BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — On the day he equaled Brazilian great Ayrton Senna’s feat of 41 race wins with a brilliant drive at Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel’s thoughts went to Jules Bianchi and his family.
Vettel’s win, coming from third on the grid in a twice-started race that was then interrupted by a safety car just when the German driver was cruising to victory, was one of the finest performances in the four-time F1 champion’s career.
It was full of panache, and Vettel was proud to dedicate it to Bianchi, a young and dashing French driver whose own career was cut short.
Bianchi died last week aged 25 from injuries sustained in a head-on crash at the Japanese Grand Prix last October. He was honored here in a moving minute of silence before the race, with drivers forming a ring and placing their race helmets on the ground.
It was a measure of Vettel’s class that he started his dedication to Bianchi in French, seconds after crossing the line for his first ever win at the Hungaroring track.
“Merci Jules, cette victoire est pour toi,” (Thank you Jules, this win is for you),” Vettel said, before continuing in English. “You are always in our hearts.”
Vettel’s feat of matching Senna was chillingly poignant given the fact that Bianchi was the first F1 racer to die from injuries sustained in a race incident since Senna’s death in a crash at the San Marino GP in 1994.
“Mentioning Senna’s record is something incredible,” Vettel said. “I don’t know how to put this in words. But nevertheless this is for Jules and his family.”
Nico Rosberg, meanwhile, saw his chance to catch Lewis Hamilton in the title race disappear after a puncture near the end.
Red Bull took advantage of late chaos as Russian driver Daniil Kvyat placed second and Daniel Ricciardo took third.
In a thrilling finale, 17-year-old Max Verstappen just missed out on becoming the youngest ever podium finisher when he placed fourth and Fernando Alonso took fifth to give struggling McLaren a much-needed boost.
Hamilton was sixth and Rosberg a disappointing eighth.
A few moments before the race started, Bianchi’s mother Christine and father Philippe, brother Tom and sister Melanie joined the drivers as they all linked arms on the Hungaroring grid.
“I owe my race to Jules,” Ricciardo said after his first podium finish this season. “I gained extra strength today and I owe that to him.”
With five laps to go and Hamilton well out of contention, Rosberg was catching Vettel.
Ricciardo — the winner here last year — tried a daring overtaking move and instead ran into the back of the German driver, puncturing his left tire. Stewards took no action after investigating the incident and Rosberg apportioned no blame to Ricciardo.
“The laps were ticking down and I had to try something,” Ricciardo said. “To be honest the move was late, but it was clean.”
Instead of gaining points from Hamilton, Rosberg slipped further back in the title race.
Heading into the summer break, Hamilton leds Rosberg by 21 points — 202 vs 181 — while Vettel on 160 has clawed back his deficit on Hamilton to 42.
It is the first time Hamilton has failed to finish on the podium since the Belgian GP last August.
“Today was weird,” Hamilton said, reflecting on “one of the worst performances I’ve put in in a long, long time.”
Starting from pole position for the ninth time in 10 races this season, and 47th overall, Hamilton got away cleanly.
But the race was re-started because Brazilian driver Felipe Massa was out of position on the grid.
When they restarted, Rosberg flew past Hamilton, just like he did at the Austrian GP last month, and the two Ferraris caught up as the four jostled for position going into the first corner.
Vettel moving ahead now, Hamilton dropping back, and Kimi Raikkonen getting the inside line on Rosberg to prompt delirious scenes in the Ferrari garage.
Worse was to come for Hamilton, who found his racing line impeded by Rosberg and went off into the gravel, tumbling down the leaderboard. Hamilton clawed back from 10th, passing Massa with a brilliant move and overtaking Mexican driver Sergio Perez.
But up ahead, the Ferraris were pulling away from Rosberg and Hamilton was still a massive 30 seconds behind Vettel by lap 17.
With one third of the season’s most thrilling race completed, and the contenders having changed tires, Vettel had a comfortable lead.
After getting past Ricciardo on lap 30, Hamilton was gaining time fast on Rosberg.
Then, after Nico Hulkenberg’s crash on lap 43, in which the German driver was unhurt, the safety car came out and Vettel’s healthy lead was shredded.
Once they resumed racing, Vettel held firm, Rosberg zoomed past Raikkonen, then Hamilton made contact with Ricciardo and had to come in for a new front wing. The British driver’s misery was compounded with a drivethrough penalty.
Sensing victory, Rosberg was one second behind Vettel with 10 laps to go. Minutes later, those hopes were dashed.