On a tough afternoon at the Hungaroring, the core strength of the Silver Arrows stood firm...
Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport achieved a third and fourth place finish in the Hungarian Grand Prix with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton respectively. The team knew that the tight and twisty Hungaroring was likely to prove better suited to the Ferrari - and so it did. The margins, however, was as tight as ever, with a radio and communication problem perhaps even robbing Lewis of an unexpected opportunity to win a race that was most notable for the admirable sportsmanship shown by the two Silver Arrows drivers.
Lewis has an outstanding record in Budapest, boasting five previous victories. But the difficulties involved in winning a sixth became all too clear in Qualifying, when Ferrari locked out the front row of the grid. Behind them, it was in fact Valtteri who qualified P3, just 0.09s behind Kimi Räikkönen in P2.
The choice of Pirelli tyre compounds for Hungary were the SuperSoft, Soft and Medium, and the W08 proved tricky to balance on the SuperSoft 'Qualifying' tyre. The team was on the limit of its set-up parameters between the front and rear axles, resulting in a car snappy enough to catch out Lewis at the blind, high-speed entry to Turn 4, yet with an understeer characteristic through Turns 13 and 14 at the end of the lap - an unusual set of conditions. The Ferrari drivers, by contrast, seemed able to place their cars more precisely. A new rear wing (actually a modification of the Barcelona specification) certainly helped - but not sufficiently to tame the prancing horses on Saturday.
The race was a close call between a one-stop and a two-stop, with the team committing to a single stop on Saturday, using up new SuperSoft tyres in Qualifying and new Soft tyres in the third session of free practice. Ferrari, by contrast, saved their Soft tyres, hinting that the Maranello outfit may go for the two-stop route. Another factor pointing the team in the direction of the one-stop was the increased competitiveness shown by Red Bull and the need to protect against a possible undercut.
That particular threat disappeared on the opening lap when Max Verstappen clattered into the side of team mate Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 2, taking the Australian out of the race and hampering the Dutchman's challenge through the addition of a 10s penalty served at his pit stop.
The searing first lap Ferrari pace (Vettel crossed the line 4.3s clear of third-placed Valtteri at the end of the opening lap) led the team's strategists to the conclusion that Ferrari was indeed going down the two-stop route. But a first lap Safety Car to recover Ricciardo's stranded Red Bull and clear up oil from its split radiator changed that, as the field ran behind the Mercedes AMG GT S for five laps.
When racing resumed, the Ferraris again set a strong pace. By lap 20 Vettel led Räikkönen by 2.6s, with Valtteri 6.6s further behind - some 2.6s in front of Verstappen - and Lewis a further 2s in arrears, still trapped behind the Red Bull. By this time, it was clear that feared tyre degradation was less than expected amid scorching track temperatures of 55°C and that a one-stop was likely to be the optimum strategy.
It was not all plain sailing for Ferrari, however. Vettel was reporting that his steering was offset to the left - a situation present from the start but worsening - and as the race approached 30 laps and the opening pit stops loomed, Valtteri was lapping quicker than the Ferraris, closing to within 7.5s of the lead.
The Silver Arrows were likely to be more competitive relative to the Ferrari on the Soft tyre and so the team called Valtteri in after 30 laps, forcing the Scuderia to respond and commit the leaders to a longer stint on the harder tyre to the end of the 70-lap race. Unfortunately, it was now that a communications problem restricting radio messaging prevented Mercedes from attempting different tactics with Lewis, who was pitted the lap after Valtteri.
"It was a local hardware issue," team boss Toto Wolff explained. "We found a crack in a fibre-optic cable that made us fly blind. Our whole communications and data system broke down and we didn't have any communicatons in the garage on the 'fantasy island' as we call it or on the pit wall. No radio comms, no data, no TV feed. We somehow managed to get it back occasionally but it obviously strongly penalised us. There was sometimes the communication that you heard and sometimes there was none - a really difficult one for us.
"There was incredible team play, lots of people in Brackley and Brixworth that constitued our back-up system, feeding massive amounts of information over to us. At times there were six or seven different people speaking to James (Vowles, Chief Strategist) and we were trying to make the right decisions.
"If Lewis had been able to tell us earlier that his first set of tyres were in good shape, we could probably have tried to leave him out and that could have had a potentially massive outcome on the race because we were so close to the Ferraris at the end."
Once the two Silver Arrows had pitted on laps 30 and 31, however, Ferrari responded as expected and pitted race leader Vettel on lap 32 and team mate Räkkönen the lap after. Kimi, once in free air on the lap when Vettel stopped, set some quick sectors and almost overhauled his Championship-leading team mate, pointing to two things: first, the extent to which Vettel's problems were slowing Ferrari down and, second, the validity of Toto's suspicions that being able to leave Lewis out may have significantly affected the outcome. With relatively little tyre degradation, the overcut looked like a viable strategy, as it had been in Monaco earlier in the season.
Verstappen now led for 10 laps as Red Bull extended his stint length as much as possible before pitting the Dutchman to serve his 10s penalty. Vettel retook the race lead on lap 43 but, on the Soft tyre, the Silver Arrows were indeed lapping quicker, and there was now just 4.5s covering Vettel, Räikkönen, Valtteri and Lewis.
