LEwis Hamilton had no doubt that he had made a turn at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Visibly exhausted on the podium after his return from last place to third place, the world champion had gone through the wringer at the Hungaroring on Sunday. However, the race and the weekend proved that his true strength is beyond the physical.
In Budapest, his mental strength and composure, born of experience and maturity, were unmistakable. In what is shaping up to be a great fight with Max Verstappen, it is brains, not strength, that give Hamilton the advantage.
The race in Hungary was a thriller and as much as Hamilton did not win, it was impossible to ignore it. Relegated to the finish after Mercedes mis-rated the restart leaving Hamilton alone on the grid on the wrong tires, he had to wrestle his car from 14th place.to third on a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult. Fatigued and dizzy, he said he thought he might still be suffering from the effects of contracting Covid-19 last year.
The reward for your efforts is one you can savor during your F1 summer vacation. With Verstappen’s car damaged after being hit by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, the Dutchman was only able to finish tenth. If the FIA maintains its disqualification of Sebastian Vettel, who finished second, Hamilton will qualify second and Verstappen ninth. If that’s the case, he will have turned his 33-point deficit before the British GP into an eight-point lead.
This is a big change as the first half of the season draws to a close. Hamilton knew how important it was as he considered his position at the back of the field in Hungary. His reaction reflected the 15 years in F1 that he has accumulated and the maturity of a 36-year-old athlete capable of evaluating and compartmentalizing a backhand with good sense and calculating poise.
There was unrelenting determination to his movements across the field, timing of passes as he weighed each opponent and then struck. He was more than aware that a frustrated lunge could cost him the race, and he was frustrated at how difficult it was to pass, as his radio messages showed, but he kept it under control with iron discipline.
This was especially evident when he raced Fernando Alonso in a glorious battle for 10 laps. Alonso defended brilliantly and Hamilton attempted to overtake seven times. He was repeatedly denied, but Hamilton did not attempt to simply push Alonso out of the way and risk contact. When he finally managed it, the defense had cost Hamilton a chance to chase the race winner Esteban Ocon, but Hamilton’s perspective had been that of the big picture and he hugged a podium after regaining 11 places.
He was also demonstrating this singular approach off the track. On Saturday after qualifying, Verstappen emitted a burst of anger when asked again about the Silverstone clash between the two. Hamilton sat silently, but certainly smiling behind his mask. He knew this was the reaction of a pilot feeling the pressure and was in contrast to the calm and stoic way in which he had shrugged off the boos he received, after qualifying, from Verstappen fans.
He has weathered worse before at Spa and Monza and will no doubt do so again, but it was indicative of a man who steadfastly refuses to allow such distractions to destabilize his balance.
In fact, the last time Hamilton was affected in competition was in 2016, when his relationship with his Mercedes teammate at the time, Nico Rosberg, turned sour and sour. Rosberg won the title that season and immediately retired, but Hamilton emerged as a stronger and more resilient character capable of absorbing and dealing with misfortunes and mistakes, psychologically building a formidable fortress.
Four titles followed. They weren’t child’s play either. In 2017 and 2018 it was strongly challenged by Ferrari and Vettel. The German enjoyed an advantage in the first half of both seasons and, for much of them, the top car. But Hamilton remained calm and when the pressure moments came, Vettel ran into serious mistakes in Singapore in 2017 and Germany in 2018 that gave Hamilton the advantage.
Red Bull is in this fight for the first time since 2013 and has performed well, but Verstappen has had two disastrous races in a row and experienced a hugely disappointing reversal of his points lead.
In the past, he has ruled out any need to focus on the mental aspect of driving or, in particular, racing. “I don’t even think about the mental side of things because I never had a problem,” he said. “If you have a little mental weakness, you may be able to train your mind, but it will never be your strong point. Many people ask: ‘What do you need mentally to succeed in F1?’ I say, ‘What do you mean mentally?’ I just enjoy it and drive as fast as I can. But many people think that your psychology is a huge thing. For me, it is not necessary. “
This is the first time you’ve been in a title fight and you may need to re-evaluate this approach in the sense that being fast may not be enough. This could be one of the great rivalries of F1 and if it is the slightest weakness it will tell. Hamilton proved once again in Hungary that he has strength and depth.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism