Hamilton thrilled by

Lewis Hamilton celebrates his pole position for the Hungarian Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton has won the Hungarian Grand Prix eight times with his most recent victory in 2020
Date: Sunday, 23 July Time: Race start at 14:00 BST Venue: Hungaroring
Coverage: Live text and online-only radio commentary on BBC Sport website and app

“Epic” was the word Lewis Hamilton chose to describe how it felt to score his first pole position for 20 months.

The seven-time champion had scored 103 of them before this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

But so tough has Hamilton found the past two seasons as his Mercedes team slumped in form that he said his 104th pole “feels like the first – it’s hard to to explain just how special it feels”.

It was the first time he had been on pole since the penultimate race of 2021 in Saudi Arabia, when his titanic title fight with Max Verstappen was coming to boiling point. And with the Dutchman alongside him on the grid, it sets up a mouth-watering race on Sunday.

“I forgot what it feels like to sit in this spot,” Hamilton said, as he claimed the middle seat in the post-qualifying news conference between runaway championship leader Verstappen and McLaren’s Lando Norris.

“I don’t think I breathed the whole lap. I think I held my breath and I was so out of breath at the end. But it’s an extraordinary feeling after you’ve been here such a long time and you’ve had the success before.”

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Everything comes together for Hamilton

Hamilton and Mercedes had suspected they might have a good weekend in Hungary.

For one, he has always been strong around this little track in a natural amphitheatre 12 miles or so outside Budapest, and he has won there eight times – twice as many as the next driver.

But more importantly, it is a track that contains a large number of the type of corners where the Mercedes is strong – slow and medium ones – and very few fast ones where it still struggles.

But even so neither team nor driver expected to be in a position to beat Verstappen to pole position.

As it turned out, though, despite a significant upgrade on the Red Bull, the world champions failed to get the car into a set-up window with which Verstappen was happy.

The car’s balance was inconsistent, but its fundamental position was a lack of front grip. “That is probably the worst balance I can have in a car,” Verstappen said. And it was enough to give Hamilton his opportunity.

He admitted that he has not found Mercedes’ slump from competitiveness easy to cope with. “It has been a really, really difficult year and a half on a personal level,” he said.

But he also spoke of how happy he was for the team to finally get some reward for all the work they have been doing, trying to understand why they had failed to master the new regulations that were brought in for 2022 and which knocked Mercedes from the perch they had occupied for so long.

“So many ideas and trying to find the right path to be on and keep the motivation in everyone and keep everyone driven has been a team effort and the team deserves this,” Hamilton said.

“I always had belief. I just had that belief that some day, if we apply ourselves in the right way, we will get there, I guess it was just a question of how long that would be.”

Hard work begins to pay off

Lewis Hamilton driving his Mercedes during Hungarian GP qualifying
Hamilton is fourth in the drivers’ championship and finished third two weeks ago at Silverstone

Hamilton knew this year would be difficult again from the moment he drove the car at Silverstone on its shakedown run back in February.

“We started this year with the twin sister or brother of the previous year’s car and got into it and it felt identical so that was worrying,” he said. “We have been on this journey to undo some of the wrong decisions we have taken and it has taken far longer than we all hoped it would take.

“But we are starting to see those benefits slowly but we still have some big steps to make to be regularly on the front row.”

He has spoken many times this year of the issues with the car – how it lacks rear grip, and how it does not give him the confidence to commit to corner entries. And he did so again on Saturday, but the upgrades that started with a major bodywork revision at Monaco with others drip-fed since are starting to pay off.

“Such a huge part is having confidence in the vehicle you’re driving,” Hamilton said, “and when you lose that confidence you shed a lot of time.

“Last year, I had no confidence in the car. Started out this year with very little confidence in the car and bit by bit starting to get it on the right track.

“This weekend, the car has generally been quite good in the low speed and the confidence has finally come back and that is what you are seeing today.

“It is just having the confidence to throw the car into the corner and it’s going to stick. After driving it for so long you get used to it, and now there is not a fear it is going to throw you off into the wall, apart from some of the high-speed (corners) every now and again.”

Can Hamilton win?

Red Bull have looked unbeatable this year but now Hamilton is at the front of the grid, can he become the first driver to defeat them this year?

The motivation is there – Hamilton says he is “as keen as I was when I won my first grand prix in Montreal” back in 2007.

And Hungary is a track where it just might be possible because overtaking is particularly difficult, even if Verstappen will still start the race as favourite.

“Normally it is not a bad race car, we tend to have decent race pace,” Hamilton said.

“Max’s race pace yesterday (in Friday practice) was quite extraordinary. I think they were quite a bit quicker than us. But if there’s a way to hold position then maybe there’s a fighting chance for us. But just being up here is new. We’re going to have a great race, for sure.”

Verstappen said: “I don’t expect it to be a very straightforward race. I expect us to be quick but it is not easy to pass around here especially when you are close on pace.”

Don’t discount Norris and team-mate Oscar Piastri, either. McLaren showed strong race pace in Silverstone last time out, and their performance in Hungary so far suggests that the upgrades they have introduced over the past three races have made them major contenders.

With two cars to play strategy with versus one each of Mercedes and Red Bull, they could make their presence felt.

What happened to Red Bull?

Max Verstappen gets out of his Red Bull after Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying
Max Verstappen has won eight of the 10 races so far this season

When Red Bull arrived in Hungary with a significant-looking upgrade, featuring a narrower sidepod air inlet that allowed a more aggressive undercut to allow more downforce-producing air along the side of the car, it looked ominous.

Verstappen was insistent that the upgrade had worked, and said that in that context their performance was “extremely disappointing from our side”.

“We are P2,” he said, “but looking at how the whole year has been, I didn’t expect this to happen.

“The upgrade looks good. We just didn’t nail the balance of the car, as simple as that.”

Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez has had yet another difficult weekend.

He crashed on his very first flying lap in first practice and although that did not cost him as much as it could have, because the rest of the session was hit by rain, he has still ended up a disappointing ninth on the grid.

On the positive side, that is the first time he has been in the top 10 for six races. But he was more than 0.4secs behind Verstappen on the weekend on which Daniel Ricciardo was brought back to the grid by Red Bull and immediately impressed.

The Australian out-qualified Alpha Tauri team-mate Yuki Tsunoda. It was only by 0.013secs but that was enough to make the difference between progressing to the second session and not, and Ricciardo converted it into 13th place on the grid and in one go appeared to justify Red Bull’s decision to replace Nyck de Vries.

Perez insists his future is in his own hands, and Red Bull that he will be their driver next year. But this is Red Bull, and nothing can be discounted.

A wow moment for Alfa Romeo

Zhou Guanyu of Alfa Romeo during Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying
Zhou Guanyu’s starting position of fifth is a career-best for him in F1

Alfa Romeo were the stars of qualifying, with Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas both making it into the top 10 and lining up an impressive fifth and seventh, sandwiching Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Zhou said he still expected a difficult race, and that he thought other teams would be faster, but this was an encouraging performance from a team that until Hungary at least had had the slowest car on average in the field.

There is mounting pressure on the management there, as this team will morph into the Audi factory effort in 2026, and there is a lot of work to be done to turn their competitiveness around to the sort of level with which the German giant will be satisfied.

But an upgrade that was introduced at Silverstone, centred on the floor, appears to have produced quite a step forward and is the first sign that progress is being made.

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