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F1 Midweek: Hungary Is Mercedes’ Best Chance for a Win

It’s certainly not been the Formula One season Mercedes-AMG Petronas had hoped for. 

The first clues arrived in Bahrain, when the new W13 was at best the fourth-fastest car. That wasn’t news exactly, if anything it was expected.

Mercedes have a reputation for sandbagging in testing, deliberately under-performing to lull rivals into a false sense of security. More worryingly, perhaps, on each of the three days of testing, one of the Mercedes drivers was stranded down in the teens, far off the pace.

Of course, when the eight-time World Champions announced a slate of upgrades ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, most in the media assumed that the new “zeropods” would help the Silver Arrows vault into the usual position at the top of the charts they had maintained since 2014. 

Except it didn’t. Lewis Hamilton did end up on the podium in Bahrain, with George Russell one spot behind him in fourth, but that was only by virtue of the much faster Red Bull Racing’s double mechanical DNF. The Mercedes were clearly off the pace of the Ferraris and Red Bulls, barely clear of the midfield-leading Alpines. 

Though Russell has come top five in every race bar one (DNF-ing in Silverstone after jumping out of his car to come to the aid of Zhou Guanyu), Hamilton has had much more inconsistent results, as the team has struggled to wring pace from the porpoising-prone W13.

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Although, at the moment, it looks like they’ve started to turn a corner. 

Runner-up in the French Grand Prix was Hamilton’s best result of the season. Russell followed him home for Mercedes’ first double podium of 2022, helped in no small part by Ferrari’s total collapse.

Hamilton has now scored four consecutive podiums, and while neither Mercedes driver has any realistic chance at the World Championship, the turn of speed does at least suggest the Silver Arrows have a solid claim to be the third-fastest team in Formula 1. Perhaps most impressive was that by the end of the race in France, both Hamilton and Russell were ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez on pace. 

Now, Red Bull’s most recent Monaco Grand Prix winner had struggled all weekend at Paul Ricard, and Russell had some convenient help from a virtual safety car restart to catch Perez asleep at the switch. But Russell had to be there to take advantage, and Hamilton was already seconds up the road. So far this season, on their best day, Mercedes can only just about sniff the lead. 

That could all change this weekend in Hungary, for two reasons. 

First, as Sky Sports caught Perez telling Hamilton in the Silverstone cool-down room, the Mercedes is very strong in low- and medium-speed corners. That’s how Hamilton was able to race Perez for position in Britain, though he eventually lost out because of the Red Bull’s overwhelming advantage in straight-line speed. 

The Hungaroring is sometimes thought of as a second Monaco Grand Prix. While the two are F1’s shortest tracks, Hungary features more traditional low-speed corners than the narrow streets and radical hairpins of Monte Carlo.

Crucially however, Hungary, like Monaco, does not have much in the way of straightaways or overtaking opportunities. The track layout in Budapest (or, outside Budapest, more accurately) can both kneecap Red Bull and Ferrari while playing to the strengths of Mercedes. 

The Hungaroring’s unique attributes aren’t quite replicated anywhere else on the schedule, favoring traits in a car that don’t make for good results anywhere else. This turns Hungary into a bit of a wild-card race that has produced a number of first-time winners, including Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Daniel Ricciardo in a Renault, Honda and Red Bull (respectively) that wouldn’t otherwise contend for the title.

Heikki Kovalainen’s lone career win came in Hungary in 2008. Last season, of course, Esteban Ocon scored a shocking first win in a wacky wet-dry Grand Prix. 

Of course, Hungary doesn’t always produce first-time winners. Eight times since 2007, the Hungarian Grand Prix has been won by Sir Lewis Hamilton. The second reason Mercedes could fight for the win in Hungary is because, statistically speaking, the Hungaroring is Hamilton’s best track.

In fact, tied with Michael Schumacher’s eight wins at Magny-Cours, it could be argued that Hamilton is better at the Hungaroring than any driver has ever been on any one track, ever. 

And he hasn’t always had the fastest car to do it. The 2009 McLaren was undoubtedly the worst car Hamilton has ever had in F1, failing to finish on the podium in the first nine races of the year. Nevertheless, Hamilton won with it in Hungary. 

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After moving to a then-midfield Mercedes team for 2013, Hamilton was again winless by race 10, having only the pace to challenge for occasional podiums against the much-faster Red Bull, Lotus and Ferrari.

Then he won Hungary. 

Yes, it was Hamilton’s only win of 2013, but it kept up his perfect record of winning at least once per year in every F1 season he’s ever competed in. That record is on the line now, and Hungary is by far the best chance that Hamilton and Mercedes will have at claiming a race win under normal conditions in 2022.

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