Formula 1 has been waiting for a full-on battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for years now. The Hungarian Grand Prix finally delivered it, and what a treat it was.
Verstappen in a slower Red Bull holding off Hamilton in a faster Mercedes, their teams fighting a strategic battle as much as the drivers were scrapping on track – it produced a race that not only thrilled in the moment, but whet the appetite for what might be to come when F1 resumes after the four-week summer break in Belgium on 1 September.
Even Hamilton was excited by the battle – which became a reality as soon as the world champion had passed team-mate Valtteri Bottas by Turn Three on the first lap and settled in behind Verstappen.
“As soon as I got into second,” Hamilton said, “I was like: ‘OK, this whole battle we’ve been talking about me and Max having we are going to have that today.’ And it was really awesome.”
‘I was definitely not thinking: “Genius”‘
As they slugged it out at the front, the two men were in a separate race from anyone else, Hamilton more than a minute ahead of the Ferrari of third-placed Sebastian Vettel by the end of the grand prix.
Hamilton always looked quicker, but track position is so important at the Hungaroring, a tight and twisty track in a dusty amphitheatre about 12 miles outside Budapest.
Throughout, Hamilton rarely gave Verstappen any breathing space, and the Dutchman defended with maturity and skill.
Never more than about two seconds behind, Hamilton ramped up the pressure on Verstappen as the window for him to make a pit stop and rejoin ahead of the Ferraris, then led by Charles Leclerc, approached.
That forced Red Bull to stop Verstappen as early as they could – to protect against Hamilton stopping first and jumping the Dutchman that way.
That early pit stop meant Mercedes could run Hamilton longer, to give him fresher tyres for their fight in the second stint, which at that time was planned to be to the end of the race.
After that first stop, Hamilton was all over Verstappen. But after one breathtaking overtaking attempt around the outside of the super-fast Turn Four just failed to come off, he and Mercedes began to doubt he would be able to pass.
That was on lap 39, and immediately afterwards the Mercedes strategists began to consider the idea of a second stop. It would lose them 20 seconds, but the idea was that Hamilton would come back at Verstappen like a rocket.
They analysed and discussed it for seven laps and then took the plunge, switching from the hard to the medium tyres for the final 22 laps, in which Hamilton would have to make up 20 seconds and pass arguably the most aggressive and uncompromising driver in the sport.
It was an unusually bold and aggressive strategy from a team that can tend towards the cautious – and impressively so just a week after they came in for criticism for questionable strategy in the rain at Hockenheim, the team and Hamilton’s worst race for years.
Hamilton was far from sure it was the right idea.