Lewis Hamilton entered this weekend with his team yet to run the latest evolution of Pirelli tires, whereas the rest of the field got three days with them at Silverstone earlier in the month.
Having had just the free practice sessions to try and gain as much understanding as they could, Lewis delivered a simply stunning lap to take pole position on Saturday.
Ahead of the race today, all teams went in with limited knowledge about the way the current Pirellis would perform under race conditions, in the searing heat of the Hungaroring, but none more so than the eventual winners.
Today was all about keeping strategic options open for as long as possible and reacting to real time events as the race unfolded and two key moments, for me, determined the final podium order in Budapest.
The track in Hungary is traditionally difficult to overtake and that meant that options were limited for those at the front, starting on the soft tire, to find a way past using any other method. The first lap was crucial, as always, and Lewis did a great job to stay in front from there, but where most people assumed he’d suffer from the now synonymous catastrophic degradation, he managed to hold a decent pace throughout. The first real key moment came after Lewis’ first pitstop.
This was a strategic decision by Hamilton himself, not one made by the computing and simulating power of the team back at base, but his determination and ability to clear Jenson Button ahead of him quickly, made the difference between the race win and a probable third or fourth place finish.
The pitstop brought him out behind the McLaren and as we saw with Vettel in the same situation a short time later, if you don’t use the advantage of new tires in the first lap out of the pits, it can become very difficult to make the move around here.
Vettel’s car setup, although quick over a lap, wasn’t the fastest in sector one, whereas Hamilton had speed in that crucial zone to enable the pass at the vital moment. With the World Champion stuck behind Button for such a considerable length of time at that phase of the race, and indeed making contact in trying, he effectively lost out on the chance to stay with Lewis.
The second key strategic moment came at the point where Kimi Raikkonen and his Lotus team made the decision to switch from a planned three stop race, to an adventurous two stopper.
The E21’s been good all season on its tires, but with some of the highest air and track temperatures of the year and still a relatively unproven tire on the car, it was a gamble. In truth it was a gamble they had to take, as a poor decision to leave him out perhaps a lap too long in the first stint had left him languishing out of position and amongst cars on alternate strategies after his first stop.
As the cars that started the Grand Prix on the medium compound began to disappear for their pitstops, the prospect of some clear air and careful management from Kimi opened up the exciting, but daunting prospect of the two stopper. If he could maintain a good pace and yet still look after the rear tires, it could put him in amongst the podium positions come the end. It did however rely on him managing a long twenty eight lap stint on the mediums, something no one else had thought possible before today.
Of course Kimi did exactly that and still had enough pace in the car to hold off a thrilling assault from Vettel in the last ten laps of the race and take a thoroughly deserved second place. Frustratingly for Lotus, had Raikkonen qualified up near his team mate on Saturday, the race win would’ve been a distinct possibility.
Red Bull might look back and wonder if the setup direction could have been different to allow higher top speeds at the key overtaking sections, but one suspects they never really expected to be having to do much overtaking.
In the end they were beaten by two guys who simply did a better job today and that’s not something we’ve been able to say too often recently.
The new ‘hybrid’ Pirellis played a big part as ever in the outcome of today’s race, but all in a positive way. Clearly some teams benefited more than others, but all leave here with far more data to look at than when they arrived and the summer break gives opportunity to find ways to make the best of them. You can shut down the factories for two weeks, but you can’t stop F1’s minds from thinking and the second half of the season looks like a scintillating affair to look forward to.
Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.