Maiden win for Ocon in Hungarian GP thriller

2nd August 2021, 5:40am
8 min read
Maiden win for Ocon in Hungarian GP thriller
Image credit: Mercedes F1
  • Frenchman Esteban Ocon claims shock victory in Hungary
  • Hamilton regains championship lead with hard-fought second place
  • First corner accident wipes out five cars and damages Verstappen

Alpine’s Esteban Ocon stormed to a surprise first F1 victory in an enthralling Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday. 

The Frenchman started only eighth on the grid, but ran second by the end of the first lap, after placing his car in the right place at the right time to avoid a pile-up, and then in a bizarre restart, took the lead and held it until the end, aside from a few laps during the pit stop phase. 

Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel was second, but was disqualified a few hours after the race for an irregular fuel sample, promoting Lewis Hamilton to second place after one of the more topsy-turvy races of his career, while Carlos Sainz Jr was eventually classified third after Vettel’s penalty. 

Rain before the start meant the entire field started with intermediate wet tyres, and pole man Hamilton made the better start of the front-runners to hold onto the lead at turn one. Bottas, starting second, made a far worse start and was passed by Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen and by McLaren’s Lando Norris. 

But Bottas misjudged his braking for the first turn, and slammed into the back of Norris, which in turn propelled the McLaren heavily into the side of Verstappen. Bottas had a secondary collision with Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, eliminating the duo on the spot, with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc involved in another incident and also eliminated, while McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo was sent into a spin.

In all, four drivers were out of the race before the end of the first lap, while Verstappen, after his second successive first lap collision, was heavily delayed. 

The carnage promoted Ocon to second behind Hamilton, with Vettel following through into third having started 10th. 

The safety car was quickly deployed, but with large amounts of debris scattered across the road in various places, the race was quickly red flagged. 

That was a slight blessing for Verstappen, who sustained heavy damage, but the delay in proceedings meant that his Red Bull team were able to make repairs, though there plenty of bits were still missing when the race resumed around 30 minutes later.

With Hamilton at the front of the restart grid and Verstappen in the lower reaches of the top-10, it looked as if the championship battle would swing big-time towards the Brit, but more drama was to follow. 

By the time the field left the pit lane to head to the grid once more, the rain had long stopped and the sun had dried the track in most places. All cars returned to the circuit on the intermediate tyres, but it quickly became apparent that the track was ready for dry tyres, and all remaining cars except Hamilton pitted at the end of the second formation lap to obtain dry tyres. 

The result was one of the most bizarre race starts in F1 history, as the five red lights came on and went out with only one car on the grid, that of Hamilton. As he blasted away down to the first corner, the remaining runners filtered out of the pits in single file, headed initially by George Russell’s Williams, though the British driver had to relinquish several places on the restart lap and fell down to seventh place. 

Hamilton pitted at the end of the restart lap, promoting Ocon to the lead and Vettel into second, with Nicolas Latifi’s Williams holding third in a much slower car. Hamilton fell to the tail of the field, 15th (Norris’ McLaren had been withdrawn during the red flag period due to his first lap damage) and was left with an uphill battle to salvage his weekend. 

With Latifi holding firm in third, the race quickly became an Ocon/Vettel battle for the victory. The pair circulated almost constantly separated by a second or so, but the duo had to wait quite a while to make their pit stops, as they waited to create a suitable gap behind them.  

The German driver was the first of the pair to stop on lap 36, as he aimed to use the ‘undercut’ to pass Ocon in the pit stop phase. But a one second delay while fitting one of his tyres was to prove crucial. Ocon pitted next time around, and emerged just ahead of Vettel, despite the Aston Martin man putting in a blistering out-lap. Without the delay, the German would surely have taken the lead. 

As it was, that left Ocon’s teammate Fernando Alonso, who celebrated his 40th birthday on Thursday, in the lead. The two-time champion pitted on lap 40, handing the lead back to his fellow Alpine driver, who retained his one second advantage over Vettel. 

The second phase of the race was all about how far up the order Hamilton could go. Having pitted for slick tyres a lap later than the rest, he had to work very hard to overtake cars much slower than his Mercedes, taking longer than expected to pass Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi.

After dispatching the Italian, he was called into the pits again on lap 19, and in clear air used a sensational pace to pass Ricciardo and Verstappen, swinging the title race back in his favour, especially with the Dutchman still hobbled by damage. 

A string of fastest laps meant Hamilton continued to rise up the order as others made their pit stops and resumed behind him, and was up to fifth thanks to a handful of strong overtakes. 

The British driver was then left behind Sainz, and pitted again for fresh rubber on lap 47. That brought him back out behind Alonso, and despite his pace advantage and fresh rubber, the Mercedes driver was stuck behind the wily Spaniard for several laps, as Alonso used every defensive trick in the books. 

Hamilton eventually found his way past his former teammate on lap 65 after the Alpine driver went deep into turn one. That allowed him to close rapidly on Sainz in third, and made a move stick on the start/finish straight a couple of laps later.

There were just three laps remaining, and Hamilton was around eight seconds behind Vettel, who was still around a second behind Ocon in the lead. But as Ocon crossed the line to take a dream maiden win, Hamilton was less than a second behind Vettel, and surely only needing a lap or two more to challenge for the win.

As it was, Hamilton did claim second after Vettel’s disqualification, with third for Sainz being the Ferrari driver’s second podium of the year. 

Alonso’s fighting drive rewarded him with fourth with Alpha Tauri pair Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda fifth and sixth.

Williams scored their first F1 points for two years with Latifi seventh and Russell eighth, the Brit gallantly telling his team to favour Latifi who was better placed for a big score.

With Hamilton finishing second, the hobbled Verstappen limped home in ninth, and lost the championship lead, while Kimi Raikkonen was the final points scorer in 10th for Alfa Romeo.

The three week summer break now follows, with the field returning to action at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium on 27-29 August. Hamilton heads to Spa with an eight point lead at the top of the standings, while Mercedes has retaken the lead of the Constructors championship.

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Written by Richard Randle

Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.