BUDAPEST, Hungary — The intensity of the title battle between Mercedes and Red Bull shows no sign of waning.
In the first competitive session since Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen collided at Silverstone, the feud between F1’s top two teams spilled over to the grandstands with boos ringing out over the pit straight as Hamilton completed TV interviews after taking pole position at the Hungaroring.
The seven-time world champion shrugged off the booing, saying it would only act as motivation to convert pole position into victory on Sunday, but took exception to suggestions he had deliberately held up the Red Bulls ahead of their final qualifying laps to try and stop his title rival from getting a clean final lap.
Ahead of the final qualifying attempts in Q3, the Mercedes and Red Bulls were lined up one after the other as they left the pits. Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who will start the race from second on the grid, led the pack of four, with Hamilton second on the road, Verstappen third and Perez fourth.
Hamilton and Bottas approached their outlap in the knowledge that their first attempts were faster than the two Red Bulls, so if no one improved they would start on the front row. Clear air is key to a quick lap at the Hungaroring and as Bottas started his lap he made space to the car in front. That, in turn, backed up Hamilton, who backed up Verstappen, who backed up Perez.
The four cars accelerated out of the final corner one after another, but as the session clock ticked down, Perez was timed out and missed out on starting his final lap. The suggestion, and perhaps the motivation for some of the booing, was that the two Mercedes cars attempted to stop the Red Bulls from crossing the line in time for their lap.
“It’s a bit of gamesmanship,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after the session. “Lewis has got a hell of a lap in the bank and then obviously he’s just backing things up and obviously doesn’t want to give our cars a clean run.
“But it’s his right to do that, he’s got the track position, so we haven’t got a major issue. It’s all about tomorrow now.”
Mercedes later revealed that Hamilton’s outlap was the third fastest of the five he did in qualifying, meaning it was bang average for what the drivers behind could expect. When it was put to Hamilton that he might have been playing games, he flatly denied the suggestion.
“I mean, it’s so silly man,” Hamilton said on the subject. “Everyone was going slow – did you not watch everybody else? I don’t understand.
“Do you think I could’ve gone quicker and then been just closer to Valtteri?
“Everyone was doing a slow out-lap. It was no different, really, to any other lap.
“Of course, each time we’re going out we’re trying to prepare the tyres and keep them cooler because they get so hot throughout the lap.
“I weren’t playing any tactics. I don’t need to play no tactics, man. I know what I’m doing in the car and it’s fast enough, we don’t need to add tactics.
“So, those that are making the comments really don’t clearly know anything about the job that we’re doing here, which is probably why they’re not driving here.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said the events of the past two days, in which Red Bull tried and failed to see Hamilton’s penalty for the Silverstone collision increased in severity, meant Red Bull risked more bad PR by pushing the issue.
“I think they know that if they would have kicked up a fuss about that, it would have ended in another PR fiasco,” Wolff said.
Is the pressure getting to Verstappen?
Verstappen, who will start third on the grid behind Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, has not been shy of voicing his opinion on the Silverstone accident in the past week, but in Hungary called for an end to questions on the issue.
Naturally, F1’s fan base is keen to see what will happen the next time Hamilton and Verstappen end racing wheel to wheel, but when he was asked about the possibility on Sunday, he cut short a question from press conference host Tom Clarkson on the subject.
Clarkson said: “There’s been a lot of talk about what happened on the opening lap at Silverstone, but if you two do end up wheel to wheel after the start tomorrow…”
At this point, Verstappen sighed, shook his head and interrupted.
“Can we already stop about this? Because have had so many f——questions about this,” Verstappen said in response.
“It’s just ridiculous. The whole Thursday we have been answering this stupid s— all the time, so can we just stop please? We are racers, so of course we will race hard but fair. We just keep pushing each other.”
Asked about the booing, which came from fans dressed in the orange of his home country, Verstappen responded: “What do you want me to say? It’s not correct of course but at the end of the day we are drivers, we shouldn’t get disturbed by these kind of things.
“You should just focus on what you have to do and that’s to deliver in the car. Luckily we wear helmets so when you are driving when it matters, you don’t hear anything. That’s where we are different to other sports, so we are probably quite lucky with that.
“But like I said, it’s not nice but it shouldn’t influence any of us. We’re all professional and know what we have to do anyway.”
After Red Bull dominated F1’s double header in Austria in June and July, it seemed as though this year’s championship might be Verstappen’s to lose. Yet the events of Silverstone and qualifying in Hungary suggest Mercedes and Hamilton are not going to roll over and surrender.
Mercedes not only goes into Sunday’s race with the advantage of locking out the front row of the grid, it also has both of its cars starting on the more durable medium compound tyres to Verstappen’s softs. That should present more strategy options to Mercedes over the course of the race, although Bottas could come under attack from Verstappen into Turn 1 if the Red Bull makes a faster start on its stickier tyres.
That’s not to say Verstappen doesn’t stand a chance of winning from third on the grid, but the odds are stacked in Mercedes favour after qualifying. If Hamilton wins the race with Verstappen third, he will retake the lead of the championship heading into F1’s three-week summer break.