By Ed Gorman
The ghastly brilliant orange “victory” T-shirts were back, the pop music was pulsating through all three floors of the vast McLaren Mercedes “brand centre” and Lewis Hamilton’s girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger, of the Pussycat Dolls, was dancing with a glass of champagne in her hand.
The Formula One world champion was back and with him came the razzmatazz. After completing his duties at the press conference for the winner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Hamilton charged into the motorhome with his driving suit stripped down to his waist and entered to cheers and applause.
It was just like the old days, or last year in fact, when Hamilton was swapping race wins with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in a World Championship battle that went down to the wire.
This time the Brazilian could play no part in the day’s sport as he lay in an induced coma in a Budapest hospital. But, on the baking tarmac of the Hungaroring, it is unlikely that he would have been any match for the Briton. Hamilton was back to his best at the wheel of a McLaren that has improved by leaps and bounds from the slow-coach that the team rolled out at the beginning of the season.
Since then the car has gone from being more than two seconds off the pace to the quickest in some settings and Hamilton used it to the full yesterday. He drove fast and smart and controlled his 45th grand prix beautifully from the front to win from Kimi Raikkonen, Massa’s Ferrari team-mate, and Mark Webber, for Red Bull. It was his first victory since the Chinese Grand Prix last October.
Hamilton got away well from fourth place on the grid, using his KERS power boost to climb to third in the mêlée at the first corner. Four laps later he made a nice inside-out move on Webber at Turn One to take the de-facto lead behind Fernando Alonso, the pole-sitter, whose race in a lightly fuelled Renault ended when a front tyre fell off after his first stop.
The Spaniard and his team were later suspended from the next grand prix at Valencia in three weeks’ time by the stewards, who decided that his pit-crew had “knowingly” released him from his stop without securing the wheel properly, a decision Renault intend to appeal. While Alonso headed for the airport and possibly a longer summer holiday than planned, Hamilton never looked back. By the final stages of the race he was cruising to the point of varying his lines into corners. But he got home safe and sound and, as he crossed the line, his gloved fists pumped in the cockpit of the MP4-24 like he really meant it.
This was as much a victory for Hamilton, who has battled his demons this season, as it was for the design team at the McLaren base at Woking. And, as is expected, the world champion was effusive in his praise for those who have worked round the clock to give him something respectable to drive.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be back here after what feels such a long time away and with such a struggle for me and my team,” Hamilton said. “I am just so proud of the guys. Everyone wants to win just as much as I do and they never gave up.
“I never thought this car would be capable of what we did here. This is one huge leap for us.” Hamilton will now be looking to add to his tally of ten grand prix wins over the remainder of the season.
As much as the race in Hungary marked the comeback to competitiveness for McLaren, it also underlined that Jenson Button, Hamilton’s fellow countryman, has a real fight on his hands to convert his early-season superiority in the Brawn into a maiden drivers’ championship of his own.
Starting from eighth and finishing just one place better, Button has put together a run of three indifferent races after winning six of the first seven. His lead over his nearest challenger at Red Bull — once Sebastian Vettel, now Webber — has come down from 33 points at one stage to just 18.5 with seven races left.
For weeks the Brawn team have been saying that their car does not “switch on” its tyres unless the track surface is hot. But yesterday, as Button concluded another miserable afternoon’s work on a surface warm enough on which to fry an egg, that theory was very publicly thrown in the dustbin of history.
Button has come to the conclusion that something else has gone wrong and so has Ross Brawn, his team principal, who said that the car was not working the way it did in the early races and the design team will have to “work back” to pinpoint the problem.
For a sign of just how bad things seem to have got at Brawn, look no farther than this comment from the normally restrained Button, who told his team over the radio on lap 32: “Guys, I’m already getting oversteer. How can this car be so bad at the moment?”
Looking at how the remainder of the season could pan out, Button may eventually have Hamilton and Raikkonen to thank if he does hold on to top spot, because if they are regularly able to mix it at the head of the field, they will take valuable points away from Button’s Red Bull pursuers.
That team saw Vettel drop to third in the championship after another sluggish start was followed by a roughing-up of his car through the first couple of corners, by which time he was seventh. He eventually retired with front suspension damage.
Jaime Alguersuari, the 19-year-old Spaniard, completed his first grand prix as the youngest driver in Formula One history and did not disgrace himself in the Toro Rosso. He was fifteenth out of 16 finishers and beat Sebastien Buemi, his team-mate, by nearly half a minute.