Lewis Hamilton took his first victory for new team Mercedes in an action-packed F1 Hungarian Grand Prix Sunday as reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel saw his advantage in the points table eroded by the smallest of margins.
Hamilton had started from pole position on three previous occasions this season but had failed to take a victory, and was not hopeful of resolving the tyre problems that had caused him so much anguish in the first nine races in Hungary.
However, he led the field away from the starting line and never looked back, as he received a large dose of inadvertent assistance from old McLaren teammate Jenson Button. (After the first pit stops for fresh tyres between lap nine and 13 for the front runners, Button found himself in third position behind Hamilton and new race leader Webber.)
As Vettel, Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso exited the pits, they found their path in pursuit of Hamilton blocked by the marginally slower McLaren; despite their greatest efforts none could pass for the next 12 laps, allowing Hamilton to build a gap of up to 15 seconds as a cushion between himself and his rivals. Vettel damaged his front wing in a messy attempted overtake on Button, but the McLaren man held firm until his tyres suddenly and drastically lost grip as they reached the end of their life cycle. Vettel swept past, but Grosjean, trying to follow through, made contact with Button and later received a 20-second time penalty for his misdemeanor.
Webber had also pitted by this time, and Hamilton was back out in front with enough breathing space to manage his fragile Pirelli tyres right to the end of the race.
If the fight for victory was settled, the battle for the remaining podium positions certainly wasn’t. Kimi Raikkonen now put himself in the equation and was running second after executing a superb two-stop strategy in the manner of Webber and Button, but found himself being rapidly hunted down by Vettel as the checkered flag drew near. The World Champion half-heartedly tried a move at the top of the famous hill, but couldn’t pull it off and Raikkonen weathered the attack to crawl home an excellent second — a result that moves him into second place in the championship standings as we head toward the second half of the season.
Vettel had to settle for third position, while Webber recovered well from a torrid qualifying session on Saturday to finish fourth. Alonso was a little disconsolate after taking fifth, while a drive-through penalty for overtaking Felipe Massa outside the track limits dropped Grosjean down to sixth. Button scored some vital points in a poor season for McLaren with seventh, while team-mate Sergio Perez’s ninth place sandwiched the Ferrari of Massa in eighth. Pastor Maldonado secured Williams’ first points of the year in 10th place.
“The team called the strategy and the pit stops just right and then it was just about managing the gap,” beamed a triumphant Hamilton after the race.
“I had some racing to do out there, though, with Jenson and Mark and I think we had the pace on everyone today. The team has just done an exceptional job: We have worked so hard to understand these tyres and we got the balance spot on today. I am very hopeful this could be a real turning point for us as we coped with these high track temperatures.”
The result leaves Vettel leading the championship table with 172 points, ahead of Raikkonen with 134, Alonso with 133 and Hamilton with 124.
Formula One will now take a month-long break for teams and drivers to recuperate and plan the second half of the season. McLaren hopes to fire back into the fray at the front of the field promising an even more exciting climax to the 2013 season.