F1 takeaways: Verstappen continues to cruise as Ferrari fumbles into summer break

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands celebrates on the podium after winning the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix at the Hungaroring racetrack in Mogyorod, near Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, July 31, 2022. (Darko Bandic/AP)

Max Verstappen was victorious, Mercedes made it a double podium and Ferrari squandered an opportunity to get back in the game.

No, this is not a repost of last weekend’s French Grand Prix but a bit of deja vu took place during Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix. Verstappen claimed the checkered flag while Lewis Hamilton finished second and George Russell came in third for the second consecutive race.

As for what happened to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, well, how much time do you have?

Here’s what you need to know from the Hungarian GP.

No stopping Verstappen

Verstappen scored his eighth victory of the season, and the reigning world champion now holds a seemingly insurmountable 80-point lead in the drivers’ standings over Leclerc.

It’s pretty much Verstappen’s title to lose when the series resumes after the summer break in a month with nine races remaining on the calendar.

Verstappen had a pretty bad lockup and dealt with some technical gremlins during Saturday’s qualifying session, but it seems Red Bull got it all sorted out for race day. His P10 qualifying position was the farthest Verstappen has started on the grid and gone on to win.

Not even a 360-degree spin on the track at just past the midway mark prevented Verstappen from landing in the winner’s circle. Luckily, Verstappen was able to keep it clean on the course and avoid having his day ruined due to an unforced error.

How much more can Ferrari take?

Speaking of unforced errors, what’s left to say about Ferrari as they fumbled yet again?

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc started P2 and P3, respectively, on a tricky, technical track that should have been a Ferrari advantage. The Hungaroring course is dubbed “Monaco without the buildings” featuring 14 turns and just one Drag Reduction System (DRS) zone making it difficult to pass. Instead, both Ferraris finished off the podium with Sainz crossing the line fourth and Leclerc coming home sixth.

Sainz had not one but two problematic pit stops that wasted precious time while a questionable call to put on the hard tires handcuffed Leclerc’s ability to contend. Although the hard tires last longer they have far less grip. Leclerc had no traction at all as he was helpless to fend off Verstappen, and the Monegasque driver was less than pleased to put it nicely.

Yes, Ferrari would have had to fit Leclerc’s car with a secondary tire compound at some point as they had only run mediums until then, but they should have already seen how the Alpine drivers were struggling on the hard tires and called an audible on that strategy.

Ferrari started the season with such promise finishing 1-2 in Bahrain and even recently looked like they were on the right track again with back-to-back wins by Sainz in Great Britain and Leclerc in Austria. You’re only as good as your last one though and these past two Grand Prixs have erased those strong efforts.

Not only is Leclerc sitting 80 points back of Verstappen for the drivers’ championship, but Ferrari is 97 points behind Red Bull for the constructors’ title. It’ll take a complete reversal of fortune to overcome that advantage.

Reliability issues are tough to figure out, but communication and strategy are two things Ferrari can improve upon for the back half of the season. It’s going to be a long summer break at Ferrari HQ and if they don’t sort it out, those in charge now might not be the ones to decide what’ll happen next.

Mercedes takes the next step

It was another double podium for Mercedes but this one hits different starting with Russell bagging pole position for the first time in his career. The young British driver wasn’t able to convert it into a maiden victory as he had some wobbly moments and struggled with grip on his rear tires, but Russell still had his moments like his fantastic manoeuvring around Sainz.

Getting that first pole should provide a confidence boost for Russell, and he should feel more comfortable the next time he finds himself P1 on the track.

Hamilton was also in fine form competing in his 301st Grand Prix, earning the fastest lap bonus point and pulling off a nifty outside-inside pass on Russell for P2. Bet you didn’t know Verstappen is the only driver who has scored more points over the past five races than Hamilton, who has been riding a podium streak since last month’s Canadian GP.

Mercedes has proven they can outperform Ferrari with sound strategy and reliability; The final obstacle now is Verstappen.

Even while easing his car around the tricky track on the last lap as the rain began to fall, Verstappen still cleared the finish line with a 7.834-second cushion over Hamilton. That gap is what Mercedes will have to look to tighten up although just think: had Verstappen gone off track during his 360-degree spin, we could have had a Mercedes 1-2 finish.

Alpine holds the edge over McLaren

Alpine surpassed McLaren for fourth place in the constructors’ championship last week and maintained their four-point advantage — now 99-95 — following the Hungarian GP.

McLaren’s Lando Norris finished seventh for the third consecutive race — dropping from a P4 start — while teammate Daniel Ricciardo finished 15th following a five-second penalty for colliding with Lando Norris of Aston Martin. (Regardless, Ricciardo would have ended up outside of the points anyway as he crossed the line 13th.)

Although Alpine struggled early on the hard tires — and what should have been a harbinger for Ferrari — Fernando Alonso and defending race winner Esteban Ocon finished eighth and ninth, respectively, to match Norris’s point total on the day.

Norris and Ricciardo should be the perfect pair for McLaren mixing a rising star with a veteran and proven winner. That they also gel personality-wise off of the track is a bonus. The results just haven’t been there this season. It could be a case of the car underperforming as other teams that rely on Mercedes engines — Aston Martin and Williams — are faring even worse.

McLaren may have given Ricciardo a vote of confidence, however, they should take a long look at their future plans over the summer break.

Vettel to the metal

While the podium might have been a repeat, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel and Stroll switched spots in the finishing order with the four-time world champion from Germany outduelling the Canadian this time for the 10th and final points-paying position.

Vettel is in the “victory lap” portion of his career after announcing Thursday, a day after joining social media, that he will be retiring at the end of the season.

On top of his four drivers’ titles, Vettel has 53 Grand Prix victories and 122 podium results, both of which are good for third on the all-time lists behind Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. Vettel’s four-year championship dynasty from 2010 to ’13 is kind of like that of the 1980s New York Islanders in the NHL overshadowed by another immediate legacy in the Edmonton Oilers — or in Vettel’s case by Hamilton.

Vettel remains in the record books as the youngest world champion with his first title victory in 2010 at age 23, and his 13 wins, nine consecutively, during the 2013 season are still the most in a single campaign.

He’s also used his global platform to speak out on environmental and social issues such as climate change and 2SLGBTQ+ rights, plus he planned to boycott the Russian Grand Prix that was scheduled for later this season before the race was cancelled.

Some have called Vettel a “hypocrite” for speaking out against oil sands while having oil company Saudi Aramco as one of his team’s main sponsors. But Vettel isn’t the first to hate the system while playing the system, like Rage Against the Machine in music, and in response to the hypocrite label said, “it’s not at all about me, it’s about the bigger picture.”

Vettel hasn’t won a race since the 2019 Singapore GP during his penultimate season with Ferrari. He joined Aston Martin last year, finishing 12th in the championship, and he’s currently 14th in the standings.

Formula One will miss Vettel’s competitive spirit on the grid, and his fans should savour these final few races of his career even if he’s chasing points instead of victories.

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