Hungarian Grand Prix conclusions: Ricciardo returns, Perez’s defiant drive and more

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen celebrates Hungarian Grand Prix win.

Max Verstappen: A record breaking win for Red Bull at Hungarian Grand Prix

Max Verstappen claimed his seventh consecutive victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix with the dominant Red Bull team celebrating a record-breaking 12th straight win.

Lando Norris continued McLaren’s strong form by finishing second at the Hungaroring, with Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez recovering to the podium after another tricky weekend.

After a race in which Daniel Ricciardo made his highly anticipated return to F1 action, here are our conclusions from Budapest…

Nobody understands Daniel Ricciardo like Red Bull do

It would have been nothing short of a travesty had the Daniel Ricciardo story ended in Abu Dhabi last year.

As F1 bid a fond farewell to a driver whose best days were behind him, another – still potentially with so much more to give in the right environment – was allowed to slip almost unnoticed into the shadows.

Had he never returned, the key question of his two-year McLaren nightmare would have been left to hang in the air forevermore: how much of it was down to Daniel, and how much was it a failure of McLaren’s management?

After one Red Bull tyre test and a single grand prix weekend in an AlphaTauri – a car slightly better than it was often made to look in the first 10 races of 2023 – the early evidence is not favourable to McLaren.

Ricciardo himself was hardly blameless for the way his McLaren career ended and his complaints that he just could not gel with the car never did sit well when Norris and Carlos Sainz – and now Oscar Piastri – had no trouble making it work for them.

Yet could it be that at the root of his struggles was simply a clash of cultures?

It has long been rumoured that McLaren work in mysterious ways, filling their drivers’ heads full of information, much of it rather useless, in a way that to a personality like Ricciardo – remember how his race engineer would effectively coach him around a lap over team radio on occasion? – can be overwhelming.

That would explain why, never the most technically minded driver, Ricciardo out-qualified Norris on his very first weekend as a McLaren driver at Bahrain 2021 – a result he actually made reference to on Thursday in Hungary – and was never the same again once the team’s tentacles took hold.

Far from finding solutions, the deeper they drilled into the data the more muddled, confused, lost Ricciardo became to the point where he had been reduced to a shell of his former self in 2022, leaving McLaren with no choice but to give up on him.

Listen closely to the words of Ricciardo and Red Bull people over the Hungarian GP weekend and it is obvious that they have worked – and continue to work – heavily on eliminating the so-called “bad habits” he picked up at McLaren.

They speak of simplifying everything, of rediscovering the passion for and enjoyment of F1, and of focusing only on the very act of driving the car. Being freed to just go with the flow once again is an immensely powerful tool for Ricciardo after two years spent chasing his own tail.

The most telling quote of all came from Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, after Ricciardo out-qualified Yuki Tsunoda at the first time of asking on Saturday: “You can see he’s enjoying it, which is the most important thing because if Daniel is enjoying driving, you’re going to get more from him.”

Ricciardo was roundly criticised at the end of last year for his refusal to chase a vacant seat at Haas, his preparedness to take some time away from the sport rather than grace an unfashionable midfield team with his presence reeking of arrogance and a driver refusing to acknowledge both the reality of his situation and the damage done to his reputation.

Yet this weekend it has finally become apparent why Ricciardo was so eager to, as he put it, head back home.

This team – this collection of like-minded racers spread across both Red Bull and AlphaTauri – were quite possibly the only ones who ever stood a chance of piecing him back together again.

Put simply, nobody understands Daniel – nobody truly gets him – like Red Bull do.

A defiant drive by Sergio Perez, but is the damage already done?

Perez may have arrived in Hungary after a run of five races without a Q3 appearance – but not to worry, he announced on Thursday in Budapest.

After “some good work” with his engineers post-Silverstone, he claimed to be “confident” of recapturing at least some of his early-season form at the Hungaroring.

So when he proceeded to crash heavily on his first flying lap of Friday practice, Perez carried all the telltale signs of a dead man walking at Red Bull – a talented driver who said all the right things but had lost all confidence in his own ability to even do the basics right (a little reminiscent of Ricciardo in 2022, some might say).

Just how, after two beautifully executed victories in the first four races in 2023, had it come to this?

Perez did at least deliver on his promise to return to the top 10, but could only scrape ninth after his first lap on soft tyres in Q3 was only marginally faster than the time Norris’s McLaren had set on mediums in Q2.

If a driver has to rely on so-called “little victories” just to keep going – just to keep functioning – in times of struggle, Perez’s were of the miniscule variety.

And if there is one benefit to qualifying a quick car out of position, it is that the driver concerned invariably becomes the main attraction on race day and sure enough – as in Austria three weeks ago – Perez recovered to the podium with a defiant drive littered with some tough, aggressive overtakes.

Yet his recovery drives are routinely less impressive than Verstappen’s in a similar scenario and always seem to end with Perez finishing at least one position lower than he probably should.

Still, it was enough to secure him the Driver of the Day award voted by fans who are much too easily pleased, so that’s another little victory to add to the collection.

A breakthrough result?

About as much a breakthrough as Austria was – despite the good intentions of pundits and Horner, who was keen to praise Perez’s performance as a “statement drive.”

The decision to place Ricciardo at AlphaTauri for the rest of 2023 was seen as much a vote of no confidence in Perez as it was a condemnation of Nyck de Vries’ dire rookie season.

And even if Ricciardo is not necessarily the one to eventually replace him, it has been hard to escape the feeling since that moment that the damage to Perez’s long-term prospects at Red Bull – through his protracted period of underperformance and, even more significantly, his act of war against Verstappen at the start of the Austrian GP sprint race – has already been done.

