikkonen in second, providing a welcome shot in the arm for Ferrari following team-mate Felipe Massa's terrible accident the previous day during qualifying. The only talking-point afterwards in the paddock, though, was that the man who had written off his chances of successfully defending his title, the man who some had predicted would not even succeed in ascending the podium at all in 2009, is back – and standing proud up on the top step.
Fernando Alonso made a textbook getaway when the starting lights went out and went on to edge away at the front of the field, as Webber and Hamilton went at it for second place into turn one, with the former getting the verdict, but only after his British rival dived down the inside and over-shot the exit, consequently falling back into third as the German Grand Prix winner stole the advantage back again.
Vettel, meanwhile, paid the price for a poor start from the dirty side of the front row of the grid, and as the KERS-equipped Raikkonen made up ground, the Finn got his Ferrari sideways on the exit of turn one, tagging the Red Bull Racing into the process and forcing Vettel to get off the throttle and slip back to seventh place, reporting possible front wing damage into the bargain. The Finn, for his part, would be investigated for his move 'after the race'.
Elsewhere at the front of the field as the KERS cars upset the applecart every bit as much as they had threatened to, Raikkonen slotted into fourth ahead of Nico Rosberg – the Williams star maintaining his qualifying position – Heikki Kovalainen in the second McLaren-Mercedes and the frustrated Vettel, with title pace-setter Button similarly ceding ground and dropping to ninth behind Kazuki Nakajima and just ahead of the fast-starting Jarno Trulli in the first of the two Toyotas. As has been something of a hallmark of his season, though, the Briton would rapidly set about making amends, diving assertively down the inside of his Williams rival into turn one at the beginning of lap two – but the leaders were getting away.
The complexion of the top three, however, would change four laps in, when Hamilton forced his way artfully past Webber into turn two after making the New South Wales native defend on the tighter inside line, getting a better run out of the corner and slicing back up the inside again to make the move stick. Off in pursuit of his former team-mate in the lead, the McLaren ace immediately set about reducing the deficit to Alonso and eating into the Spaniard's 2.5-second lead with a succession of fastest laps – leaving Webber to deal with fending off the attentions of the earnest Raikkonen behind.
There was drama, however, a handful of laps later, when the increasingly under-pressure Alonso – complaining of graining on his tyres – pitted a couple of laps earlier than expected, with his drop-off in pace having backed the pack up to such an extent that the top four were by now covered by just four seconds. There was disaster, however, when the man from Oviedo was erroneously released before his front right tyre had been fully fitted. With the wheel cover coming loose on his 'out' lap, only moments later the inevitable happened as the errant tyre detached itself from the car, leaving Alonso with three wheels on his wagon and with no choice but to tour back to the pits and into retirement, with too much aerodynamic damage to his R29 to be able to continue.
That promoted Hamilton into the lead, where the Stevenage-born ace would remain throughout the opening round of pit visits, continuing to pull away from his pursuers. His advantage was boosted partly by mishaps for his rivals in the pit-lane, with a delay for Webber followed by Red Bull releasing the 32-year-old directly into the path of Raikkonen's Ferrari, with the two cars narrowly avoiding contact – and there was further pain for F1's newest grand prix-winner when Timo Glock in the Toyota forced his way by later around the lap.
More misery fell upon the in-form team of the moment as Vettel suffered a poor pit-stop, and not long afterwards complained over the radio that something was broken on his RB5, with the rear looking to be dragging along the ground. Following a pit-stop to check the car over, the man from Heppenheim rejoined – but the damage had already been done, and just a lap later he was back in again for good.
Elsewhere during the stops, Rosberg rejoined the fray narrowly ahead of Webber, only to almost immediately be caught napping by his ex team-mate as the Red Bull audaciously drove all the way around the outside of the Williams into turn two. Rosberg would lose further ground to Kovalainen following the Finn's own stop a couple of laps later.
Vettel's retirement – joining compatriot Adrian Sutil in the Force India and Alonso in taking an early bath – relieved some of the pressure on Button, who rose as high as second behind countryman Hamilton as others pitted, but not before coming under renewed attack from Nakajima, the sole surviving FIF1 of Giancarlo Fisichella and Trulli, with the latter comfortably jumping the Brawn by dint of staying out even longer still. The man who really spoiled the world championship leader's day, though, was Glock who delayed his own first stop all the way to lap 32, and when he rejoined found himself ahead of Trulli and Button, now barely inside the points.
