Verstappen battle saw Hamilton reach new heights

BUDAPEST, Hungary-- It was the one we'd all been waiting for: a straight fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for victory. A five-time world champion, arguably the greatest driver of the modern era, versus the man who will spend the next decade chasing down his records.

Up until now they have been the two star drivers of the 2019 season, albeit separated by a significant car advantage for Hamilton. But in Hungary, the track suited the rapidly improving Red Bull, and we finally saw the two best drivers in F1 go head to head. Needless to say, it didn't disappoint.

So what can we learn from the encounter? Is Max a genuine threat to Hamilton, and will Red Bull have the car to match his talent after the summer break?

Did Hamilton win the race or Red Bull lose it?

On the face of it, Mercedes' decision to pit Hamilton on lap 49 won him the race. From that point onward, he pushed flat out on fresh tyres, found the time he needed to catch Verstappen and executed a fairly straightforward overtaking move on lap 67 of 70. On the face of it, it looked like Red Bull had simply been caught napping, but deeper analysis showed Mercedes forced their rivals into a Catch 22 situation.

The roots of the strategy were based in Mercedes' decision to leave Hamilton out as long as possible in the first stint. It initially cost Hamilton time (he was 1.3 seconds behind when Verstappen pitted on lap 25 and 5.9 seconds behind when he emerged from his own pit stop on lap 32) but the extra six laps of tyre life gave him a stronger hand in the second half of the race.

Initially, Mercedes' plan was to pass Verstappen on track. Hamilton had a pace advantage of between 0.3s and 0.5s when he reemerged after his first pit stop, but as we saw on lap 39, that kind of advantage wasn't quite enough to force an overtake. It did, however, result in some great racing as Hamilton put Verstappen out of position in Turns 1, 2 and 3 before braving a move around the outside of Turn 4. But when Verstappen covered him off and the overtaking move came to nothing in the run-off area, the realities of modern F1 set in and Hamilton was forced to back off with overheating brakes.

Although largely overlooked at the end of the race, the brake issues were a key factor in dictating how Sunday's race panned out. Traditionally, the Hungaroring is not a circuit where brakes are a concern, but the threat from Red Bull over the weekend was so great that Mercedes had to push every element of car setup to the limit.

"In a fight like this with other cars, you're always trying to optimise the aerodynamic package and close up as much as you can, and the brakes are part of that," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff explained after the race. "That's why you will sometimes have races which are outliers where you have 70 laps on the gearbox of another car where brakes and various engine components can overheat.

"I was thinking about it in the race; maybe we should have opened up the brakes a bit and lost 10 milliseconds in qualifying and be less compromised in the race. But if you lose out in qualifying by 10 milliseconds, you will kick yourself. So that is the strategy we took, and we know that sometimes we can run into difficulties like we did."

At first it seemed as though the overheating brakes had brought an end to one of the most exciting duels of the season, but some quick thinking from Mercedes pushed the race into a new, equally compelling phase.

- Saunders: Lewis vs. Max has the makings of F1's next great rivalry

Mercedes strategists realised that the medium tyre had been good for 30 laps of respectable pace in the opening stint if managed correctly, meaning it could probably take 20 laps of abuse at the end of the race once fuel loads had come down and reduced the strain. But with only 20 laps to make the difference, Hamilton would have to find a second per lap and overtake Verstappen to make the difference.

Considering he had only been between 0.3s to 0.5s when pushing hard on like-for-like tyres just after his first pit stop, Mercedes was relying on the mediums to offer 0.5s to 0.7s of pace advantage throughout the final stint.

It took a degree of bravery from the pit wall to commit to the strategy -- not least because it was only a week since the strategy calls at the German Grand Prix saw the team throw away a victory. Crunching the numbers was chief strategist James Vowles, who could see the pace the car had while stuck behind Verstappen and ultimately made the decision to bring his driver in on lap 49.

"It was a brilliant execution by the strategy team," Wolff said. "We had discussed all variations in the morning, and the two-stop seemed uncompetitive. But then they reacted in the right way and all the learnings we took from Hockenheim -- with the radio discipline and the protocol that the strategists in the background came up with -- James Vowles was evaluating it all.

"Initially it looked like Lewis could overtake Max on the hard tyre, but we were too marginal on the brakes, and we couldn't continue to follow him in that way. So the only option to avoid finishing second was to take a risk in the hope that the medium tyre would create an offset. At first it didn't seem very good, but from the moment Lewis sniffed the opportunity, there was no going back."

The huge gap to the Ferraris in third and fourth was key to the strategy, allowing Hamilton to pit without losing second position. Had Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel been more competitive, the strategy wouldn't have worked, as Hamilton would have gotten stuck behind the Ferraris. But the relentless pace of the front two drivers earlier in the race had presented him with the opportunity to find some clear air and unlock the true pace of his Mercedes. What followed was a race by proxy as Hamilton was set the target of lapping a second faster than Verstappen for the remaining 20 laps.

At this point, it's important to look at Verstappen's strategy options. The Red Bull pit wall had identified Mercedes' strategy before it happened but believed a counterstrategy -- i.e., pitting Verstappen just before or just after Hamilton -- would not work.

"It was all to lose," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained. "Because if we had stopped before and they had done the opposite, they had what looked like more of a pace advantage as they had six-lap fresher [hard] tyres, so I don't think we would have caught Lewis at the pace that he caught us.

"It's frustrating there were no other drivers in the mix, because if he had dropped behind a Ferrari or even his teammate, it wouldn't have been an option open to him. But with the two cars so far ahead of the rest of the field, and the pace they had in the Mercedes, strategically it was the obvious thing for them to do to roll the dice."

Reacting with a pit stop on the following lap was also off the agenda. After Hamilton made his switch to medium tyres, Verstappen needed at least a 20-second advantage to do the same, but by the time he was back at the pit entrance on lap 50, the gap between the two was already 19.2s, meaning he would come out behind the Mercedes.

"They had a good pit stop, and halfway round his outlap, Hamilton was already neck and neck [with Verstappen's pit stop window], and by the end of the lap, he was ahead, so we didn't have the ability to cover on the next lap because it would have conceded track position," Horner added.

"So at that point, your bed is made to get to the end of the race, and that meant Max started to use the tyre harder than he would have liked."

Possibly more than at any other point this year, the underwhelming performance of Verstappen's teammate Pierre Gasly came into focus. Had Gasly been in touch with the front two -- even by as much as 20 seconds -- he could have acted as a blocker for Hamilton's strategy and helped protect Verstappen's lead. It was a factor not lost on Horner after the race.

"The problem is he is not in the mix at all, so it's not like if Lewis pitted he was going to come out behind him or anything like that," Horner conceded. "But today, both Mercedes and Red Bull had one-legged races with the teammates out of contention.

"Obviously not having two cars running at the front does hurt us, particularly in the constructors' championship where we scored the same amount of points as Ferrari today on a track where we should have taken more out of them."

At first, it looked like Verstappen had the pace to hold Hamilton off. He was lapping in the high 1:19s as Hamilton was only managing middling 1:19s.

"We were very much in doubt [that the strategy would work] because we knew we had to catch up a second a lap," Wolff said. "There was a stage when Max was turning up the engine and he was matching Lewis' pace and you could almost hear the disbelief in Lewis' voice why we did the second stop."

Even though the numbers weren't stacking up, Hamilton's race engineer Peter Bonnington kept telling his driver it was possible. There was a degree of hope that Verstappen would run out of tyres and drop off, but there was no guarantee. Mercedes had no real idea how fast Hamilton could go if he really pushed, but after seven years working together, they knew misleading their driver about the gap could make all the difference.

"Somehow Lewis put himself back in the right frame of mind and probably we motivated him over the radio," Wolff said. "One thing Lewis' father once said to me is that there's just one sentence you need: 'You can do it'.

"Even though the plan said we were running out of laps, we thought that by telling him he was catching him we could help. And that's exactly what happened."

From lap 58 onward there was a steep change in Hamilton's lap times as he suddenly started lapping in the mid 1:18s. At the same time, Verstappen started to run out of tyres, and the gap went from 13 seconds to one in the space of just eight laps.

"I had to put all doubt and all question marks out of my mind and go for the best laps I could do every single lap consistently and not drop any time whatsoever," Hamilton explained. "I had one of the most consistent period of laps that I'd had -- I don't know if he had traffic or mistakes or whatever, but the gap started to chop down quite quickly.

"I think with four or five laps to go I had him four seconds ahead, and I could see him in my sights, so maybe he was struggling with his tyres. So after that I was like, 'OK, we've got a serious race on here.'

"It felt like the steepest wall to climb when you come out that far behind, but the team had relaxed faith that we would do it, and I'm grateful for their hard work and the decision."

The result was Hamilton's 81st career win and an insight into the mental attitude of the greatest drivers of a generation.

Where has Red Bull's pace come from?

Hamilton's victory has all but secured his sixth world championship at the midway point of the season, as he now leads teammate Valtteri Bottas by 62 points. Verstappen is a further seven points behind Bottas with 239 left to play for and, even though the Red Bull has come on strong at recent rounds, it is not yet in a position to challenge for wins at every round.

"I think Lewis is now over 70 points ahead [sic], which is close to a three-race advantage with nine to go," Horner said on Sunday night. "So basically Lewis would have to not turn up for three races, if his cough comes back or something, or he gets athlete's foot, but it's hugely unlikely.

"They would have to f--- up by gargantuan proportions not to win this championship. But our target for the rest of the year is to close that gap at races, and as we get more performance on the car and Honda make progress, this is very much a building year as we go to 2020."

But championship math aside, the progress made by Red Bull has been impressive at recent rounds. The advantage Mercedes held at the start of the year on tracks with low-speed corners has been whittled away by the team from Milton Keynes, while Ferrari is still likely to be a threat to Mercedes at high-speed circuits.

Red Bull's improvement has accelerated since an update package at the Austrian Grand Prix, and in that same period Verstappen has outscored Hamilton by 18 points. Part of that is down to the nature of the circuits and the conditions at the races favouring Red Bull, but there is little doubt that the team has made a breakthrough since the start of the season.

"I think that the regulation change over the winter definitely hurt us with the way we work the front wing," Horner added. "I think as the team has gained more understanding and been able to use these regulations better, we have managed to recover the balance and characteristics of the car.

"And of course, the regulations change was combined with a tyre construction change as well, and those two elements hit us quite hard on the chassis side over the winter. But I think we have made really good progress over the last few months and hopefully in the second half of the year we have got a good vein of development that should continue to help with that."

As a result, Red Bull is targeting Ferrari in the constructors' championship rather than Hamilton in the drivers'. Yet with Gasly continuing to underperform, the 44-point gap to the Italian team won't be easy to overhaul.

"I think this track doesn't play to their strength," Horner added. "When we are sitting down in Spa and Monza it will be different. The next two tracks coming up look like Ferrari territory, which is what makes today frustrating. At one point, Sebastian was the next car to be lapped by Max, so it was frustrating not to have outscored them by more points in the constructors'."

But while the championship may be all but over, after four thrilling races in a row there is hope of more exciting races to come in the second half of the year. What's more, with the Honda engine in the back of the Red Bull improving at a rapid rate, there is hope that 2020 could finally see what the Hungarian Grand Prix teased: a genuine title battle between Verstappen and Hamilton.