Charles Leclerc conceded the world championship to Max Verstappen after admitting it will be “very difficult” to stop his rival following another Ferrari blunder at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Verstappen takes an 80-point advantage to close a month of the sport – equivalent to more than three wins with just nine to play – after claiming an eighth victory in his title defense at the Hungaroring following a superb run from 10th in grid.
Lewis Hamilton started seventh and finished second – after his late foray into the field – with George Russell third.
After Leclerc overcame resistance from Russell with 30 laps to go to take the lead into Turn 1, he looked destined to win.
But the Monegasque afternoon was ruined – and his championship hopes dealt an almost irreversible blow – when Ferrari opted to field their star driver on the harder rubber. It was a strategy rejected by tire supplier Pirelli and one Verstappen said the Red Bull team didn’t even consider.
From the fastest man at the Hungaroring, Leclerc was suddenly out of speed and was swallowed up by Verstappen at the start of the 40th lap.
Verstappen spun at the penultimate corner on the same lap to allow Leclerc back in front. But such was Leclerc’s dramatic loss of pace, Verstappen comfortably passed his beleaguered rival at turn two five laps later. An additional pit stop saw him cross the line in a desperate sixth.
“A race like this is disappointing and we have to get better overall,” said the 24-year-old, who fell from the lead at last weekend’s French Grand Prix.
“I always feel something is going on, whether it’s reliability or mistakes, so we have to get better at putting a weekend together.
“We were strong, we probably had the pace to win, but in the end we didn’t and there are reasons for that. And the stop for the hard tire was the turning point of the race. We lost all our rhythm and the last part of the race was a disaster for me.
“Before we think about the championship, we have to understand as a team what we have to do to get better, because otherwise it will be very difficult to win.”
Remarkably, Verstappen, the leading man on the grid so far this season, can now afford to finish second in each of the remaining rounds and win the title.
“You can’t afford mistakes if you want to fight for the championship,” Verstappen said.
“Ferrari chose the wrong tires in their last term. Before then they were quite strong. We put the right tires on the car today and that was the most important thing to get it right.”
For long periods of Sunday’s 70-lap affair, Hamilton was out of contention. But after adopting a different strategy to those around him, the race came to the British driver in the closing stages.
Hamilton moved into the lead with 19 laps to go and after taking the fastest soft tyre, passed Ferrari’s Carlos Sanz with seven laps to go.
He then moved ahead of team-mate Russell with five to run, claiming his second runner-up finish in as many races and his fifth podium in a row for the steadily improving Mercedes team.
“If we can get that pace in the second half of the season, we can start to fight with the guys up front,” said the seven-time world champion.
“It’s the first time we’ve been able to fight with Ferrari and that’s huge for us.
“The Red Bulls are still ahead – the fact that Max started 10th, spun and finished eight seconds ahead of me says a lot about their car.
“But we’ve made huge progress and huge steps to get that consistency, and two double podiums in the last two races gives us a huge boost going into the second half of the season.”