Esteban Ocon Wins Wild Hungarian Grand Prix

·7 min read
Photo credit: Mark Thompson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mark Thompson - Getty Images

For any other thing in this race to make sense, you must first know that before this otherwise entirely dry day it was raining on lap 1.

It was in the rain that Valtteri Bottas bogged down on the start, falling back to fourth before the first braking zone. It was the rain that caught him out when he tried to dive into turn 1 as late as possible in an attempt to reclaim the spots he lost. Bottas lost control near the front of the field, triggering a multi-part crash that ended the days of Sergio Perez, Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc, Lance Stroll, and himself. The Red Bull of Max Verstappen, coincidentally, suffered serious damage on lap 1 for the second consecutive week.

Bottas was handed a five-spot grid penalty for the following race. That decision will be hard to argue against.

When the race was scheduled to resume after a short red flag, the field looked almost unrecognizable. After one lap, Esteban Ocon and Sebastian Vettel were second and third in a race they had started in eighth and tenth. Only the pole-sitting Lewis Hamilton, still leading after escaping all the chaos behind him, seemed to make any sense at the front of the field.

But then the field went through its reconnaissance lap before a standing restart, where drivers found that the track was dry. With rules prohibiting communications with team officials during recon laps, teams left their pitting decisions, teams instead instructed their drivers to make pit decisions based on the conditions and the actions of drivers in front of them alone. When Lewis Hamilton stayed out on intermediates, the entire rest of the field zagged into the pit lane for slick tires in reaction.

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In an unforgettable visual, Hamilton was left re-starting the race alone. He would have to stop immediately at the end of the lap, disastrously dropping him to last of running cars and ceding the lead to none other than Williams driver George Russell. When Russell was forced to give up almost every spot he gained due to a pit lane violation, that lead then went to Ocon.

That was where Esteban Ocon would stay for the rest of the day. Sebastian Vettel was within two seconds of the Alpine driver all day, but he never really got side-by-side with Ocon in a battle for the lead. At a track where passing is so difficult, that was enough to leave the relatively slow Alpine in position for a historic first-ever win for the modern iteration of this Alpine (formerly Renault) team. Ocon joins two of last season's most pleasant surprises, AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly and Racing Point's Sergio Perez, as a driver who won an entire grand prix for a team that simply was not expected to compete for race wins any time soon. He also joins them as first-time winners, a career achievement that more than justifies a recent contract extension with Alpine that was signed when he had just one career podium through about four full seasons of racing.

Vettel's runner-up finish is a crowning achievement, too. The former World Champion looked lost for so long at Ferrari, but the past few months at Aston Martin have shown that he has far more left to give than he could at his former team. While he never pressured Ocon, he ran a strong, patient race of his own that kept him out of striking distance of the remaining fastest cars on the grid until the very last lap.

But, as heartwarming as both of those results are, the biggest story of the race is how Lewis Hamilton got back to third.

For that, we have to go back to the re-start. The intermediate tire debacle meant Hamilton was last on track after his first stop under green, a position that left him and a Max Verstappen significantly slowed by earlier damage stuck in traffic they could not pass despite setting the fastest laps in the field. Hamilton undercut both Verstappen and Mick Schumacher, the Haas car holding up most of the group, on his second stop under green, allowing him to clear both on his out lap and get to work passing the field.

He made short order of the two Williams cars and the two AlphaTauris. Over the course of his long mid-race run on hard tires, he also caught and passed Fernando Alonso. His tires were cooked by the time he caught Carlos Sainz Jr.'s back bumper in the battle for third, about six seconds off the leaders. With 22 to go, his team pitted him for medium tires and told him to chase the win. He caught Alonso once again within just a few laps, but Alonso understood what the team had told him: His teammate Alpine was leading the race, and Hamilton's pace was an existential threat to the program's first win since it was called Lotus.

Although he has already celebrated so many wins of his own, Alonso blocked Hamilton like his career depended on it. He held back the fastest car in the field, the lone car in the field still running at what would in most weeks be a race-winning pace, for nearly ten laps before Hamilton finally got through. Alonso would finish fifth, but it was as triumphant a fifth as a driver could ask for. It was a genuine masterclass in teamwork, a futile defense of a position that was always going to change hands to defend one that was very much at risk.

Hamilton made quick work of Sainz for third a couple laps later. He then made up a ten second gap to the leaders in three laps, but time was up. With another lap, Hamilton was going to have a serious shot at Vettel for second. With five more laps, Hamilton was going to win comfortably. Alonso's defensive work cost him nearly ten.

Whether or not it required a race-changing crash in turn 1, every driver in the top five on the day should be proud of the race they ran. Each put down a memorable 70 laps that puts this race up near instant classic territory, and each was rewarded with a relatively crucial points day that could make a massive difference in both driver's and constructor's standings at the end of the season. The race was so exceptional that something the entire racing world had been waiting for finally happened just behind them as little more than an afterthought.

That would be the first points in a Williams for Mercedes prospect George Russell. He finished ninth in the Williams, actually behind his teammate Nicholas Latifi after his Canadian peer ran in third for much of the first stint. The points finishes are the second and third for Williams since 2019.

And all of this happened in front of Max Verstappen. The former championship leader recovered to finish tenth, but his damaged car failed to show any real performance and he spent most of the day exchanging that last points-paying spot with Haas F1 driver Mick Schumacher. With Hamilton's podium and fastest lap of the day, Verstappen has now lost the championship lead heading into the four week Summer break.

The shorter half of the F1 schedule resumes at the end of August. Despite a stellar Summer, Max Verstappen suddenly finds himself once again trailing Lewis Hamilton. If he wants to win his first championship now, he needs to get back to winning very quickly.

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