BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) At the Hungaroring circuit where he secured the first of his many wins for Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton will aim to seize the momentum this weekend heading into the Formula One championship’s midseason break.
After a reversal of fortunes, the British driver is only one point behind F1 leader Sebastian Vettel ahead of Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix. It was at the tight-turning track outside of Budapest, one of the toughest for overtaking maneuvers, that Hamilton secured the first of his 36 race wins for Mercedes in 2013. That year, Vettel totally dominated as he sealed his fourth straight F1 title when driving for Red Bull.
Hamilton’s win here, though, was the precursor to a period of Mercedes dominance. The following two years, Hamilton won the title and his former Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg, won it last year before suddenly retiring.
Now Vettel is the one trying to deliver the title back to Ferrari for the first time since Kimi Raikkonen – his current teammate – won it in 2007.
Against expectations, Vettel took the early ascendancy in this year’s championship and, with Hamilton struggling with some technical issues on the car, moved 20 points clear after the Austrian GP.
But, two weeks ago, Vettel had problems at the British GP in Silverstone with his tire shredding late on. Hamilton won in style, Vettel squeezed home in seventh, and the 20-point buffer evaporated to just one.
It was Hamilton’s fourth and best win of the 2017 season, restoring his confidence after two difficult races – including a heated clash with Vettel in Azerbaijan.
Now Vettel, who has three wins, is the one needing a boost.
It would be a blow to the German driver’s morale, and to Ferrari, if he went into the month-long summer break trailing Hamilton.
Vettel’s motivation level is likely to be higher than usual, and that makes Mercedes wary of a Budapest backlash from Ferrari.
“Our rivals will be determined to fight back strongly and we have to anticipate that,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “There is no complacency at all at Mercedes, just a resolute determination to get the job done.”
While Hamilton is chasing a fourth F1 title to match Vettel’s career mark, his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas is proving to be much more than a reliable backup – which is initially how he was perceived after leaving Williams to replace Rosberg.
Although Bottas remains an outsider for the title, he has trimmed Vettel’s lead to 23 points after four highly consistent races. He won in Austria and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and at Silverstone.
The Finnish driver seems to be driving with a point to prove to Mercedes, which has yet to say whether he will get a new contract next year. With the drivers’ market likely to be wide open next year, Mercedes is leaving it late.
Still, the odds are improving in Bottas’ favor.
“Valtteri has a fierce work ethic, steely approach and a great natural talent,” Wolff said. “He threw himself into the challenge of switching teams and we are now starting to see his full potential. I have the feeling he is getting better with each weekend and I’m excited to imagine how he will continue to develop for the rest of the season.”
The top four in the championship have all had their moments of excellence this season.
Daniel Ricciardo, who is fourth, secured five straight podium finishes heading into the British GP. Perhaps even more impressively, he steered his Red Bull from 19th place on the grid to fifth place there. It was a fine drive and showcased the Australian driver’s speed and flair.
His teammate, Max Verstappen, had a determined fourth-place finish at Silverstone.
The 19-year-old Dutchman, arguably the most impressive driver last year in an incredible breakthrough season, will hope that his car’s troublesome issues are finally over.
For having Verstappen in top form, and with a reliable car, will add even more spice to one of the most tantalizing seasons for many years.