“Our pre-race analysis suggested fifth and sixth may be feasible,” said Christian Horner after Max Verstappen’s win in Hungary from 10th on the grid. So what has changed?
With a cloudy sky, light drizzle and a cool track, everyone made their laps to the grid. The Red Bull drivers – Verstappen starting 10th, Sergio Perez 11th – planned to start on the hard tire as the basis for a one-stop strategy. On the computer, that seemed like the fastest way to the flag, as they would be stuck between slower cars for much of the first stint.
Verstappen and Perez drove their reconnaissance laps on a set of old soft tires. They were amazed at how little grip they had in the cool and windy conditions, how difficult it was to get the tires up to temperature. If the soft one was like this, the hard one would certainly be disastrous, both drivers reported.
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Red Bull did not hesitate to respond – and the one-stop plan was thrown in the bin. They would start on the soft – the easiest of the three tires to warm up, even if it was still difficult – and two stops. Because the combination of the soft and medium didn’t have enough range to do 70 laps with just one stop.
The hard tire would later prove disastrous when Ferrari fitted it to Charles Leclerc’s car at their second stop. It was slow and would not reach the correct operating temperature under these 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 that tire was the main factor in Verstappen winning this race.
But even on the right tire, Verstappen still needed a mix of patience, raw pace and racecraft to conquer from 10th place.
In the midfield attack into the first few corners, Verstappen was careful and made sure he didn’t take any damage. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him cautious,” Horner said. It meant he got behind the two Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso and it took him a few laps to find his way past both. This put him on the tail of Lewis Hamilton’s fifth-place Mercedes, which had hitherto been behind Lando Norris’ McLaren.
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Norris’s soft tires began to fade, however, allowing Hamilton and Verstappen to pass him in quick succession on lap 12.
Verstappen was initially able to close Hamilton’s car with mediocre tires, but when Verstappen’s soft tires started to fade, the decision was made to bring him in to put negative pressure on the Mercedes. That was lap 16 and Verstappen got a set of mediums for his middle stint.
Mercedes left Hamilton out meaning Verstappen would inevitably have a lead after Hamilton exited the pits. But Mercedes tried to maximize how many newer Hamilton’s tires would be in the second stint. It was at this point that Red Bull brought in Perez to put under pressure on Hamilton. Mercedes couldn’t afford to drop Hamilton behind two Red Bulls and so he was pitted on the lap after Perez, minimizing his tire offset to Verstappen to just three laps.
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After undercutting Hamilton, the next task would be to capture and pressure the two Ferraris and George Russell’s leading Mercedes. But there was a problem: Verstappen would be forced to take care of a slipping and overheating clutch.
Solve a car problem
“Max had a clutch problem and the temperatures got a little out of hand. So after that first stop we had to keep him off Carlos Sainz’s back for a while,” explained Horner. For 15 laps Verstappen simply held his ground, a few seconds behind Sainz, and kept the lead at about 7 seconds.
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With the temperature under control and a revised setting that controlled clutch slip, Verstappen was let go by the end of the second stint. He approached Sainz and as soon as he was within undercut range, he was recaptured. This was round 38.
Although Ferrari kept Sainz out as he tried to run long enough to get onto the soft track for his final stint, Mercedes was forced to put Russell on the next lap in a bid to maintain track position. Ferrari pitted Leclerc in response to seeing Mercedes prepare to stop Russell.
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Verstappen’s stunning out lap
Russell was unable to maintain track position over Verstappen at the second stops despite being 2 seconds ahead, as Verstappen’s out-lap pace was unbelievable. It took him 1m 39,455s. By comparison, Russell’s out-lap was 1m 42.258s and Leclerc’s 1m 45.325s on the disastrously hard-to-warm-up hard tyre.
Verstappen was helped by teammate Perez – who had yet to make his second stop – and pulled aside for Verstappen in the outlap without delay.
This stunning outburst vaulted Verstappen past Russell. Now he was able to chase Leclerc’s hard-barred Ferrari. “I saw that he was having a hard time on the hard surface,” Verstappen said later. He chased him and passed using DRS on lap 41. A 360-degree spin by Verstappen in turn 13 later in the lap allowed Leclerc to pass again. But it was only a few laps before Verstappen was able to make the final decisive move on the struggling Ferrari.
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That left only Sainz, who led the race but still had to make his second stop. A pit stop here takes about 20 seconds – and Verstappen’s pace, along with Sainz trying to lengthen his tyres, meant Max was only 13 seconds behind. As soon as Sainz pitted, Verstappen would take the lead, and that’s how the victory went.
Thinking on their feet
“There was a bit of drizzle, a strong wind and temperatures that had dropped 20 degrees from where we were on Friday,” Horner said. “So the variables were significantly different. And I think you should think there. And that’s where I think the team did a great job today converting from what was theoretically the fastest race to what was practically the fastest race. ”