Carnage, Talent, and Ocon’s First Win at the Hungarian Grand Prix
The 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix was one of the most ridiculously unpredictable Formula 1 races in a long time. It kicked off with carnage as Valtteri Bottas missed his braking point and rear-ended Lando Norris, sending him crashing into Max Verstappen. Bottas, at this point no longer in control of his car, then collected Sergio Pérez for good measure, thus taking out both Red Bull Racing drivers in one move.
Behind him, Lance Stroll also made a mistake under braking and, seeing himself arriving too fast toward the front of the pack, attempted to go off the track to avoid a collision — to no avail as he sideswiped Charles Leclerc anyway, ending both of their races.
The race was red-flagged for a little under half an hour as marshals cleaned up the debris. Things looked bad for Verstappen, the championship leader. His car was still drivable but horribly damaged, with a huge chunk of the floor simply missing from the right side. Meanwhile, title rival Lewis Hamilton was sitting pretty in the lead, having narrowly evaded all of the carnage that took place behind him.
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Losing five drivers on the first lap (six if you count the heavily disabled Verstappen) is a rare occurrence in itself, but in this case an even more significant one than usual because almost all of the implicated drivers were ones you would have expected to finish near the front. In other words, the Hungarian Grand Prix suddenly provided teams that usually place outside of the top 10 a very good opportunity to score valuable points.
The race had started on a damp track, with the drivers out on the green-marked “intermediate” Pirelli tire designed for such conditions. But by the restart, the track had almost entirely dried and instead of going back to the grid after the formation lap, every driver went into the pits to change to slicks.
All except for one: Hamilton. While everyone else queued up in the pit lane, the seven-time champion sat alone on the grid as he waited for the lights to go out. It was equal parts unprecedented, dramatic, and for those not in the Mercedes camp, comical. The drivers in the pits had made the right call — the track was ready for slicks and Hamilton was slow on the intermediate tires. When he pit just a lap later, it was a lap too late. He was dead last.
This left Esteban Ocon in the lead with Sebastian Vettel close behind in second, and they remained that way for the rest of the race. Ocon put up a valiant defense to take a first-ever F1 victory for himself and the new Alpine racing team. Vettel would later be disqualified for finishing with insufficient fuel left in his car, and Aston Martin Racing’s appeal went nowhere.
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In any case, they both had Fernando Alonso to thank for their result. In the final parts of the race, the formerly retired driver held off a charging Hamilton for 10 laps despite being at the wheel of a slower car with older tires, giving everyone a good show and protecting his teammate’s lead for just the right amount of time. Had Hamilton made it past Alonso just a few laps sooner, he might have gone on to win the race.
For a neutral, it was a great grand prix. For Verstappen fans, it must have tasted a little sour. His race was once again massively impacted by the mistake of a rival driver through no fault of his own. Only two races ago, he had a substantial 32-point lead in the championship. This has now swung 40 points in Hamilton’s favor, which must sting not only because Verstappen didn’t put a foot wrong, but because his misfortune was both times directly caused by the team that had the most to benefit from it. To make matters worse, he is probably facing engine-related grid penalties later in the season as a direct consequence of those crashes.
The Williams team, on the other hand, must be delighted. Having yet to score any points this season, it managed to score several at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix. George Russell in particular was overjoyed to finally end his long streak of pointless races. It was his 49th race start and besides his single race with Mercedes, which he nearly won, he had never finished in the top 10. It goes to show that if you want to watch a sport where driving skill triumphs over engineering, you probably shouldn’t watch F1. It’s a strange thing that the very best drivers in the world seek to compete in the racing series that arguably rewards their abilities the least. Then again, Alonso’s fierce defense showed that talent still very much has room to shine in F1.
Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.