All of this, though, was of little consequence to Hamilton, who courtesy of his supreme pace and the calamities befalling his rivals, had stretched out his advantage over second-placed Raikkonen to more than six seconds, with Webber in third a further five seconds in arrears and coming under threat from the second McLaren of Kovalainen, with Rosberg still well in attendance too in fifth, ahead of the two Toyotas and Button.
Webber, visibly, was struggling for grip on the harder tyre during his middle stint, as the super-soft shod Kovalainen ramped up the pressure, and fellow Finn Raikkonen focussed his attentions on hunting down Hamilton. With McLaren and Ferrari back on-form and both Brawn and Red Bull firmly in the wars, the 2009 form book was being turned upon its head.
Indeed, as the oversteer-plagued Button slipped ever-further adrift of the Toyotas, he found himself under attack from Nelsinho Piquet – desperate to score a point or two to save his faltering F1 career – the ever-present Nakajima and BMW-Sauber pairing Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica, with team-mate Barrichello in 13th and bearing the battle scars of opening lap damage that had cost the Brazilian early ground.
Kovalainen was the first driver to pit for a second time with 26 laps remaining, rejoining with a clear track ahead of him though now on the unpopular harder-compound Bridgestone rubber – and the defending Hungarian Grand Prix winner soon found himself subject to the unwelcome attentions of Trulli behind. Compatriot Raikkonen was next in a lap later, though the 2007 world champion's designs on victory took a knock when he lost time by being briefly unable to engage gear for a few seconds upon leaving his box.
Hamilton was next to blink, leaving the reigning title-holder with 24 laps to endure on the harder tyres, with Rosberg following suit three tours later as the inspired Glock – back at the scene of his maiden rostrum finish in the top flight twelve months ago – was giving Raikkonen a few headaches, though the young German had still to pit for a second time. Webber's stop, meanwhile, saw the man from Queanbeyan re-emerge narrowly ahead of Rosberg, who had regained track position over Kovalainen, as the Suomussalmi native began to grapple with overheating front tyres and fall away from the podium battle.
An 'off' for Piquet at turn eleven dropped the recently-turned 24-year-old back into the internecine BMW tussle and away from contention for the final points-paying position, still occupied by Button. Fellow Brit Hamilton, meanwhile, was inexorably pulling away from Raikkonen as he sought to secure his first triumph – first rostrum finish even – of what has been up until now a desultory campaign as the defending world champion.
As the laps ticked down, the major interest was focussed upon whether Webber could whittle down the 8.9-second gap separating him from second-placed Raikkonen over the final twelve laps, and in so doing nibble a couple more points out of Button's championship lead and stake his claim to be the Red Bull driver receiving the backing for a title push.
The Brawn pit-stops worked out well for Button and Barrichello, with the former comfortably clearing Trulli and the latter leapfrogging three rivals into the top ten for the first time and with a genuine sniff of a world championship point just ahead of him in the shape of Toyota's Italian veteran, with Nakajima between the pair. Glock, meanwhile, stayed out as late as lap 60 of 70, leaving Webber with a clear track ahead of him to his quarry Raikkonen – and the chase was on.
A personal best from the hunter was countered by his prey, though a new fastest lap to the tune of a staggering half a second showed just how hard Webber was pushing, whilst in a similar scenario further back, the still-charging Glock was fast homing in on fifth-placed Kovalainen, reducing the gap to just a single second with two laps left to run.
Ultimately, though, the order would remain the same to the chequered flag, with the imperious Hamilton crossing the line more than ten seconds clear of runner-up Raikkonen in an unprecedented KERS one-two, and Webber a solid third five seconds in arrears further still. Rosberg found himself just off the podium again in an excellent fourth, with Kovalainen hanging on to fifth ahead of the hard-charging Glock, Button coming in a low-key and frustrated seventh and Trulli successfully fending off Nakajima and Barrichello for the final marker.
The finishers were completed by Heidfeld, Piquet – whose days at Renault now seem irreversibly numbered as Flavio Briatore disgruntedly left the circuit before the grand prix was even over – Kubica, Fisichella and Scuderia Toro Rosso duo Jaime Alguersuari and Sébastien Buemi, with the young rookie who some drivers had argued should not even be allowed on-track due to his inexperience at the highest level impressively getting the better of his team-mate at the very first time of asking.
The only fly in Hamilton's ointment, indeed, was that after holding fastest lap for most of the race, he was pipped to the honour by Webber in the closing stages. No matter, though – he still had the winner's trophy with which to console himself. And the knowledge that McLaren are back – and back with a bang.Crash.net Driver of the Day:
Lewis Hamilton (for reminding everybody – if indeed anybody needed reminding – just why he is the reigning F1 World Champion, after more than nine months away in the doldrums)
To see the race result in full, click here