15 December 2019, Sunday | 03:57pm

Hamilton remains as the master to Verstappen's apprentice


Verstappen in a slower Red Bull holding off Hamilton in a faster Mercedes, their teams fighting a strategic battle as much as the drivers were scrapping on track - it produced a race that not only thrilled in the moment, but whet the appetite for what might be to come when F1 resumes after the four-week summer break in Belgium on 1 September.

Even Hamilton was excited by the battle - which became a reality as soon as the world champion had passed team-mate Valtteri Bottas by Turn Three on the first lap and settled in behind Verstappen.

"As soon as I got into second," Hamilton said, "I was like: 'OK, this whole battle we've been talking about me and Max having we are going to have that today.' And it was really awesome."


"I was definitely not thinking: 'Genius'"


As they slugged it out at the front, the two men were in a separate race from anyone else, Hamilton more than a minute ahead of the Ferrari of third-placed man Sebastian Vettel by the end of the grand prix.

Hamilton always looked quicker, but track position is so important at the Hungaroring, a tight and twisty track in a dusty amphitheatre about 12 miles outside Budapest.

Throughout, Hamilton rarely gave Verstappen any breathing space, and Verstappen defended with maturity and skill.

Never more than about two seconds behind, Hamilton ramped up the pressure on Verstappen as the window for him to make a pit stop and rejoin ahead of the Ferraris, then led by Charles Leclerc approached.

That forced Red Bull to stop Verstappen as early as they could - to protect against Hamilton stopping first and jumping the Dutchman that way.

That early pit stop meant Mercedes could run Hamilton longer, to give him fresher tyres for their fight in the second stint, which at that time was planned to be to the end of the race.

After that first stop, Hamilton was all over Verstappen. But after one breathtaking overtaking attempt around the outside of the super-fast Turn Four just failed to come off, he and Mercedes began to doubt that he would be able to pass.

That was on lap 39, and immediately afterwards the Mercedes strategists began to consider the idea of a second stop. It would lose them 20 seconds, but the idea was that Hamilton would come back at Verstappen like a rocket.

They analysed and discussed it for seven laps and then took the plunge, switching from the hard to the medium tyres for the final 22 laps, in which Hamilton would have to make up 20 seconds and pass arguably the most aggressive and uncompromising driver in the sport.

It was an unusually bold and aggressive strategy from a team that can tend towards the cautious - and impressively so just a week after they came in for criticism for questionable strategy in the rain at Hockenheim, their and Hamilton's worst race for years.

Hamilton was far from sure it was the right idea.



"I definitely was not thinking: 'Genius,' he said. "Was I thinking 'worth a try'? I have a different viewpoint in the car. I came out (from the first pit stop) with six- or seven-lap fresher tyres and at the time I was much quicker and I was like: 'OK, I just have to keep the pressure on.'

"But then they told me we were going two-stop and I couldn't compute how it would work.

"I thought I could make the hards go to the end so I knew he would be able to do the same. I thought pitting was going to be difficult and I hadn't even had the chance to be thinking what tyre.

"They put me on the medium and it didn't feel great initially and then he started matching my times."

Over the radio, the doubt in Hamilton's mind at the wisdom of the strategy was clear. He needed to close at a second a lap, but after cutting the gap to 16 seconds, Verstappen started doing the same lap times. Hamilton was cooling his brakes, which were on the limit, but once they were back in the right temperature window, he cut loose.

"I was thinking: 'Jeez this is really risky,'" Hamilton said. "In the end you have to just go: 'Go for it, give it everything. Just don't worry if you don't catch him. Just concentrate on putting perfect laps.'"

It was what Mercedes and Hamilton call "hammer time". From 15.4 seconds, the gap came down to nothing in 10 laps.

"I saw his times rising and I was like: 'I am going to catch him and as soon as I catch him I am going by, no messing around. And it was such a relief when I got by because it's your dream."

