Friday 23 March 2018

Vettel's rivals scrapping over leftovers

McLaren are closing gap on Red Bull but champion's lead looks impregnable, writes David Kennedy

Budapest is one impressive city. Founded by the Celts in 1AD, it is resplendent with palaces and gothic masterpieces that have withstood the city's various incarnations from kingdom to communism down through the ages. The glorious Danube separates the hilly Buda from the flat Pest. Urban legend has it that Buda was named after the brother of the fifth-century warrior Attila the Hun.

Sebastian Vettel's challenge to his opponents in Pest owes little to the brutality of the Huns, but he came here last Sunday still wearing a cloak of invincibility. He had many opponents, each determined to topple the reigning world champion. Lewis Hamilton succeeded in Germany. Now it was the turn of Hamilton's team-mate Jenson Button.

Button's victory turned out to be another tour de force for a driver who is renowned for excelling in inclement weather.

It was fitting that Hungary, a country which gave us the Rubik's Cube and the ballpoint pen, was the setting for Button's 200th Grand Prix, as he worked his way through a conundrum of variables, dotting the i's and crossing the finishing line to produce a copybook win.

Button's first Grand Prix victory came in a similarly sensational endgame at the conclusion of the Briton's 113th Grand Prix start back in 2006, just when it seemed as if his career was petering out without significant honours.

Five years on, the man who began his F1 odyssey in 2000, when he pipped Brazilian Bruno Junqueira to a drive with Williams by the narrowest of margins, has not only added 10 further Grand Prix victories to his impressive portfolio, but has included a world title for good measure. His Brawn championship-winning car of 2009 may have given him the sort of advantage that renders other drivers pedestrian, nonetheless his intelligence, application and especially his intuitiveness have become his unique signature.

In many ways Button reminds you of Brazil's first world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, a driver who, from the earliest days of his F1 career, produced consistent displays while others made critical errors under pressure.

Button is clearly no match for the leading trio on outright pace in wet or dry conditions, but he knows just how fast he can go without falling off the track and he has an uncanny ability for making the right strategy calls.

Button's victory ultimately came at the expense of the two drivers best placed to bring the title fight to Vettel, and the German must delight in the opposition's carving up of the meagre leftovers -- the more the merrier as far as he is concerned.

Button for his part, though now 100 points behind Vettel, insists he can close the deficit to the world champion with just under half the season to go. But that would entail Vettel not scoring in four races, which is as fantastical as it is improbable.

Vettel is likely to fondly recall his Hungarian podium long after many of his wins have receded into the miasma of his memory bank. A brief off-track excursion failed to prevent him from finishing ahead of his two closest rivals, Fernando Alonso and Hamilton, and that's got to be as satisfying as a win as the pressure starts to ratchet up.

For Alonso, third was a reasonably good result, but one suspects the feisty Spaniard will view it as one that got away. Ferrari got another thinly-veiled rocket last week from team boss Luca di Montezemolo, a man who is clearly impatient for more wins.

Hamilton was once again sensational in the way he conducted his McLaren Mercedes around the greasy track, but the error count in the debit column inevitably outscored the credits from his fast lap times.

He was unfortunate to be penalised by the stewards for his impressive spin-turn doughnut. Paul di Resta took some smart evasive action, but probably no more than he was going to have to take to avoid the static McLaren anyway, and Hamilton inevitably got a drive-through penalty for a spot of unauthorised entertaining.

A bigger crime was his team's decision to put him out on intermediate tyres during the mid-race rain flurry, followed by an even more incomprehensible move to super-soft tyres when the Red Bulls and Button went for the more durable 'Prime' Pirelli for the final stint.

Was it Hamilton's fault or McLaren's? One might easily ask if Button made inspired choices or lucky ones. Either way they were, as they so often are in changeable conditions, the right ones.

The teams are now on their summer recess, with factories closed for a fortnight, but the design boffins are no doubt beavering away on their laptops. It's unlikely to make much difference to the relative competitiveness of the leading squads when they resume their battle at the Belgian Grand Prix on August 27.

Button will undoubtedly relish another rainy Sunday in Spa. Having said that, he'll be hoping Vettel doesn't repeat last year's careless harpooning of the then reigning champion's McLaren, for which the German received a drive-through penalty.

Hamilton took the spoils on that occasion, even indulging in an off-track excursion during a late-race downpour which failed to prevent him taking the championship lead from Mark Webber, who is certainly not going to leave Spa with the lead this time round.

Another win for McLaren would signal a shift of momentum in the championship and, while they'll never say it publicly, you can bet that the bosses of the Woking team would prefer if Hamilton prevailed.

Alonso could do with a return to his British GP-winning form at a track that he has yet to win on as a Formula One driver, but this is a circuit that embraces world champions like no other. Now would be a good time for Alonso to break his Belgian GP duck.

Ross Brawn has suggested his Mercedes is closing the gap to Red Bull. Brawn, not a man to make outrageous proclamations, may know something we don't.

So as the F1 folk take to their yachts and morph from automatons to humans, there will be much soul-searching and navel-gazing. And when they return there will be a spring in the step of the contenders itching for another crack at usurping Vettel.

Though they may have won this battle in the hazy mirage of sand and sun as they lie on hot beaches, they will struggle when a cold wind blows down from the Ardennes mountains when Spa probably adds to the inevitability of reality.

Sunday Indo Sport

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