Charles Leclerc has all but awarded the world championship to Max Verstappen after admitting it will be “very difficult” to stop his rival after another Ferrari error at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Verstappen heads into the sport’s month-long hiatus with an 80-point lead – the equivalent of more than three wins from just nine games to play – after clinching the eighth win of his title defense at the Hungaroring after a superb run from 10th on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton started seventh and finished second – after his late charge through the field – with pole-sitter George Russell third.
After overcoming Russell’s 30-lap resistance to take the lead at Turn 1, Leclerc looked set to win.
But the Monegasque’s afternoon was ruined – and his championship hopes dealt an almost irreversible blow – when Ferrari decided to put their star driver on the hardest rubber. It was a strategy dismissed by tire supplier Pirelli and one Verstappen said his Red Bull team hadn’t even thought about it.
As the fastest man at the Hungaroring, Leclerc suddenly ran out of speed and was engulfed by Verstappen early on lap 40.
Verstappen spun in the penultimate corner on the same lap to put Leclerc back in front. But Leclerc’s dramatic loss of pace was so great that five laps later, Verstappen effortlessly sped past his beleaguered rival in the second corner. After an additional pit stop, he crossed the finish line in desperate sixth place.
“A race like this is frustrating and we need to get better overall,” said the 24-year-old, who fell from the front at last weekend’s French Grand Prix.
“It always feels like there’s something going on, whether it’s reliability or failure, so we’ve got to get better at putting a weekend together.
“We were strong, we probably had the pace to win but ultimately we didn’t make it and there are reasons for that. And stopping for the hard tire was the turning point of the race. We completely lost our pace and the last part of the race was a disaster for me.
“Before we think about the championship, we need to understand as a team what we need to do to get better, otherwise it will be very difficult to win it.”
Remarkably, Verstappen, so far the standout performer on the grid this season, can now afford to finish second at each of the remaining rounds and still win the title.
“You can’t afford to make any mistakes if you want to fight for the championship,” said Verstappen.
“Ferrari chose the wrong tires in the last stint. Before that they were pretty strong. We put the right tires on the car today and that was the most important thing to get it right.”
Hamilton was out of competition for long stretches of the 70-lap affair on Sunday. But after adopting a different strategy to those around him, the race came down on the Brit in the closing stages.
Hamilton pitted from the lead with 19 laps to go and passed Ferrari’s Carlos Sanz with seven laps to go after taking it with the fastest soft rubber.
He then overtook his teammate Russell with five races remaining to take his second runner-up in as many races and his fifth consecutive podium for his ever-improving Mercedes team.
“If we can carry this pace into the second half of the season, we can start fighting with the guys up front,” said the seven-time world champion.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to fight with Ferrari and it’s huge for us.
“The Red Bulls are still in front – the fact that Max started tenth, spun and finished eight seconds ahead of me says enough about their car.
“But we’ve made great strides and taken big steps to have that consistency and two double podiums in the last two races give us a huge boost for the second half of the season.”