Lewis Hamilton believes he would have “struggled” to keep Sebastian Vettel at bay had his title rival emerged from his pit-stop during the Hungarian GP ahead of Valtteri Bottas.
Instead, in a race-defining moment, Vettel emerged just behind the Finn’s Mercedes after a slow pit-stop and encountering traffic at the end of his first stint.
Despite running on ultrasoft tyres against the softs on the Mercedes, Vettel then had to spend almost 20 laps behind Bottas while an untroubled Hamilton cruised to victory.
But how different would the race have been had Vettel, around 10 seconds behind the lead Mercedes when he pitted, returned to the track behind Hamilton rather than Bottas and then sought to hunt down his title rival?
“If he had come out ahead of Valtteri, it would have been very, very hard,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1. “He would have probably caught me with five laps to go. Would I have been able to keep him behind? I would have struggled.”
But Vettel argued his own struggle to pass Bottas demonstrated that even if he had been able to catch Hamilton, he would not have been able to find a way into the lead.
“I think Lewis had a lot in hand,” Vettel said to Sky F1. “We could have probably caught him but not passed him. You saw in the end that I was a lot of faster than Valtteri but initially l couldn’t make it so l sat back and waited for the last 10 laps.”
By common consent, Ferrari rather than world champions Mercedes have possessed the fastest car during the first half of 2018.
Nevertheless, as the sport prepares to embark on its summer holiday following a two-day test at the Hungaroring this week, Hamilton leads Vettel by 24 points – the largest advantage any driver has held this term.
“We definitely didn’t expect this,” reflected Hamilton. “We knew the Ferraris would be quick and they have been strong for the last three or four races.
“Their pace has been stronger, they have gained more pace on the straights from nowhere, but we have operated better and been better on strategy. We have made the most of every single opportunity we have had and l think that could be key at the end of the year.
“Ferrari have had a slightly better package but we have delivered ours. Hopefully that will make a difference. And hopefully we will be able to upgrade our package in the second half of the season so it’s a little bit stronger than theirs.”
Asked for his own reflections on his season to date, Vettel told Sky F1: “We started well with a car that wasn’t ready. From my own point of view, it has been fairly consistent. The one error which was quite costly was last week [when he crashed out of the lead of the German GP]. It’s part of the game and I can’t rewind the clock.
“It obviously hurt us but l am confident that if we have a car to fight with we can put them under pressure and make things happen in the second half.”
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