Lewis Hamilton’s first victory for Mercedes at the Hungarian Grand Prix came in the nick of time.
Had I been asked to write his half-term report last week, Headmaster Masefield would have had to write "must do better." But the English driver pulled a stunning mark out of the bag in Hungary, and forced me to amend my previous appraisal to "close to becoming the star pupil."
Victory in Hungary means Hamilton is now 48 points behind championship leader Sebastian Vettel. And whilst I have pinned my colours firmly to the Vettel mast, there’s little doubt that Hamilton has been trying with all his might to wring every inch out of his Mercedes to stay within touching distance.
It looked a tall order from the outset. Here’s why.
He’s had to change schools
Towards the end of the 2012 season, Hamilton announced that he would be leaving McLaren, the team that had nurtured him through the ranks from childhood and given him his big break in Formula One.
McLaren was like a family to Hamilton and yet he decided to jump ship and move to the less fancied Mercedes. It was a move that raised no shortage of eyebrows. Like anyone moving to a different job, he would have to learn new company policy and meet new teammates.
Hardest of all would be getting to grips with a new car. What’s more, the team’s star pupil and Hamilton's good friend, Nico Rosberg, already had three seasons under his belt and had comprehensively outshone the legend that is Michael Schumacher. But Hamilton had other ideas. After all, he had to partner none other than Fernando Alonso in his debut season at McLaren in 2007 and darn nearly won the thing!
Pirelli problems on race day
Hamilton was fast out of the blocks in Australia, qualifying third en route to a solid fifth place and he again out-qualified Rosberg before scoring his first podium for his new team in Malaysia, the controversy of the faster Rosberg being ordered to stay behind Hamilton slightly overshadowing the bigger team order story at Red Bull.
All seemed rosy in China after Hamilton secured a superb maiden pole for his new outfit but an old problem the reared its ugly head, the Mercedes W04 chassis unable to make the softer qualifying Pirelli tyre compound last as long as its rivals on race day. Hamilton was passed for first, second and nearly third before hanging on for a second successive podium.
Spain compounded the problem, Mercedes again great in qualifying with Hamilton behind teammate Rosberg on the front row but the end result a puzzling 12th place that left Hamilton scratching his head. Monaco mirrored the qualifying of Spain, Mercedes again quick over one lap on the softer rubber but this time it was Hamilton forced to play second fiddle on team strategy, losing position to the Red Bulls when obliged to stack his pitstop behind eventual winner Rosberg.
Blow outs and bad luck
Canada looked like a track well suited to the Mercedes, with its long straights and shorter corners, plus Hamilton had won there three times. He would have been on pole too had he not misjudged the final chicane. P2 on the grid looked good nonetheless but when the sun shone for the first time on race day, Vettel was supreme and with Hamilton not entirely happy with his brake balance on a circuit notorious for punishing cars in this department, old rival Fernando Alonso blasted past with eight laps remaining to snatch the final podium spot. But Lewis was still fourth in the standings and getting better.
Buoyed on by a fervent home crowd, Hamilton took pole at his home race in Silverstone and duly shot into the lead, opening up a big gap on the chasing pack. Even at this early stage, he looked on course for victory. But on lap 8 his left rear tyre blew spectacularly, scuppering his chances.
Similar failures for Felipe Massa, Jean-Eric Vergne and Sergio Perez almost caused the race to be red flagged by FIA race director Charlie Whiting, but Hamilton drove a blinding race considering the circumstances to come home in fourth.
The turning point?
And so to Germany and Hungary and two more pole positions. But whereas Hamilton suffered a poor start and was always playing catch-up at the Nurburgring, Hungary saw his best performance of the year to date. The new Kevlar-belted Pirellis held up perfectly in the sweltering conditions and Hamilton was supreme on his three-stop strategy to secure his first win for his new team.
"We really had no idea we could do that well," Hamilton told BBC Sport afterwards. "The last 20 laps I was just managing my tyres and cruising. I think you can say I was hungry for it today."
And a hungry Hamilton could spell trouble for the opposition going into the second half of the season. We know how good he is in qualifying and if Mercedes have now got to grips with the Pirelli tyre in race conditions he is a serious contender.
Lewis’s mid-season marks:
Race craft: 7/10
Summary: Getting back to his best. Two gold stars
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