Lewis Hamilton was left in no doubt he had put in a shift at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Visibly exhausted on the podium after his comeback from last place to third, the world champion had been through the wringer at the Hungaroring on Sunday. Yet the race and the weekend demonstrated his real strength is beyond crude physicality.
In Budapest, his mental robustness and composure, born of experience and maturity, were unmistakable. In what is shaping up to be a mighty scrap with Max Verstappen, it is brains not brawn that gives Hamilton the edge.
The race in Hungary was a thriller and much as Hamilton did not win he was impossible to ignore. Relegated to last after Mercedes miscalled the restart leaving Hamilton alone on the grid on the wrong tyres, he had to wrestle his car from 14thto third on a track where it is notoriously difficult to overtake. Fatigued and dizzy, he said he thought he may still be suffering from the effects of contracting Covid-19 last year.
The reward for his efforts is one he can savour during F1’s summer break. With Verstappen’s car damaged after being hit by Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, the Dutchman could manage only 10th. Should the FIA uphold its disqualification of Sebastian Vettel who finished in second, Hamilton will be classified second and Verstappen ninth. If that is the case he will have turned his 33-point deficit before the British GP into an eight-point lead.
This is a huge turnaround as the first half of the season comes 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 he has amassed and the maturity of a 36-year-old athlete able to assess and compartmentalise a setback with level-headed, calculating poise.
There was a determined relentlessness to his moves through the field, the timing of passes as he weighed up each opponent and then struck. He was more than aware that a frustrated lunge could cost him his race – and he was frustrated at how hard passing was, as his radio messages demonstrated – but he kept it in check with iron discipline.
This was especially evident when he vied with 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 try to simply muscle Alonso out of the way and risk contact. When he finally did get by, the defence had cost Hamilton a shot at going after the race winner, Esteban Ocon, but Hamilton’s outlook throughout had been that of the bigger picture and he embraced a podium finish after making up 11 places.
Max Verstappen needs to show he can handle adversity after losing his championship lead. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
He was demonstrating this singular focus off the track as well. On Saturday, after qualifying, Verstappen issued an angry outburst when asked again about the Silverstone clash between the two. Hamilton sat silently but most certainly smiling behind his mask. He knew this was the reaction of a driver feeling the pressure and it contrasted with the calm, stoic way he had shrugged off the booing he received, after qualifying, from Verstappen’s fans.
He has weathered worse before at Spa and Monza and doubtless will again, but it was indicative of a man who steadfastly refuses to allow such distractions to destabilise his equilibrium.
Indeed, the last time Hamilton was rattled in competition was in 2016 when the relationship with his Mercedes teammate at the time, Nico Rosberg, turned bitter and acrimonious. Rosberg went on to win the title that season and immediately retired but Hamilton emerged a stronger, more resilient character able to absorb and deal with misfortune and mistakes, psychologically building a formidable fortress.
Four titles followed. Nor were they a cakewalk. In 2017 and 2018 he was challenged strongly by Ferrari and Vettel. The German enjoyed a lead in the opening half of both seasons and, for much of them, the superior car. But Hamilton remained calm and when the pressure moments came Vettel was found wanting with serious errors at Singapore in 2017 and Germany in 2018 that gave Hamilton the advantage.
Red Bull are in this fight for the first time since 2013 and they have been performing well, but Verstappen has had two disastrous races in succession and experienced a hugely dispiriting reversal of his points advantage.
In the past he has dismissed any need to focus on the mental side of driving or, notably, of competition. “I never even think of the mental side of things because I never had any issues,” he said. “If you are a bit weak in your head maybe you can 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 so many people think your psychology is such a massive thing. For me, it’s not necessary.”
This is the first time he has been in a title fight and perhaps he is going to need to reassess this approach in that just being fast may not be enough. This could be one of F1’s great rivalries and if it is the slightest weakness will be telling. Hamilton proved once more in Hungary he has strength and the depth.