x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hamilton rediscovers appetite to win Hungarian Grand Prix

Smile returns to Formula One driver's face as he registers first victory for marque. Raikkonen holds off points leader Vettel, writes Gary Meenaghan.

As far as compliments go, they do not come much better than this: Alex Zanardi, the Italian racing driver who lost both his legs in a 2001 crash, tweeted Sunday night that were he given the choice of two normal feet or just one like Lewis Hamilton's, he would take the latter option.

Hamilton produced as imperious a performance as you are ever likely to see Sunday as he won the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest to secure his first win since joining Mercedes-GP.

Hamilton, 28, has cut a solemn figure in recent weeks following a series of disappointing results on track and an emotional breakup from his long-term girlfriend.

However a pole-to-flag victory under searing sunshine not only returned the famous Colgate smile to Hamilton's face, it re-ignited belief that a second world championship title is not out of the question.

Hamilton had arrived at the Hungaroring with low expectations, playing down his chances of success even after securing pole position with a scintillating qualifying lap on Saturday.

Such has been his car's inability to overcome tyre-wear issues that he said "a miracle" would be required for him to be able withstand the pressure from Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing, who joined him on the front row, and Lotus duo Romain Grosjean, who started third, and Kimi Raikkonen.

Yet, 70 laps after enjoying a perfect getaway off the grid, it was Hamilton who was celebrating; his performance as mature as it was magnificent.

Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion and head of Mercedes' motorsports division, called it "the best I have ever seen in my life".

After emerging from his car, Hamilton, having raced for close to two hours on a track that registered above 50°C, looked both drained and dehydrated.

Yet when he removed his famous yellow helmet, the overriding emotion painted across his face was delight.

"This is probably one of the most important grand prix wins of my career," the 2008 world champion, who won 21 times with McLaren-Mercedes, said.

"I really couldn't be happier. We have to work hard, but if we can come here and make our tyres last, we should be able to do it anywhere."

Hamilton could be forgiven for playing down his chances. He claimed pole position at the past two races, but proved unable to convert either into maximum points. In his home race at Silverstone, he finished fourth, while a week later in Germany, he slipped down the field to fifth.

"I talked this race down because I really was expecting a tough race. I thought we were going to fall behind," he said, before comparing the win with those achieved with his previous marque.

"The experiences I had at McLaren were some of my greatest, but this is one of the highlights of my career.

"Moving to a new team and a team that was struggling massively last year and to finally get a win with them after the first 10 races is a great feeling."

The quicker cars on track belonged to Red Bull, yet Hamilton's unbridled determination and natural talent seemed to make up for what his Mercedes lacked.

After the first round of pit-stops, he emerged behind his former teammate, Jenson Button, but pulled off a neat pass with ease.

Vettel did not find it so easy and the time the German lost while stuck behind the McLaren proved crucial.

When Hamilton was faced with Mark Webber's Red Bull later in the race, he slipped past him with all the prowess of a champion.

"I think you could tell I was hungry for it," he said. "I had to get past those people. Usually I get stuck behind them, but today I was having none of it. I pulled out every move I have."

The victory means that as Formula One prepares to shut down for its mid-season break, Hamilton trails Vettel in the standings by 48 points with nine races remaining, after Red Bull's world champion finished behind second-placed Raikkonen.

Lotus' Finnish driver showed strength to hold on for second, despite running on tyres 10 laps older than that of his rival.

Repeatedly linked to a seat alongside Vettel for next season, a two-stop strategy allowed Raikkonen to stay ahead of the Red Bull and he stubbornly refused to yield.

"Obviously, I keep making my life difficult on Saturdays, so then we pay a price," said Raikkonen, who had qualified sixth.

"I had a good car and we managed to do two stops, which was the only way to jump people. I knew it was going to be a bit tight, but I felt the tyres were still good in the last 10 laps and I didn't really have any doubts that I couldn't keep him behind."

Vettel felt he was squeezed too much by Raikkonen in the closing stages as he tried to pass, complaining over his team radio that the Finn had not left him enough space.

By the time Vettel was out the car, he had calmed down and was seen laughing about it with Raikkonen, a good friend.

By the time the sport reconvenes, Red Bull are expected to have announced who will replace Webber next season, failing Ferrari will hope to have improved massively, and Mercedes will, if all goes according to plan, be ready to make a final push to dethrone Vettel.

Hamilton has proved he is ready.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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