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View from the Pit Lane: Hungarian GP

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are in a race to become F1's next five-time world champion.

By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst 

The Hungarian Grand Prix marks the end of the first half of the season and the start of the official summer break.

In true F1 fashion, the teams can’t just go on holiday – they have a carefully monitored break, with pre-agreed dates and the FIA policing their phones and email servers to ensure that they’re not doing any work. Nothing is simple in the world of Formula 1!

Rather than just looking at the Hungarian Grand Prix, I thought I would use this column as a bit of a half-term report to look back at what’s been a very good season so far.

It’s not often that we have a year where the lead of the world championship has swapped five times in 12 races, and we’ve never had two quadruple world champions racing head to head to secure their fifth title.

The Mercedes versus Ferrari battle has been fascinating to watch. Every time the paddock thinks that we can start to draw a trend into their form, there’s always been an update that tends to mix things up.

The pace of development at the sharp end of F1 is relentless and the two powerhouses are throwing absolutely everything at this championship.

There are a few things that we can conclude now, though.

The first and most important one is that Ferrari are genuine challengers against Mercedes for pace more often than they have been for a long time. Yes, last year I still believe they should have won the title (the road rage in Baku, the crash in Singapore and the reliability woes in Japan and Malaysia cost them a load of points) but overall, my personal belief was that the Mercedes was still the faster car over the season.

This year, with the engine upgrades in Canada and the aero developments at Silverstone, the Italian giant goes into the summer break with the fastest car.

Yet Sebastian Vettel is 24 points behind in the drivers’ championship and the team find themselves 10 points behind in the constructors’ standings. The crash in Germany which gifted Lewis Hamilton the win has been costly for both team and driver, while the first-lap incident in France also cost a few points.

Vettel’s wins in Bahrain, Canada and Silverstone have been brilliant drives, but he needs to capitalise when Lewis is having a bad day, like in Germany, or ensure that even on a weekend when Ferrari are slower than Mercedes, at worst, he’s third. That’s the only way to turn around the points deficit.

Mercedes have not been perfect either, with errors in strategy on more than one occasion.

The miscalculation on the pit-stop time in Melbourne was a particularly obvious one, while the highly-publicised error in Austria was masked by a double mechanical DNF.

Not realising early enough that Ferrari had switched to a one-stop strategy in Bahrain – when it was pretty obvious – also meant they spent too long pacing their drivers. In China and Britain, they seemed to be locked into strategies not to pit because their tyre allocation through the weekend meant that they didn’t have enough sets to change tyres during late safety car periods.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been disappointed to see so many people on Twitter saying I’ve been biased towards Lewis and Mercedes. That’s simply not true. The reality is that he’s driving very well at the moment after a couple of sub-par races in China and Canada, where he was outpaced by Valtteri Bottas. It was a bit of a surprise in Montreal, where he’s been brilliant in the past.

At Silverstone, Lewis delivered a brilliant qualifying lap on a day when the Ferrari was the better car. In the race, his long opening stint was a great lesson in tyre management, something that he showed again in the opening stint in Germany, where he did 42 laps on his first set of tyres.

Yes, he benefited from Vettel going off and also from being on new ultrasoft tyres when the rain started to come down in Germany, but he still made up 16 seconds on his team-mate in seven laps! The pole lap in the wet in Hungary cemented his place as the deserving leader of the world championship.

Bottas has been driving very well this season. I was a bit worried after Melbourne that he was going to be blown away by Lewis, but full credit to Valtteri that he’s bounced back and is proving to be the perfect No 2 for the team.

Yes, I said No 2 because despite whatever they may say publicly, the logical thing for Mercedes to do is to back Lewis for the title now. This isn’t a reflection of Valtteri’s pace, but just the reality of the situation with the way the points stack up now.

He’s 81 points behind Lewis, having lost at least 62 points through bad luck that was no fault of his. If you were Toto Wolff right now, the conversation would probably be: “Sorry Valtteri, but this just isn’t your year. You’re signed up for 2019 and you’ll have another chance to chase the title, but now you’re the wingman.”

Valtteri may not like it, but he just needs to suck it up unfortunately.

Kimi Raikkonen seems to have lifted his game on Sundays and has been on a run of five podium finishes in a row. This seems to have switched the paddock chatter from “he’s definitely gone for 2019” to “looks like he’s going to hang on for another year now”.

There have been too many occasions, though, when it seems like he’s going to outpace Seb only to make a mistake during the crucial lap in Q3. To overturn the points deficit, Vettel and Ferrari need Kimi to be qualifying second and being a buffer between the German and Lewis on the weekends where the Ferrari is the faster car.

Of the rest, Red Bull Racing are having another season where they are just not quick enough on a Saturday.

Renault appear to have made a step forward when it comes to the consistent power needed on a Sunday, but when the Ferraris and Mercedes cars turn it up in qualifying, it’s clear that they are a step ahead of the French engines.

In fact, this is even clearer when you look at how well Haas and Sauber have been qualifying of late, hugely benefiting from the surge in Ferrari power.

Still, Daniel Ricciardo’s win in Monaco and Max Verstappen’s victory in Austria were probably the two most popular wins of the season and they’ve got another chance to potentially upset the title contenders in Singapore in September.

The midfield battle has been fascinating this year with Haas, Renault, Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber showing flashes of brilliance.

Haas have emerged as the fastest of the midfield teams, but have cost themselves a lot of points, which has put Renault into fourth place in the table.

Sauber have been the ‘feel good’ story of the year, with rookie Charles Leclerc emerging as an absolute star of the future.

McLaren and Williams have been the biggest disappointments of the year.

McLaren still see themselves as one of F1’s giants but with an expensive shift away from Honda engines (and the Yen that came with it), the move to Renault power has been a bit of a shock and a reality check for the Woking squad.

Having Fernando Alonso in the car has been the saving grace as he’s scored 44 points against eight for Vandoorne, but equally the pressure he ramps up on the team is more than any other driver on the grid.

The level of power and influence the two-time world champion has in that team is extraordinary, but on the flipside, he knows just how valuable his relentless pace on a Sunday afternoon is to any team.

After a month off, we’ll be off for another back-to-back at Spa and Monza – two high-speed circuits where horsepower will be crucial.

I’m fascinated to see if Ferrari can maintain their advantage over Mercedes when it comes to straight-line speed. If the Prancing Horses can out-drag the Silver Arrows, that could quickly slash the points deficit for Vettel.

Time will tell, but in the meanwhile, it’s time to relax and recharge the batteries!

Read more: Stat Wrap - Why history is against Hamilton

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