Lewis Hamilton took a sensational win in the Hungarian Grand Prix with an aggressive strategy to defeat polesitter Max Verstappen four laps from the finish.
Verstappen led most of the race after starting from pole position, but a strategic masterstroke from the Mercedes pit wall, bringing in Hamilton for an unlikely second pit stop on Lap 48, allowed the Briton to chase down a 20-second gap in 17 laps to seize first place form Verstappen and score his eighth victory of the season.
The Dutchman did everything right at lights-out, nailing the throttle to take command of the first turn, but behind him Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton, starting second and third respectively, were racing alongside each other into the braking zone.
Hamilton swept around Bottas’s outside at Turn 2 to relive him of second place, but that wasn’t the end of the story for the Finn, who picked up front wing damage from light contact with Hamilton’s rear tires. He stopped for a new nosecone and tires at the end of Lap 7, falling to last and leaving Hamilton to take the fight to Verstappen on his own.
The leading pair sprinted into the distance in a private game of cat and mouse. The Mercedes hovered around two seconds behind the Red Bull Racing machine, but by Lap 20, the Dutchman radioed his team to confirm his tires were losing grip, and by Lap 25 he was in the pits for a fresh set of hards.
Hamilton, who told his team his own medium-compound rubber felt good for several more laps, stayed out and planned to build a tire offset for later in the race.
The Briton chose his moment six laps later, on Lap 31, to bolt on a fresh set of the same hard rubber. It was a slow stop — four seconds to Verstappen’s 2.4 seconds — which meant he dropped to more than six seconds off the lead, but the Mercedes came alive on the white-striped tire, obliterating the gap after only two laps.
Hamilton sized up the Dutchman as they weaved their way through traffic before launching his first attack on Lap 38, taking his rival side by side into Turns 2 and 3 before attempting to cruise around his outside at Turn 4. He went wide on the exit, however, and was forced to fold back behind the leader into Turn 5.
With the best of his rubber spent and brake temperatures high from wear, Mercedes made the bold gamble to switch Hamilton to a new set of medium tires at the end of Lap 48. He was immediately quick, preventing Verstappen from doing likewise on the following lap lest he lost position and forcing the Dutchman to up his pace to hold back the tide.
But Verstappen’s quest as in vain. Hamilton, egged on by his pit wall, was relentless on the softer tire and was within five seconds after only 15 laps.
Verstappen radioed his pit wall to glumly note that his tires were “dead,” and on Lap 57 the evidence was clear: Hamilton trailed him out of the last corner and easily slipstreamed past into the first turn, seizing the lead and a famous victory.
“I feel really grateful for the day and really for the team for continuing to believe in me and continuing to push to the limits and take a risk and a chance on me,” the breathless Hamilton said out of the car. “If it wasn’t for these boys here and all those back at the factory, this wouldn’t be possible.
“For a race to be able to push like that — I’m telling you, it was on the limit all the way.
“I honestly didn’t know if I could catch (Verstappen). Like the team said, just keep your head down, and I did. I just kept pushing and the gap closed. The laps were like qualifying laps.”
Verstappen was calm in defeat, admitting his car was second-best on the day. As a consolation he was stopped for fresh tires immediately after losing the lead, allowing him to set the fastest lap and earn a bonus point.
“We were just not fast enough,” he said. “I tried everything I could on that hard tire to stay alive, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough.
“He was pushing me very hard. I like that. Still, second place, fastest lap — a good weekend overall for us.”
Sebastian Vettel finished an unlikely third thanks to Bottas’ early stop and an offset strategy that allowed him to pass teammate Charles Leclerc in the final laps of the race with fresher tires.
Third and fourth was the best as the Italian team could have hoped for having been off the pace all weekend, and Vettel admitted he hoped Ferrari could find improvements after the midseason break.
“We couldn’t go at the pace with these two, that was quite clear the whole weekend,” he said. “A lot of work ahead of us. We need maybe to charge our batteries and then the battle continues. Overall, we need to get stronger.”
Carlos Sainz finished a fine fifth after jumping to the head of the midfield on the first lap and keeping Red Bull Racing’s Pierre Gasly at bay at the end of the race.
Gasly endured a difficult afternoon, falling to ninth at lights-out, but a well-executed overcut got him past Kimi Raikkonen, while Bottas’ damage and a slow stop for Lando Norris helped him recover to sixth.
Raikkonen drove impressively to hold back Bottas by just 0.736s at the flag after the Alfa Romeo driver struggled to make up ground early in the race.
Bottas’s recovery from last after his first pit stop was slowed by Daniel Ricciardo, who managed to keep him behind for almost 30 laps, by which time the Finn was more than a minute off the lead.
Mercedes switched him to a two-stop at the same time as Hamilton, but it got him past only one extra car — McLaren’s Lando Norris, who ended ninth after a slow pit stop dropped him behind Gasly.
Alex Albon finished 10th for Toro Rosso as the final point scorer of the grand prix.