In the darkness, a glimmer of light for Lewis Hamilton

Budapest is the place where Lewis Hamilton goes when he needs a reason to believe.

It was here exactly 10 years ago that he claimed his first victory for Mercedes to confirm in his mind that he had indeed made the right decision to move from McLaren.

And it was here, if only for the briefest moment on Saturday afternoon, that he found renewed hope in the Mercedes project and a result to make him feel alive again.

After all he’s achieved, it cannot be overstated how bruising the last two years have been for Hamilton, from the trauma of Abu Dhabi 2021 and the arrival of a vibrant, charismatic and lethally quick new team-mate in George Russell to two of the most troublesome cars of his career at precisely the worst moment.

Having seen his landscape shift so suddenly and dramatically, at the age of 38 and with seven World Championships already to his name, it is quite astonishing that he remains so keen to stick around for more.

He remains the same driver he always but now has a lot less to show for it, and as he experienced the first winless season of his career in 2022 it would have hurt to watch Russell the team’s – his team’s – only victory in Brazil.

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His race weekends over the last 18 months have all followed a similar pattern, Hamilton getting his complaints about the car out of the way, with an unfiltered insight into his true feelings, on Friday afternoons – “the car at its worst,” was the key line this weekend – before somehow recalibrating his expectations for Saturday and Sunday.

The difference this time was that what followed far exceeded those expectations, Hamilton sneaking ahead of Verstappen to secure his first pole position since December 2021 but what felt like a lifetime in F1 years.

Mercedes experienced yet another rude awakening on race day as Hamilton slid to finish fourth, 39 seconds behind Verstappen at the chequered flag, but in the darkness his 104th pole was just a little glimmer of light – a much-needed reminder, maybe, of why he keeps getting out of bed on a morning to race F1 cars.

If only, the thought occurred as an emotional Hamilton raised his fists in celebration in parc ferme, that feeling could be bottled. It is surely one he will cling to in the lingering hope that his fortunes will start to turn again for the better.

McLaren should be wary of playing games with Oscar Piastri’s gang

Only an ill-timed Safety Car denied Piastri a maiden podium finish at the British GP, yet the maturity with which he dealt with the disappointment revealed a certainty – a Max-like Red Bullness, even – that suggested his next shot would not be far away.

It must be stressed that Piastri lacked the pace of Norris this weekend compared to Silverstone – just over two tenths adrift in qualifying here before finishing almost 30 seconds down in the race – but he nevertheless was the one with the high ground after emerging from the first lap in second place.

Was what happened next, perhaps, another manifestation of the infuriating inflexibility and limited emotional intelligence that drove Ricciardo to distraction at McLaren?

It is common procedure for teams – or at least those who know what’s good for them – to prioritise the lead car at the first round of pit stops, which made McLaren’s decision to pit Norris on Lap 17, with Piastri following him a lap later and losing track position, so curious.

The decision to prioritise Norris may have been understandable in the circumstances – but why so, well, sneakily?

Could it be that the team didn’t fully trust Piastri to acquiesce had this apparent team orders affair played out, as so many do, on track over team radio and instead decided to keep matters out of the hands of their two hungry young drivers?

Piastri himself commented after the race that exiting the pits behind Norris was not exactly ideal, but insisted the final pace gap rendered it meaningless anyway.

The similarities between Verstappen and Piastri do not begin and end with their talent and personalities, for in manager Mark Webber, the former Red Bull driver, Piastri has a father figure by his side with the lived F1 experience and strength of character matched only by Jos Verstappen.

It was directly after this race in 2022, after all, that the world first became wise to the power of the Piastri/Webber axis as the younger man flatly rejected the offer of a seat from Alpine, the team who had funded his junior career, to take up an opening at McLaren.

This is a pairing unafraid of doing whatever is necessary in order to get what they want. McLaren would be wise to remember that – as well as the truism that trust and communication form the base of all successful relationships – before playing any games.

Fernando Alonso’s 33rd win will have to wait

Earlier this year, when the Aston Martin mechanics seemed to have a season ticket for the spot beneath the podium on Sunday afternoons, Fernando Alonso was asked if he could win a race in 2023 and, if so, where it was most likely to come.

His response gave encouragement to anyone hopeful that a 33rd career victory, a decade after his last, was just around the corner.

“We seem to have a car that is maybe not the fastest on the straights,” he said. “We need to improve that but we are very good on the corners.

“So I will say that the slowest [tracks] of the Championship – let’s say Monaco, Budapest, Singapore – this kind of circuit I think we put our main hopes at the moment.”

Alonso’s prediction rang true when he pushed Verstappen uncomfortably close in Monaco, where only the wrong tyre choice as rain began to fall denied him the win, and from that day all hopes were on Hungary as Fernando’s next big day out.

Rather than all eyes being on Aston Martin in Budapest, however, most would have done well to even notice them.

A fourth anonymous weekend in five races, with Alonso and Lance Stroll a distant ninth and 10th, seemed to confirm what most had thought since Barcelona – that Aston Martin have fallen behind Mercedes, Ferrari and even McLaren in the development race.

There is no shame in that, of course, for their progress in such a short space of time – in what is in effect the first proper season for this highly ambitious long-term project – has been astonishing and achieved despite the transition to a new factory and all the challenges it brings.

The new factory is just one of many parts set to fall into place over the coming months and years to all but guarantee a prosperous future, but as for the short term? Alonso may need to readjust his targets for the rest of this season.

Without a wild race – chance would be a fine thing in this increasingly dreary 2023 season – his next win will have to wait.

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