The drive and the win clearly made as big an impression on Hamilton as they did on those watching.

"It feels like a first (win)," he said. "I don't know how. I've been doing this a long time but it feels like one of the first."


Two men in a league of their own



According to Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, Hamilton's driving was "in a different dimension".

In reality, there were two men in that dimension. Verstappen was hugely impressive, too. His pole position on Saturday was stunning, and he lost out to a faster car, driven by a great driver at the top of his game, and a bold strategy to which Red Bull could not respond.

"We were just not fast enough," Verstappen said. "I tried everything I could on that hard tyre to stay alive. Still, second, fastest lap, a good weekend overall. Congrats to Lewis, he was pushing me really hard. I like that. We were just lacking a bit of grip. We tried a one-stop, they had the opportunity for two and that worked out well."

Hamilton praised Verstappen for the way he had conducted himself in the heat of their battle.

"Strong competitor and great driver at his best," Hamilton said. "It's awesome to see the respect between us, really respectful driving and I hope to continue that.

"He put the car in some good places. I gave him space and more. If we were on the same (championship) points he may have been a lot more aggressive but there was no need for that. It was just making sure when I do finally pull off an overtaking manoeuvre it was a full sweep by."

The respect went both ways. Afterwards, in the news conference, there was a fascinating exchange between the two men when they were asked to give themselves scores out of 10 for the first half of the season.

After Vettel had given himself a five, saying he was "not happy with the first half - I can do a better job" - Hamilton gave himself an "8.9/8.8 - if it wasn't for the last race (in Germany) it would be a little higher.

"It has been the best start of the season we've ever had and one of the best starts I've ever had but there are areas I can continue to work on. That's the great thing about this sport, you can always improve."

Verstappen refused to give himself a number, saying: "I hate putting a number on it because it reminds me of school which is not that long ago. I am always quite critical, it can always be better. I am never satisfied. It has a been very positive and I've had good results."

So Hamilton did it for him, pointing to the two wins Verstappen had in the three races immediately preceding Hungary.

"Last few races it's high nines," Hamilton said of Verstappen. "I don't remember all the races. But he drove exceptionally and if he continues like that it will be high nines."

Finally, the quality of their race was summed up by their former rival Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion, who retired at the end of last season, watching the race at home.

"Bravo Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen," Alonso wrote on Twitter. "Pushing 70 laps to the maximum. More than one minute to the third, nearly + one lap and a half to the top five. Both Impressive. Thanks for the show."


A nervous wait for Bottas


Valtteri Bottas


While Hamilton goes into the summer break with his championship lead extended and a sixth title set to be sealed long before the end of the season, his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas faces a far less comfortable month.

He is out of contract this year and Wolff is going to spend the summer break deciding whether to keep Bottas, or replace him with reserve driver Esteban Ocon.

So it was a bad time for Bottas to have a race like this. Second out of the first corner, he was fourth by the time he was heading into Turn Four on the first lap, and with a broken front wing, after locking his wheels into both the first two corners, being passed by Hamilton, lightly touching his team-mate and then being overtaken by Leclerc, who broke the Mercedes' front wing in the process.

That led to a difficult afternoon fighting back and an eventual eighth place finish.

Wolff said: "I am so sad for him. He was so pumped since yesterday, his qualifying performance was brilliant and he was in the right frame of mind before the race.

"And then the unfortunate incident in flat-spotting the tyre, touching with Lewis, touching with Leclerc and then suddenly within half a lap all the work is gone and that is just awful for him and I am sorry for him."

Wolff said Bottas' future will not turn on this one performance.

"We will not be letting one race result influence our decision," he said. "It is more about compounding all data and then making a decision on stability and great personality and a very good driver versus giving youth a chance with all the reward and risk it can bring and we haven't done that yet.

"We will start the process tomorrow and it will not be an easy one."






Source: BBC                 https://bbc.in/2YMrYpi

Photo: michaellamonato.com.au

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