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Button takes Hungarian gift as Hamilton tyres out

31 July 2011

Jenson Button got the victory he wished for to mark his 200th grand prix start after finding himself in the right place at the right time as McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton's afternoon evaporated in a haze of pit visits.

The two Britons made contact through the opening corner of the 70-lap Hungarian Grand Prix, but it was Hamilton who appeared to have the upper hand as McLaren took control of the race in its early stages. Although Sebastian Vettel held on to his hard-earned qualifying advantage at the start, sprinting away from the pack as the lights went out, it was clear that the German did not have the right car for the damp conditions that greeted the field on Sunday morning.

After several side-by-side moments, Hamilton was finally able to force Vettel into an error reminiscent of the one he made in Canada, the Red Bull running wide through turn two and allowing its silver rival to open a valuable gap. The tricky conditions were catching more than the championship leader out, with RBR team-mate Mark Webber and, to a greater extreme, Sergio Perez losing places off the line, and Fernando Alonso also running wide in turn two, allowing the fast-starting Nico Rosberg to claim fourth.

Vettel's error also allowed Button to close in, but it took another ten laps before the 2006 Hungarian GP winner was able to follow his team-mate through. By then, Hamilton had opened out an advantage nearing eight seconds, while both Ferraris continued to search for grip, Alonso and Massa alternately spinning then making their way back through the field.

Hamilton led the field through the first round of stops, which came on lap ten as the conditions yielded enough of a dry line to render the intermediate Pirellis a poor alternative for the super-softs waiting in pit-lane. Webber was the first to take the plunge, with Massa following him in, and initially it appeared that the choice may have been made a lap or two early as both struggled for temperature. Button and several of the midfield pack followed a lap later, with the Briton also slithering out of pit-lane, before Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Rosberg following suit on lap twelve.

That allowed Michael Schumacher a brief spell at the head of the field, although the seven-time champion wasn't credited with leading the lap as he pitted next time around, and Hamilton held a 3.8secs cushion over Vettel when the order shook itself out. Button was past the points leader next time around but the gap had grown to nine seconds by the end of lap 20, despite beginning to report problems with his left front tyre.

The graining gradually allowed Button to close in, while Webber passed Alonso for fourth, almost threw it away again with a moment at turn one, and then set a new fastest lap in his effort to overcome the poor qualifying session which, with KERS and DRS problems, had left him sixth on the grid just a week after taking pole in Germany.

The Australian and his Spanish adversary were among the first to make their second stop for tyres, but not before Nick Heidfeld suffered a frightening moment as the Lotus Renault crew went to work. For the second time this season, the German had his car ignite underneath him, this time before his tyre change had been completed, but he calmly drove the car out of pit-lane before it caught properly alight. There was a further moment for one of the attending marshals as the engine grenaded through the bodywork as he attempted to quell the flames, but everyone eventually escaped unhurt.

While Webber and Alonso held position through their stops, Hamilton, Button and Vettel each cycled through the lead as they made the switch to another set of super-softs - despite Vettel having to avoid Heidfeld's stricken car which was being towed into the pit exit -but Mercedes hinted at the future face of the race by putting both Schumacher and Rosberg onto the harder prime tyre at their corresponding stops. The two silver arrows had been harder on their rubber than most, but the decision raised a few eyebrows with the race yet to reach halfway and the need to run both slick options negated by the intermediate-shod start.

Hamilton held a 7.3secs advantage over the field as lap 35 ticked by, with the top four comfortably strung out and only the Webber/Alonso battle creating tension, but Mercedes' earlier call for primes began to make more sense as both Red Bulls and Button opted for the same choice at their next stop shortly afterwards. Alonso and Hamilton, meanwhile, took on more super-softs and, even if the order did not change a great deal, it set up a fascinating scenario for the end of the race with those on the harder rubber potentially running to the flag without requiring another change.

Just as Hamilton appeared poised, pit-stop or not, for a second win as many weekends, however, the #3 McLaren was spotted spinning at the turn six chicane. The Briton, again beginning to see graining on his left front after just five laps, was also caught out by a quick shower that affected the rear of the circuit. Putting that susceptible tyre onto the inside kerb of the left-hand element was enough to pitch the car around and, even though the Briton was able to flick himself back into the race, the delay was enough to allow Button through, even though hitting the brakes to avoid passing another car under yellows saw the two Britons immediately running together.

Vettel, too, closed onto the tail of the two McLarens, but was unable to find a way through, allowing the Britons, who opted to stay out despite the rain, to battle through the next couple of laps. While Alonso stopped for primes, and Vettel skated off again at turns two and 13, Hamilton and Button went at it hammer and tongs. The latter's lead lasted until turn two, where he ran wide and allowed Hamilton through, but the #4 was back in front next time around as Hamilton stopped for a return to intermediates, along with Alonso, Webber and Rosberg.

The move proved to be the wrong one and, as Button survived on his hard slicks, those that stopped quickly found that there was not enough precipitation to warrant the treaded rubber, necessitating another stop if they were to make it to the end. To make matters worse for Hamilton, he was also called for a drive-thru' penalty, after the stewards deemed his spin-turn detrimental to Paul di Resta's race after the Scot was forced off the road, effectively ending his pursuit, not only of victory, but also of a podium finish.

Webber admitted that running for two laps on the intermediates had made Red Bull look a little stupid, but insisted that another five minutes of rain would have transformed the decision into one of genius. With Alonso quickly assuming the third position vacated by Hamilton, the Australian passed the other Ferrari to claim fourth, but then found himself coming under pressure from the McLaren in the closing stages, and had no answer to a determined Hamilton as the Briton took advantage of thick traffic to move back onto the fringe of a top three spot.

Behind them, Massa was comfortable in sixth as Rosberg's ill-fated tyre choice briefly relegated the German out of the points, while di Resta was able to hold off the Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi, who had the recovering Mercedes on his tail at the flag. The second STR of Jaime Alguersuari rounded out the scorers, despite clashing with Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber as he tried to follow his team-mate through into turn one with nine laps remaining.

Out front, however, there was little doubt as to the result, as Button once again proved to be the master of tricky and changing conditions. His three previous wins for McLaren - in Australia and China last season and Canada last month - have all come in similar circumstances, and the 2011 Hungaroring success mirrored that of his first ever GP triumph, at the same circuit, five years ago. Vettel remained a threat for a couple of laps, but the McLaren had been the better car all afternoon, and Button, who had been forced to retire in each of past two races, was able to eke out a bigger gap before slowing down to celebrate his achievement with the fans on the final lap.


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