As Formula 1 shuts down for the customary summer break after a 13-race stretch from mid-March to the end of July, Max Verstappen must be wondering what all the fuss is about. New regulations designed to tighten the pack? Nine out of 10 podiums in a row suggests otherwise.
Last year’s controversial world champion is sailing to a title this year in a race very much lacking a cause célèbre. With the aura of a man in cruise control in the cockpit and in the off-track circus, the two-time world champion tag is not far from anointment.
While the actions of challengers around him only helped to facilitate rather than hinder his tenth-to-first triumph, Sunday in Budapest was his drive of the year so far, storming to victory by a margin of eight seconds, which, without a sprinkling of late rain, would have been larger. A fearsome combination of faultless strategy calls and composed overtaking manoeuvres – alongside eye-catching control of his Red Bull during a heart-thumping 360 – saw the 24-year-old extend his lead in the Championship to 80 points with nine races left.
Insurmountable? Almost certainly.
The Hungaroring wasn’t meant to suit Red Bull, so the build-up said. And indeed, an action-packed qualifying session saw the constructors’ leaders slump to a lowly P10 and P11, handing rare moments in the sunshine to Mercedes and Ferrari up top. But amid a 70-lap tussle where tactics took precedent over skill behind the wheel, the decisions of chief strategist Hannah Schmitz were spot-on to a tee as Red Bull thrived whilst the front of the pack failed.
Perhaps this is harsh on Mercedes, who reacted slowly to Verstappen’s initial undercut on Hamilton but then recovered to see their all-Brit duo home for a second consecutive double podium. As for Ferrari? Déjà vu.
Somehow with the quickest car of the lot this year, the Scuderia find themselves a mammoth 96 points off the pace heading into August. In fact, team principal Mattia Binotto best start looking over both his shoulders. While in one way the nearest competitor has now changed to Mercedes, who are only 30 points behind, in another way the under-pressure Italian may want to start gazing his eyes closer to home too.
His post-race defence of the strategy team alongside him was admirable, instead focusing on the car’s surprising lack of performance, but he was fooling nobody. Only in the job three years, if he doesn’t make a change soon, the change might greet him sooner.
Here’s a simple fact which sums it up quite suitably: with his second-place finish in Hungary, Lewis Hamilton secured a sixth podium of the season. Yet with no wins, the seven-time world champion remains sixth in the drivers’ standings. And yet, the Brit now has more podiums than Charles Leclerc’s five, such has been the Monegasque’s misfortune and impulsiveness.
This time around, the man tasked with guiding Ferrari to a first World Championship in 15 years received no favours from his colleagues on the pit wall. Comfortable on a set of medium tyres, the Scuderia inexplicably pitted Leclerc onto a hard compound tyre already blundering on the Alpines. Leclerc’s subsequent shortcomings were inevitable as he fell a cropper to Verstappen, before an imperative pit stop set him back all the way to sixth.
Afterwards in the pen, Leclerc had the veneer of a beaten man, the sheer dismay of the preceding two hours written all over his face. Ten races on from holding a 34-point lead after the Australian Grand Prix, Leclerc can all but concede the Championship now – and perhaps should start resetting his goal to consolidating second place.
Because that is under threat from a Mercedes team paradoxically revelling as this season progresses, relishing the unusual role of the hunter. Dominant for eight consecutive years, a ninth straight constructors’ crown won’t follow in 2022.
But Toto Wolff – particularly after Russell’s maiden pole position on Saturday, the team’s first of the season – seems to have rediscovered his mojo once again, swanning into the media pen with a grin the world of Formula 1 had grown accustomed to, in stark contrast to the disgruntlement of the “porpoise era”.
Hamilton, too, seems to have recaptured his love of the fight. Sure, results are the predominant trigger – though a win still eludes him in his 16th season – but even in his interviews, the Brit focuses on accepting the card that has been dealt to him and rolling with it. Every week, essentially, the W13 takes a step forward in correlation.
As for the rest of the pack, McLaren’s battle with Alpine for fourth is probably the biggest source of on-track entertainment, amid changes forthcoming with news on Monday that Fernando Alonso is taking Sebastian Vettel’s seat at Aston Martin next season. Lando Norris continues to be the best of the rest, consistently slotting himself in amongst the leading six, only for the McLaren’s race pace to abandon any hope of maintaining track position. The popular Brit continues to maximise the full potential of the car, to his credit; but a first victory in Formula 1 is no closer to fruition.
Yet as 20 on the grid and hundreds in the garage dust down their trunks and head for a well-earned recuperation period, the unflappable Verstappen is the man of the moment and the champion in waiting. His reputation and maturity has never been greater; his consistency and calmness never more visible. With home races in Belgium and Holland first up post-break, the chasing pack should modify their goals. No longer is it a case of who for 2022’s top spot, but rather, when.