Budapest (AFP) – Fresh from his and Mercedes’ best result of the year in France last Sunday, Lewis Hamilton will hope to go one better and add to his record eight victories at the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend.
The seven-time world champion was second behind champion and series leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull at Le Castellet in his 300th Formula One race, one place ahead of team-mate George Russell.
It was Mercedes’ first double podium this season.
Hamilton relishes the sinuous Hungaroring circuit 20km north of Budapest where no other driver can match his record, Michael Schumacher his nearest rival having won there only four times.
But Hamilton knows that even after four consecutive podiums he faces a daunting challenge to maintain his form as he seeks to become the first driver to win nine times at the same event.
In France, he was helped by Ferrari’s problems – the luckless Charles Leclerc crashing out while leading and the penalised Carlos Sainz starting from the back of the grid – and the continuing travails of Sergio Perez to recover his early season form with Red Bull.
He knows, too, that his capricious Mercedes car remains unpredictable and changeable from circuit to circuit.
That can be a dramatic factor this weekend on the testing, tight and twisty Hungaroring, a slow track with subtle elevation changes, after the smooth, open and high-speed straights and corners of the Circuit Paul Ricard.
“I have no idea what to expect from us in Budapest,” said team chief Toto Wolff.
“We had expectations of fighting at the front in France, but we didn’t. So, I don’t know what to expect.”
Hamilton has won some of his most famous victories in Hungary, but like Wolff cannot predict a repeat on a track he loves and one on which Verstappen has never triumphed.
“This year has been so confusing,” he said.
“From a driver’s perspective, it was so difficult to understand the car, but we are now – at least a little more – and it is more enjoyable to drive.
“We still lack performance in some areas – like qualifying – but we are slowly getting there. It’s about constantly chipping away at it. Unfortunately, we can’t take big leaps at the moment, but who knows? Maybe one will come and we’ll be right there.”
At 37, Hamilton has been revitalised by his car’s progress after months of painful ‘porpoising’ and bouncing and such has been his recent zest Wolff believes he can continue for at least two more years.
“I want to get back to winning and that’s going to take time,” he admitted. “But I’m sure we will and then we will talk about the future.”
Mercedes lack of qualifying pace could be costly at the Hungaroring where it is notoriously difficult to overtake and Sunday’s race will be a test of claims that the new ‘ground effect’ rules will enable closer racing and more passing.
After their disappointment last Sunday, Ferrari will hope to bounce back and dominate with single-lap speed and then convert that into a one-two to revive their title challenge.
Leclerc is now 63 points adrift of Verstappen after 12 of this year’s 22 races, before the August summer break, while Red Bull head Ferrari by 396 to 341 in the constructors’ championship.
Mercedes sit third on 270.
All the leading teams are expected to bring upgrades to Hungary where Verstappen, in particular, is keen to see Red Bull kick on in their performance after recent outings.
“I think we are still chasing, performance-wise, and the car is still overweight so that costs up lap time,” he said.
“In the past, we have been good at introducing upgrades and we need to do that again now or we will be falling further behind.”