The century of Grand Prix wins will have to wait. The most exhilarating drive of Lewis Hamilton’s 2021 season, however, may already be done.
He evaded chaos and carnage at turn one, he somehow found a way through a quite disastrous strategy by Mercedes and, eventually, he made it onto the podium at the Hungaroring. It wasn’t another champagne moment.
A champion like Hamilton is never happy with second. But in the circumstances, particularly given the revelation about his health that followed, it must have felt a triumph of sorts.
Esteban Ocon takes in the adulation after the race of his life to claim a dramatic first F1 win
Lewis Hamilton slipped back to last place early on before working his way back to second spot
Hamilton is now eight points ahead of Max Verstappen in the race for the world championship
When he looks at the drivers’ championship table on Monday morning, he will see his name back on top. He made 18 points compared to just two for his rival Max Verstappen.
Their much-anticipated head to head duel never materialised, but that doesn’t mean the Mercedes-Red Bull rematch after Silverstone fizzled out. The boos for Hamilton as he stood with race winner Esteban Ocon confirmed the second half of this campaign will be as rancorous as the first.
And Hamilton gave everything to stand where he did. If he has a debilitating condition, linked to contracting coronavirus last year, it made the bravery of this performance all the more special.
Hamilton needed help getting on the podium. His celebrations were those of a man on the brink of collapse. His champagne did not spray, more trickle from the neck of the bottle like an old man watering roses.
Given his physical state, heaven knows the toll, physically and mentally, of weaving a way through the field from last place to third, including a titanic duel to wrest fourth from his old team-mate-cum-adversary, Fernando Alonso.
‘It looked like Fernando was driving for us,’ said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner of Alonso’s steadfast refusal to let Hamilton pass without a fight. He got through at the seventh attempt, then past Carlos Sainz too, but the toll was immense.
Hamilton was late for his post-race media duties claiming extreme fatigue and dizziness. Having seen the ravaged figure in the aftermath, nobody complained. ‘I was just so exhausted,’ Hamilton admitted. ‘It was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had on the podium.’
It makes his current status as championship leader all the more remarkable. Mercedes are again ahead in the constructors’ championship, too.
Where to start, then, on one of the most eventful and bizarre races in F1 history, the final standings only decided at close to 10pm local time? At the first turn, all eyes were on Hamilton and Verstappen with memories of Silverstone and two weeks of verbal sparring still fresh.
Nobody was really focussed on Valtteri Bottas, so often peripheral to the intense rivalry between the teams and their number one drivers. That was the mistake. It was Bottas whose errors resulted in scenes of utter confusion and disorder, that teed up the most compelling race of the season so far. The rain helped, too.
Valtteri Bottas crumples into Sergio Perez after a slow start by the Finn caused carnage
Hamilton’s team-mate also shunted Lando Norris into Verstappen at a disastrous first corner
Bottas, Norris, Perez, Lance Stroll and Charles Leclerc all retired after the opening-lap drama
The Hungarian Grand Prix was the first behind the old Iron Curtain, in 1986, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that the event saw its first wet weather.
That race, in 2006, was won by Jenson Button from 14th on the grid and the rain that fell on the circuit 25 minutes before the start here introduced a similar random factor. As did Bottas. He started second but pulled away so slowly that Lando Norris nipped in front of him on the inside.
Norris broke, Bottas did not react quick enough and ran into the back of him. This set up a chain of events that turned one of the most technologically precise sports into the equivalent of a 1950s pinball machine.
Bottas’ shunt into Norris sent him into Verstappen, and then Bottas carried through and ran into the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez.
The Ferrari of Charles Leclerc also failed to avoid Norris but, having at first looked to have got away with it, he was then taken out by Lance Stroll who had mounted the verge in a desperate attempt to avoid growing mess.
Verstappen managed to continue but could only gain two points on another tough afternoon
Hamilton took aim at his team as he was forced to fight his way after an early strategy mishap
But his supreme overtaking ability saw him pass both Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo
In all, five drivers could not continue – Bottas, Perez, Leclerc, Stroll and Norris – and Verstappen’s car suffered damage to its right side from which it never really recovered. Held together with tape, he complained of oversteer, understeer, and said his machine was ‘just broken’.
Bitter complaints followed. ‘Taken out by a Mercedes, again,’ he said, after a tenth placed finish and a single point. It was hard not to feel for him. And we never did find out what happened to that caravan Bottas appeared to be towing when he pulled away.
With so much debris on the track, the race was suspended and the cars returned for a standing start. Almost all of them. During the delay, the rain had abided. Every car took the opportunity to make the necessary adjustments, starting from the pit.
Every car, bar one. For the restart, Hamilton sat alone, in pole position on the grid. ‘It was crazy being the only one there,’ he said. ‘I was telling the team how the track was during the lap, but they said the rain was coming when we got in the car, so I thought they had other information.’
If they did, it wasn’t good information. Hamilton surged off alone but had to pit quickly. Having avoided the turmoil, emerging without so much as a scratch, he could have dominated this race from the front had he not struck out alone.
Hamilton was then involved in an intriguing game of cat and mouse with Fernando Alonso
He eventually achieved his aim – and then got past Carlos Sainz with only three laps remaining
The day belonged to Ocon though after a race which required him to hang from the front
Instead after pitting he re-emerged 14th: of 14. ‘Er, am I last?’ Hamilton asked his team. ‘Affirmative,’ he was told, as Mercedes tried to regain an air of calm and competence that was not being backed up by the tactics. Baldrick had better cunning plans.
But then Hamilton did what Hamilton does. It was an utterly brilliant drive as he chased down his rivals one by one, including Verstappen. Sadly, there was no duel between the men, Verstappen undercut having pitted.
The real battle was with Alonso, once Hamilton was closing on the leaders. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff even came on the radio to tell him he could win. It was a tall order, not least when Alonso used a succession of smart defensive manoeuvres to remind everyone of the driver he was, and still could be, even at 40.
Ultimately, Hamilton had to settle. Late on, his circumstances improved – Sebastian Vettel disqualified from second place, having been left with less than the legal minimum of one little of fuel in his tank. Hamilton’s third became second, but at least nobody begrudged the winner, Ocon, for Alpine Renault, his first Grand Prix victory.
The Frenchman last won a race on the GP3 circuit in 2015. He was later summoned to see the stewards here for not following ‘post-race procedures’, to do with the positioning of his car. It felt strange to hear a sudden demand for order on a day when anarchy reigned.
Re-live the drama from Hungary with the updates from Sportsmail‘s ALEX BOWMER…