Charles Leclerc all but conceded the world championship to Max Verstappen after he admitted it is going to be “very difficult” to stop his rival following another Ferrari blunder at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Verstappen takes an 80-point advantage into the sport’s one-month shutdown – the equivalent of more than three victories with just nine to play – after he claimed the eighth win of his title defence at the Hungaroring following a superb drive from 10th on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton started seventh and finished second – following his late charge through the field – with pole-sitter George Russell third.
After Leclerc overcame Russell’s 30-lap resistance to assume the lead at Turn 1, he looked destined to win.
But the Monegasque’s afternoon was wrecked – and his championship hopes dealt an almost irreversible blow – when Ferrari elected to put their star driver on the hardest rubber. It was a strategy dismissed by tyre supplier Pirelli, and one Verstappen said his Red Bull team did not even consider.
From being the fastest man at the Hungaroring, Leclerc suddenly had no speed, and he was gobbled up by Verstappen at the start of lap 40.
Verstappen spun at the penultimate corner on the same lap to allow Leclerc back in front. But such was Leclerc’s dramatic loss of pace, Verstappen raced past his beleaguered rival with ease at the second corner five laps later. An extra pit stop saw him cross the line a desperate sixth.
“A race like this is frustrating and we need to get better as a whole,” said the 24-year-old, who crashed from the lead of last weekend’s French Grand Prix.
“It always feels like there is something going on, whether it is reliability or mistakes, so we need to get better at putting a weekend together.
“We were strong, we probably had the pace to win, but eventually we didn’t and there are reasons for it. And stopping for the hard tyre was the turning point of the race. We lost all our pace, and the last part of the race was a disaster for me.
“Before thinking abut the championship we need to understand as a team what we need to do to get better, because otherwise winning it is going to be very difficult.”
Remarkably, Verstappen, the grid’s standout performer so far this season, can now afford to finish second at each of the remaining rounds and still win the title.
“You cannot afford any mistakes if you want to fight for the championship,” said Verstappen.
“Ferrari chose the wrong tyres in their final stint. Before then, they were quite strong. We put the right tyres on the car today and that was the most important thing to get right.”
For large periods of Sunday’s 70-lap affair, Hamilton was out of contention. But after adopting a different strategy to those around him, the race came towards the British driver in the closing stages.
YESSS LEWIS!!!! What a drive!!! P2 in Hungary!!! 👏👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/dPvbqTcZbZ
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) July 31, 2022
Hamilton pitted from the lead with 19 laps remaining, and after taking on the speediest soft rubber, passed Ferrari’s Carlos Sanz with seven laps left.
He then moved ahead of team-mate Russell with five to run, clinching his second runner-up spot in as many races, and his fifth podium in a row for his steadily improving Mercedes team.
“If we are able to take this pace into the second half of the season, we can start to fight with the guys ahead,” said the seven-time world champion.
“This is the first time we have been able to battle with Ferrari and that is huge for us.
“The Red Bulls are still ahead – the fact Max started 10th, spun, and finished eight seconds ahead of me says enough about their car.
“But we have made huge progress, and huge steps so to have this consistency, and two double podiums in the last two races gives us a huge boost ahead of the second half of the season.”