“Our pre-race analysis suggested that fifth and sixth could be achievable,” said Christian Horner after Max Verstappen’s victory in Hungary from 10th on the grid. So what has changed?
With overcast skies, light drizzle and a cool track, everyone took their lap on the grid. The Red Bull drivers – Verstappen starting 10th, Sergio Perez 11th – planned to start on hard tires as the basis of a one-stop strategy. On the computer, this seemed like the quickest route to the flag, given that they would be stuck among slower cars for much of the first stint.
Verstappen and Perez completed their sighting laps on a set of old soft tyres. They were appalled at how little grip they had in cool, windy conditions, how difficult it was to get the tires up to temperature. If the soft was like that, the hard would surely be disastrous, report the two pilots.
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Red Bull was quick to react – and the one-stop-shop plan was tossed in the trash. They would start on soft – the easiest of the three tires to warm up, although it was still difficult – and two stops. Because the combination of soft and medium didn’t have enough range to do 70 laps with just one stop.
The hard tire later proved disastrous when Ferrari fitted it to Charles Leclerc’s car during their second stop. It was slow and wouldn’t reach the proper working temperature under those conditions. Alpine tried a one-stop strategy on the hard and slipped from fifth and sixth on the grid to a distant eighth and ninth at the end. Avoiding this tire was the most important factor in Verstappen winning this race.
But even with the right tyre, Verstappen still needed a mix of patience, raw pace and racing spirit to win from 10th place.
In the midfield charge in the first two corners, Verstappen was circumspect, ensuring he took no damage. “It’s the first time I’ve seen him be cautious,” Horner said. This meant he emerged behind the two Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso and it took him a few laps to find a way past them both. That put him trailing fifth-placed Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, which had been stuck behind Lando Norris’ McLaren until now.
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Norris’ soft tires were starting to wear off though, allowing Hamilton and Verstappen to pass him back-to-back on lap 12.
Verstappen was initially able to close in on Hamilton’s medium-tire car, but as Verstappen’s softs began to fade the decision was made to bring him in to apply clearing pressure on the Mercedes. It was lap 16 and Verstappen was equipped with a set of mediums for his middle stint.
Mercedes left Hamilton out, meaning Verstappen would inevitably be in front after Hamilton. But Mercedes were trying to maximize the amount of new tires from Hamilton in the second stint. That’s when Red Bull brought in Perez to apply negative pressure on Hamilton. Mercedes couldn’t afford to drop Hamilton behind two Red Bulls and so he was pitted on the lap past Perez, minimizing his tire lag to Verstappen to just three laps.
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After passing Hamilton, the next task would be to catch and put pressure on the two Ferraris and the race-leading Mercedes of George Russell. But there was a catch: Verstappen would have to fix a slipping and overheating clutch.
Control a car problem
“Max had to deal with a clutch issue and the temperatures were getting a bit out of control. So after that first stop we had to keep him away from Carlos Sainz for a while,” explained Horner. For 15 laps Verstappen just held on, seconds behind Sainz, keeping the gap to the lead at about 7 seconds.
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With the temperature under control and a revised setting controlling clutch slippage, Verstappen was let go near the end of the second stint. He closed in on Sainz and as soon as he was within reach he was brought back. It was lap 38.
Although Ferrari prevented Sainz from entering, as he tried to run long enough to get on the soft for his final stint, Mercedes were forced to pit Russell on the next lap in an attempt to hold on to track position. . Ferrari pitted Leclerc in response to the sight of Mercedes preparing to stop Russell.
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Verstappen’s superb lap
Russell was unable to maintain his position on the track above Verstappen at the second stops, despite having a 2 second lead, as Verstappen’s outgoing pace was unbelievable. It took him 1m 39.455s. For comparison, Russell’s exit lap was 1m 42.258s and Leclerc’s was 1m 45.325s on the extremely hard-to-heat hard tire.
Verstappen was helped by teammate Perez – who had yet to make his second save – swiftly swerving for Verstappen on the out lap.
This superb flurry sent Verstappen jumping past Russell. Now he was able to chase Leclerc’s rubber-tyred Ferrari. “I could see he was struggling badly on the hardliners,” Verstappen said later. He tracked him down and passed him with the help of the DRS on lap 41. A 360-degree spin from Verstappen at turn 13 later in the lap got Leclerc back. But it only took a few laps before Verstappen could put the final decisive blow on the struggling Ferrari.
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There was only Sainz left, leading the race but still needing to make his second stop. A pit stop costs around 20 seconds here – and Verstappen’s pace, along with Sainz trying to extend the life of his tyres, meant Max was just 13 seconds behind. As soon as Sainz would stop, Verstappen would be in the lead, and that’s how the victory was decided.
think on their feet
“There was a bit of drizzle, strong winds and temperatures that were down 20 degrees from where we were on Friday,” Horner said. “So the variables were significantly different. And I think that’s where you have to think on your feet. And that’s where I think the team did a great job today of going from what was theoretically the fastest race to what was practically the fastest race.