The final pair of races before Formula One’s midseason break flipped the championship equation. Before the Hockenheim-Budapest double-header Vettel led title rival Lewis Hamilton by eight points. His Ferrari team, in possession of the fastest car on the grid, led Mercedes by 20.
Vettel was set for a commanding home-race victory from pole position over Hamilton, who had spent the race recovering from his 14th-place starting position.
Hamilton said he’d prayed after his qualifying disaster, and perhaps the Sunday shower was the response. Not only is the Briton a dab hand in the wet, but Vettel, just 16 laps from the finish, slid off the track and into the barriers, handing Lewis victory.
The German was sanguine in the aftermath, however, knowing the next round in Budapest would suit his car better than the Mercedes – so long as it remained dry.
Friday practice was hot and sunny, conditions in which Ferrari excelled and Mercedes struggled. With Sunday’s forecast much the same, Vettel’s optimism looked well placed.
But on Saturday dark clouds rolled over the circuit and the heavens thundered opened. Heavy rain drenched the track, washing away Ferrari’s advantage and handing Hamilton a spectacular half-second qualifying margin over Kimi Raikkonen, the faster of the two Ferrari drivers, in third place.
The Hungaroring is a narrow and twisty circuit around which overtaking is difficult. Last season this characteristic saved Vettel, who won despite steering arm problems dramatically slowing him down.
This season, however, even in the warm conditions that favoured his car, the circuit would prove Vettel’s enemy.
He swept around his teammate into third place on the first lap, and Ferrari tactically used Raikkonen to lure Valtteri Bottas, then in second, to make an early pit stop, allowing Vettel to challenge Hamilton directly.
Hamilton, on the delicate ultrasoft tyre, was forced to stop on lap 25, leaving Vettel’s soft-shod Ferrari in the lead, but Hamilton’s pace after the stop ensured he would keep the lead after Vettel’s tyre change.
However, Vettel would end the race on the fastest tyre, giving him a second chance to squeeze Hamilton – but it was this plan that the narrow Budapest circuit bit hard.
The Ferrari driver’s progress slowed as he navigated around lapped traffic on his in-lap. At the same time Bottas was putting the hammer down, and when Vettel emerged from pit lane after a slow stop, the Finn had jumped Vettel for second place.
Vettel’s new tyres were squandered behind Bottas, who obstinately defended until lap 65, when his 50-lap-old tyres finally gave in. Vettel and Raikkonen sliced past him into second and third, but it was too late to challenge Hamilton, who cruised to the chequered flag.
Two races transformed Vettel’s eight-point title advantage into a 24-point deficit, and Ferrari now trailed Mercedes by 10 points.
“What a beautiful day,” Hamilton said. “We came here knowing that the Ferrari would be real quick this weekend, but to come out with these points, we’ll definitely that that as a bonus.”
Vettel, chastened by the defeat, said second was the best he could achieve after qualifying fourth.
“We were a little bit out of position for the speed we had,” he said. “It was a tough race.”
The fortune reversal across the last four races will give Ferrari and Mercedes much to consider during the midseason shutdown.
With the smallest errors producing significant swings, efforts are sure to be doubled and redoubled when Formula One resumes at the end of August for the Belgian Grand Prix.
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