The usual Hungaroring conundrum faced the Mercedes pair, however: as soon as you get close, you slide the tyres and, in the last sequence of corners, you cannot attack the car ahead. Although DRS was proving more powerful than in 2016, the reality is that the straight probably needs to be another 150m longer in order to present a viable overtaking opportunity versus a car whose tyres are in a similar condition.
With Valtteri unable to make any impression on the leading Ferraris, Lewis came over the radio and said: "I have more pace. I can pass Valtteri and then let him back past if I can't get the Ferraris."
This was the strategy the team then attempted, with Valtteri slowing and running deep into Turn 1 to allow Lewis through on lap 46, with 24 laps remaining. Despite closing to within DRS range, though, Lewis also found that he was unable to stay close enough through the final corners of the lap in order to challenge into Turn 1.
Behind him, Valtteri had been unable to stay in touch and, as they started the last lap, had fallen almost 8s behind. There were a number of reasons for this. Valtteri's tyres were dirty from when he went off-line to allow Lewis past and he lost almost 3s in a single lap. He was also mindful of the need to look after his tyres because Verstappen behind him was on tyres 12 laps fresher for the second stint after his late stop. Thirdly, the back-markers were being more gentlemanly in moving over for the leading three-car train than they were for the Finn.
"After we inverted the cars, Valtteri thought he had to manage his tyres in preparation for Verstappen," Toto confirmed, "but that was the wrong thing to do. In hindsight, we should have been encouraging him sooner than we did to stay with Lewis, because the tyres were fine for the end of the race. Also, as much as he's trying, we've just taken his P3 and he's not sure if he's getting it back. I suspect that played into the psyche. The third part is that, as good as Valtteri is, if you had to choose a couple of tracks in the season where Lewis is just incredible, this is one of them. That's the reason why he's won so much in Hungary - he's just stunning here."
As the cars went onto their final lap, Verstappen was just 1.5s behind Valtteri and the team had a genuine concern that, in trying to swap Lewis and Valtteri back again, they could slip up and cost themselves position to Verstappen.
"We had a long discussion internally about how we would make the move because Verstappen obviously was coming much closer," Toto confirmed. "We didn't want to lose the podium or P4 under any circumstances. So we advised Lewis about the gaps, discussed where the right place would be to let Valteri back and decided it would probably be last lap into the last corner because that would limit the overtaking opportunities for Verstappen. He backed up and there wasn't any discussion, just very sportsmanlike behaviour, similar to what Valtteri did earlier."
The switch cost Lewis three points in his title bid as Vettel stretched his Drivers' Championship lead to 14. There will be those who question the wisdom of Mercedes scrupulously fair play. Toto, however, explained the reasoning.
"These values have won us six Championships and will make us win more in the years to come. It cost us (Lewis) three points and could potentially cost the Championship and we are perfectly conscious about that. Nevetheless, it's how the drivers and team operate and we stick to what we say. If the consequences are as much as losing the Championship, we will take it. Long term, that approach is better than doing it the other way around. It was a tough call and, believe me, probably the most difficult one we've had to make in the last five years.
"We don't drive around in circles because we enjoy it so much. We do it to promote our brand and sell cars. It's a long term project. If you come here and think it's all that matters, you are wrong. We have seen the backlash of decisions that were ruthless and cold-blooded and the effect it had on the brand. It's about doing the right things in the right way. And sometimes doing it the right way and standing by your values is tough. And it was today, believe me."
For Valtteri, the decision reinforced the mutual respect he and Lewis have as well as his standing in the team.
"We tried as a team to swap positions, but Lewis couldn't get past them either. We didn't gain any points - but I'm glad we tried it. I was promised that Lewis would let me back if it didn't work out. But Lewis and the team kept their promise and we swapped positions back in the last lap. I don't think every team-mate would do that in a championship fight, so I think that was really nice of him and it shows that he is a real team player."
Lewis, too, backed up the team's modus operandi. "In my mind, I want to win the Championship the right way," he confirmed. "I don't know whether that will come back to bite me in the backside or not - but I said at the beginning of the year I want to win it the right way and I do think today was the right way to do things.
"For whatever reason I was the quicker car today and it's kind of a grey area, because if he let me by and I pulled him along and we were two seconds apart it's a much easier thing to let him back. I was seven seconds up ahead with the Ferraris and the team were in a difficult position. But it showed I am a man of my word and also that I'm a team player. Today shows unity. In life, if you do good things, good things come back to you, so hopefully as a team, our good doing will pay dividends."
The outcome was a positive for the mindset of both drivers as F1 heads into its four-week summer break before the second part of what is an epic Championship tussle with Ferrari.
Despite Ferrari's gain, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport still enjoys a 39-point lead in the Constructors' Championship and, after the break, F1 heads to Spa and Monza - both circuits with characteristics that should prove better suited to the Silver Arrows than Budapest.
"I truly believe we have the capability of winning the title," Lewis said, "but it's going to take 100% of everyone's effort to pull it off. I'm just going to encourage the team to come back stronger and I will come back even stronger too."