BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — More used to other drivers chasing him, Lewis Hamilton turned predator on Sunday to hunt down Max Verstappen and win the Hungarian Grand Prix.
When Hamilton had tried and failed to get past Verstappen midway through the race on the Hungaroring — one of Formula One’s hardest tracks for overtaking — it seemed that Verstappen would secure a victory from his first pole position for an eighth career win and third in four races.
But then Mercedes showed the strength in depth of its team, making a risky but ultimately brilliant strategy call to bring Hamilton in for a second tire change on Lap 49 of 70. In the pit wall battle, Mercedes sucker-punched Red Bull and unleashed Hamilton on fresh tires.
He chased Verstappen like a silver bullet around the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) track, at times shaving two seconds per lap off Verstappen’s 20-second lead. Red Bull decided against giving Verstappen new tires and left him to rely only on his wits to fend off Hamilton — a five-time champion considered among the greatest drivers in F1 history.
“Lewis was on fire today,” Verstappen said. “I was pushing flat out.”
The remarkably adroit Verstappen — who has great composure at 20 years old — could not hold off Hamilton. By Lap 67, Hamilton moved menacingly alongside and flew to the 81st victory of his F1 career to move only 10 wins behind Michael Schumacher.
“I honestly didn’t know if I could (reduce) the gap,” a jubilant Hamilton said. “I kept pushing and pushing. They were like qualifying laps every lap.”
Verstappen, who took a bonus point for the fastest lap, acknowledged Mercedes made the right call.
“We were just not fast enough. I tried everything I could,” Verstappen said. “Congrats to Lewis, he was pushing me really hard. I like that.”
Hamilton looks headed for a sixth F1 title so far. He sits 62 points ahead of second-place Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas going into the midseason summer break, which is when Mercedes decides whether to give Bottas a new contract for 2020.
After crashing in Germany last weekend and finishing eighth here, despite starting from second place, Bottas’ future hangs in the balance.
For Verstappen, who turns 21 next month, it was a 21st consecutive race in the top five, including 12 podiums. He is only seven points behind Bottas in third place.
Sebastian Vettel finished the race behind Verstappen in third place for Ferrari ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc.
Verstappen held his lead from pole position under pressure from Hamilton and Bottas heading into Turn 1. Hamilton got ahead of Bottas, who was then overtaken by both Ferraris.
On Lap 25 Verstappen came in for a tire change, coming out ahead of both Ferraris.
Mercedes seemed unsure about bringing Hamilton in for his tire change, changing their minds on Laps 26 and 27. Eventually the British driver came in on Lap 32, but a poor pit stop — lasting 4 seconds compared to 2.6 for Verstappen’s — cost Hamilton momentum.
Still, on fresh tires Hamilton soon caught up, forcing Verstappen to defend frantically. On Lap 40, Hamilton almost got past — first on the inside, then on the outside — but the Dutchman kept his cool as Hamilton veered slightly off track on the second attack.
“What more can I do?” Hamilton asked his team on radio.
“Keep the pressure on,” was the blunt reply.
“I can’t keep the pressure on,” an agitated-sounding Hamilton snapped back.
After Hamilton had come in for the second pit stop he suddenly had much faster tires than Verstappen for the closing stages.
To Verstappen, the chasing Mercedes loomed small, medium and then large as a rocket in his wing mirrors.
Verstappen’s lead was wilting in the afternoon sun, and with five laps left it was only three seconds.
In a blur, Hamilton’s Silver Arrow flew past him.
“Sorry I doubted the strategy,” an ecstatic Hamilton said after an eighth win this season. “Oh man, that feels good. That feels so good.”
So will the month off.
The season resumes on Sept. 1 at the Belgian GP.
Vettel, meanwhile, has much to ponder over the summer as he chases an elusive 53rd career win. The four-time F1 champion is 94 points behind Hamilton in fourth place and has not won any of the 20 races since Belgium last year.
On a humiliating day for F1’s most storied team, Vettel and Leclerc finished more than 1 minute behind Hamilton.
In a racing series where mere seconds often decide races, this shows how far the once-mighty Ferrari has fallen. Twelve races, zero wins makes for grim reading.
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