Hamilton back to winning ways as Ferrari team orders again steal the headlines

Lewis Hamilton returned to winning ways for the first time since the Hungarian Grand Prix as a Virtual Safety Car played perfectly into his hands, the Mercedes driver winning from teammate Valtteri Bottas and Charles Leclerc.

Max Verstappen was a fine fourth after starting ninth on the grid, ahead of Red Bull teammate Alexander Albon, Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez.

The big story of the day, however, again centred around Ferrari tactics, as Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel received team orders over the radio for the leader to cede position early in the race. It was an order that Vettel seemed to refuse, perhaps rightly so, as he extended his lead before unfortunately retiring with little over 20 laps remaining.

“What an effort guys! What an incredible job, thankyou so much everyone,” said Hamilton after receiving the chequered flag. “That’s exactly what we needed. We never give up.”

The smile on Hamilton’s face was surely one of a six-time world champion, as he spoke to Sky Sports’ Paul di Resta after jumping from his winning machine.

“An incredible job from all the guys here this weekend, not giving up, trying to do things, pushing forward, trying to be innovative and just never giving up. It makes me incredibly inspired and it’s incredible to have this result today considering how quick they (Ferrari) were off the start.

“Just keeping up with them was an incredibly hard task but, as I said, we haven’t given up. We keep on pushing and the car was really fantastic today. Thankyou to everyone here and back at the factory because I know they are back on the couch, keeping their fingers crossed.”

After Vettel took the lead of the race, sailing past Hamilton and pole-sitter Leclerc into Turn 1, it already appeared to be another Ferrari formality. Yet, with Hamilton closing the gap on the medium compound tyre and Leclerc already irked after surrendering to Vettel in Singapore, the order was given to swap positions.

Racers being racers, it obviously wasn’t an instruction that went down well with four-time champion Vettel, the German radioing back, “I would have passed him anyway, but let’s break away for another few laps.”

Leclerc, who has started on pole for the last four grands prix, had vowed to keep silence and not express his opinions over the team radio if he felt had done by. Yet, in the heat of battle, those sentiments understandably escaped his thinking as he barked back, “You put me behind – I respected that. The gap’s too big now. We talk after the race.

“I completely understand, the only thing is, and I respect it, but I gave him the slipstream no problems and then I try and to push at the beginning of the race. No problems. Another situation.”

Vettel’s argument seemed to be the more justified, the senior driver dialling in fastest lap after fastest lap to extend his lead over the young protagonist to four seconds until the crucial pit stop window.

And so it transpired, Leclerc diving into he pits on lap 23, coming back out into the circuit in fourth, as Hamilton was told to put the hammer down on his medium tyres.

With Vettel reporting that his rear tyres were ‘falling off’, the German made his stop on lap 27, a 3.0 second change putting him out behind Leclerc. But that was the last of his action, Vettel stopping with an engine failure to bring out the Virtual Safety Car.

It played perfectly into Mercedes and Hamilton’s hands, both the Englishman and Bottas able to pit and bolt on a fresh set of tyres to take him to the end of the race for a straight fight with Leclerc to the chequered flag, the Monegasque also pitting a lap later under VSC.

Meanwhile, creeping steadily under the radar, Max Verstappen was making the inroads many expected of this stellar driver, the Dutchman progressing to fourth from his starting position of ninth – the result of an engine change grid penalty.

With 20 laps remaining, Hamilton suddenly appeared to be in the box position, leading the race with a fresh set of soft tyres and with his teammate acting as the perfect wing man between himself and Leclerc.

The bit between his teeth after Ferrari’s recent resurgence, Hamilton was not going to be denied this time, taking the chequered flag for an 82nd grand prix victory and, more importantly, another 25 points that takes him a further step closer to a sixth world title.

It means that Hamilton now leads the championship by 73 points from Bottas with only five races remaining. Crucially, it now appears that despite Ferrari’s recent run of form, it will come too late to deny another Mercedes team and driver doubler in 2019.

“Every season I try not to think about the championship and just one race and one step at a time and that’s what collectively we’ve been working on and it’s getting harder and harder as the season goes on,” added Hamilton.

“But one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. We don’t want to stumble, but of course, we’ve got to keep on putting performances like this in and I know the bosses back in Stuttgart will be super happy with us today. It feels like a long time coming, but it feels like the first time and that’s why it feels special.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.