Hamilton's title hopes renewed heading into break

By Jerome Pugmire, AP, 29 July 2013
© AP Photo/Petr David Josek

As the Formula 1 season takes its mid-season break, Lewis Hamilton goes into the rest period with renewed hope that he can launch a late title challenge.

Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how to get more consistency from his Ferrari.

Although Hamilton remains some distance behind championship leader Sebastian Vettel -- 48 points behind in fourth -- his win Sunday at the Hungarian Grand Prix was the third for Mercedes in the past five races.

"I am very hopeful this could be a real turning point for us," Hamilton said, with team principal Ross Brawn adding that "it certainly feels like we have made a good step forward."

The two-time former champion Alonso has slipped to third overall, behind Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen.

With nine races remaining in the season, Hamilton still has an outside chance of catching Vettel because Mercedes has been fastest in qualifying -- Hamilton has clinched the last three poles and Mercedes six of the past seven overall.

"I know the guys are working hard so that we can close the gap," Hamilton said.

The only thing that has been letting Mercedes down is race durability and tyre management. But those doubts were somewhat assuaged after Sunday's win and the team should be in buoyant mood for Spa on Aug. 25.

If Mercedes continues to combine reliability and speed as Hamilton did so well, Vettel may have to watch his back.

"It is only halfway through the season and our rivals have been consistently competitive while we have experienced some ups and downs," Mercedes' executive director Toto Wolff said. "We are still the underdogs right now, but we are on an upward trend."

Vettel is much better off than he was at the same stage last season, when he was chasing Alonso and clinched his third straight title on the last day.

"We can be pretty satisfied with how it's gone so far," the Red Bull driver said. "The car runs good on any type of track and I've had only one DNF. Having more points than last year at this time can only be positive."

Ferrari was Red Bull's expected main rival this season, but Mercedes is now ahead in the constructors' championship, and Hamilton is only nine points behind Alonso.

Since winning the Spanish GP in front of his home fans on May 12, Alonso has managed only two podiums. On Sunday, he was fifth.

"This race ends what's been a generally difficult month for us," he said. "Now, our aim is to work hard to arrive at Spa and Monza with a more competitive car."

Easier said than done.

Alonso has not qualified higher than third all season, leaving him far too much to do on race day. Teammate Felipe Massa's qualifying performances lately have been poor: seventh twice, 11th and 16th.

"After a promising start to the season, we are experiencing a drop in competitiveness," team principal Stefano Domenicali said. "I expect the whole team to react strongly with the intention of improving the car."

That sounds like a veiled warning that, if planned upgrades to the car don't work out, there could soon be changes.

Alonso's agent was reportedly at the Hungaroring over the weekend to speak with Red Bull, where there will be a vacancy next season because veteran Mark Webber is leaving F1. But that seat is also being contested by Raikkonen and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo.

Given Vettel's frosty relationship with Alonso, putting them together could mean a repeat scenario of the ill feeling between Webber and Vettel. The German even said over the weekend that he would prefer Raikkonen as a teammate.

Raikkonen's future with Lotus is unclear and he has yet to commit.

With five second-place finishes to add to his win at the Australian GP, the Finn must be wondering where he would be with a better car -- probably much closer than 38 points behind Vettel.

Another person who will also enjoy the summer break is Pirelli's motorsport director Paul Hembery.

The teams recently held in-season testing sessions at Silverstone to assess new tyres provided by the tyre manufacturer, after several spectacular blowouts on the same circuit at the British GP in June prompted a boycott threat from drivers. Pirelli decided that from Hungary onward it will revert to last year's tyres combined with the current compounds from this season.

"The first time ever I can remember my tyres not being a problem," Hamilton said after Sunday's race, where track temperatures reached 51 degrees Celsius (123 Fahrenheit).

Hembery was understandably relieved.

"Everything on the cars, including the tyres, was put through a tough test," he said. "Both compounds performed extremely well."


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