Hamilton imperious

The British driver from McLaren-Mercedes overcame the pressure from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to post his third victory of the season. Alan Henry reports.

Lewis Hamilton’s victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix was not his first and will not be his last. But it was probably the best of his three Formula One wins so far, a 70-lap marathon throughout which he was kept on his toes by the presence of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari looming large in his McLaren’s mirrors. From pole position Hamilton was able to accelerate cleanly into the lead going into the first corner, swinging confidently across the nose of Nick Heidf eld’s BMW Sauber as Raikkonen came charging through from the second row to relegate the German driver to third place as the pack scrambled out of the tricky 180-degree turn. From that point on, Hamilton was never headed in a race where he had to judge carefully the way he lapped slower cars, straining to avoid sliding wide on the treacherous build-up of rubber debris which awaited the unwary off the racing line.

“It was a very emotional race and an eventful weekend,” said the British driver. “During the last two weeks the team has done a great job with the car and we have definitely made a step forward. However, the Ferrari was also as fast today and during the final laps Kimi put a lot of pressure on me. I managed to pull out a slight gap in the first stint but during the last two stints I had some slight problems with the steering of the car. This meant that Kimi was able to close on me, which made me a little nervous. But the team told me on the radio that all was well, which meant I could push right to the end.”

Behind Heidfeld, Fernando Alonso was satisfied with fourth, although he blamed traffic for missing out on a top-three finish. The McLaren driver, who was demoted from pole position to sixth place on the grid after the qualifying incident on August 4 , was stuck behind Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher for several laps, losing a lot of time to the leaders.

Once in clean air he lapped a lot faster but eventually had to settle for fourth, behind Heidfeld.

“We knew it’s very hard to overtake at this circuit,” the Spaniard said. “We know it’s hard starting from behind, and we were dreaming about reaching the podium. We were close but it wasn’t enough. But fourth place is not bad. I lost one point compared to the maximum that was possible for us. I spent the whole race with traffic, first with Ralf and then with Heidfeld, and it was pretty hard to drive with someone in front.”

The world champion is now seven points behind Hamilton but believes that the penalty imposed on him robbed him of a possible victory. “It’s a lost opportunity because I think this weekend I was faster,” Alonso said. “Yesterday I got pole and today when I was in clean air I was very fast, so I think I could have won, but it was not to be. In three weeks there’s another race and I’ll try again.”

The Spaniard, however, is confident that the title battle is still far from over. “I think it’s not going to be decided until the last race. I was two points behind and now I’m seven behind, but we were 14 behind a few races ago so we are doing fine.” Hamilton, of course has other ideas.

Felipe Massa had a race to forget. During the qualifying his Ferrari ran out of fuel in the pit lane and had to be pushed back to be refuelled. He ended up 14th on the starting grid and finished the race in 13th place, his worst result of the season after a no-finish in Canada.

“It was a horrible race. There are no other words to describe it,” the Brazilian said. “But I have not lost confidence. We must not give up.”

Massa’s troubles were magnified by the success of his team-mate, Raikkonen. With McLaren not adding any points in the constructors’ championship because of a FIA penalty, a better performance from Massa could have helped Ferrari substantially close the gap with the British team. The Italian team still carved eight points from the McLaren lead and now trail 138-119.

Since Robert Kubica’s horrendous crash at the Canadian GP in June the Pole has quickly returned to form, scoring points in four successive races, just as he scored in the three before Canada. Along with his team-mate, Heidfeld, who finished third, Kubica has led BMW to the “best of the rest” title, behind McLaren and Ferrari. His fifth place at the Hungaroring helped BMW add 10 points, the most scored by the team at a single race.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007 * * * THE PRESSURE GETS TO DENNIS

The McLaren team came to Hungary hoping for a trouble-free weekend, but not even Lewis Hamilton's victory and Fernando Alonso's lucky fourth place could rectify the damage to the team's psyche caused by their continuing skirmishes with the Formula One authorities.

The latest problem came only days after the team thought they were finally in the clear over the issue of the stolen Ferrari technical documents which were found at the home of their chief designer, Mike Coughlan. Yet only five days after the team breathed a sigh of relief, the FIA revealed that there was a sting in the tail of that judgment. The CSAI -- Italy's motorsport governing body -- was asked by Ferrari to request that the whole issue be re-examined by the FIA's court of appeal as soon as possible. That meeting will now be held this month, probably after the Turkish GP on August 26.

McLaren's tension has been palpable and seems to have spread to team members. In the pit lane at Hungaroring a convoluted sequence of events unfolded which, in some people's minds, would cast doubt on the McLaren chairman Ron Dennis's most prized asset, his integrity.

It all started when Alonso appeared to deliberately hold up his team-mate, Hamilton, thereby preventing the British driver from exiting the pits in time to start his final qualifying lap. According to the team the delay in returning Alonso to the circuit was caused by the need to wait for a space in the traffic which would allow him an unimpeded run. In fact there were only four cars in total on the circuit, so this was not a credible consideration. Earlier Hamilton had ignored instructions from the pit wall to allow Alonso to overtake him for tactical reasons, much to the chairman's frustration. "Lewis should have slowed and let Fernando past but he didn't. He just charged off," said Dennis. Hamilton's frustration was evident when he told Dennis on the team radio, "Don't ever do that to me again." Dennis replied, "Don't ever speak to me like that again", before the championship leader ended the conversation by telling his boss to "go swivel". It was an uncomfortable episode as for a short while the two McLarens were parked nose-totail. Alonso appeared to be looking in his rearview mirror, perhaps relishing the payback he was delivering to his junior team-mate. There were even suggestions that Alonso's physio, standing on the pit wall, was signalling to his driver when there would be just time for him to complete an out-lap but not enough time for Hamilton to do so. This turned out to be another slice of frenzied speculation, but there was certainly no mistaking Dennis's anger as he threw down his head-set in sheer exasperation when he realised that Hamilton had lost the chance of pole position.

After detailed analysis of the video evidence and recordings of the McLaren pit-to-car radio traffic, the stewards decided that Alonso had "unnecessarily impeded another driver, Hamilton, and as a result he will be penalised by the loss of five grid positions". The stewards added in their judgment: "The explanation given by the team as to why they kept Alonso stationary for 20 seconds after completion of his tyre change and therefore delayed Hamilton's own pit stop is not accepted. The actions of the team in the final minutes of qualifying are considered prejudicial to the interests of the competition." Dennis's team were being accused of telling lies. McLaren then sought to pour more oil on troubled waters with a communique emphasising just how difficult it is managing two such outstanding drivers in the same team, particularly in a winning car. "Every effort was made to maintain our policy of equality," it said. "We do not believe that the findings of the stewards and the severe penalty imposed on the team are appropriate and that our strenuous efforts to maintain the spirit of fair play and equality within the team have been understood."

Yet there was no doubt that the implied criticism of the detailed chronology deeply upset Dennis. He tried to put a brave face on it all but he could not avoid giving the impression that events were spiralling out of his control. At the end of the race he confessed he was too emotionally drained to enjoy Hamilton's dominant win in the way he would have liked.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007