All eyes were firmly locked on the front two drivers in the final laps of the Sprint Race at the Hungaroring, as Callum Ilott furiously charged down Luca Ghiotto for the win, after the Briton pitted from first to change his heavily degraded medium tyres, to softs.
As one just two drivers to have not pitted, Ghiotto was desperately nursing his rubber, using every fibre of his experience in Formula 2 to not only stay ahead of Ilott, but to actually finish the race.
Here’s how it looked from their end.
ILOTT'S POINT OF VIEW
Callum Ilott may not have come away with a win from the Sprint Race, but the deep-rooted racer inside of him loved his fight with Luca Ghiotto.
The Sprint Race is usually a straight-out dash to the line from lights to flag, but with his medium Pirellis falling apart around the Hungaroring, his team had a decision to make.
UNI-Virtuosi had to make that tough call without the knowledge of who would pit, and who wouldn’t. All they knew was that Ilott’s tyres would struggle to make it to the finish line. In the end, they plumped for the change, and the Briton was left to furiously charge down Ghiotto. He fell agonizingly short – just 0.423s, in fact.
“What a race it was. It was good fun,” he summarized. “I was loving it, but also it was frustrating to have it so close to that point. We didn't plan to box at all, and we had a really bad pit stop, in that I think the front left didn't come off.
“Honestly, the options held longer than I thought. It was getting close. They kept telling me, "Four seconds per lap... You're gaining. It went down something like 16 seconds, 12 seconds, eight seconds, four seconds, and I was hoping to hear a 'three seconds' or something like that so I could get him in the last sector.
“He made a mistake in the first corner, so I thought I was going to get him, but I think he put everything he had left into it and just managed to stay ahead. Fair play to them. I didn't think it would work. If they'd have done the alternate strategy, I still think he still would have been ahead because of our pit stop.”
Ilott had begun the day on reverse grid pole, and enjoyed a sterling getaway off the line, building a gap of more than 3s in the opening laps alone. All of this on a damp track. Conditions were far from ideal, even without the struggle with degradation.
“I guess I'm quite good at sensing the conditions when it's a bit iffy like that,” he explained. “To be fair, I was pushing but I didn't make any mistakes given the conditions. The plan was to get a nice gap and just manage the tyres, which I did.
“I was managing the tyres. I don't know what's going on at the moment. This year they're kind of up and down. They were fine and then they just dropped. At that point, I think within two laps we calculated it and made the decision to box.”
Ilott returned from his stop in third, 35s behind Ghiotto, buts on the faster, fresher, soft tyres. The Briton was gaining on him at a rate of more than 5s a lap at one point, but the pace began to drop off as the softs wore themselves down as well.
I saw him lock up into Turn 1 and it definitely felt like I was going to have it, but he managed to put it together in Sector 2 and Sector 3.
Ilott very nearly managed it to perfection and eased off enough to save them for one final push on the last lap, while getting within touching distance of Ghiotto. In the end, the race was one corner too short, and Ghiotto clung on at the finish line.
He continued: “I saw him lock up into Turn 1 and it definitely felt like I was going to have it, but he managed to put it together in Sector 2 and Sector 3. I was struggling more and more with the front left. I think I dropped two seconds that lap to the lap before, so I was on the limit as well anyway.
“If we'd have done something slightly different, maybe it would have worked, but it is what it is. It was good fun and good points anyway.”
GHIOTTO'S POINT OF VIEW
Ghiotto and Ilott’s races could hardly have been more contrasting. While the Briton was frantically chasing the Italian down in the final laps, Ghiotto was trying to take it steady to retain his tyres enough to pass the chequered flag, and hold off Ilott at the same time.
The difference in pace between the two of them in the dying laps was substantial, and Ghiotto would have known how much faster his rival was lapping, but he didn’t let it faze him, or distract him from his own strategy.
“I couldn't see Callum,” he admitted. “But, it was like he was behind me for the whole race basically! I just trying to get a gap to him and do my best. It wasn't bad.
“I thought many cars were going to stop, but not almost all of them! For us it worked well. Just. One more lap and Callum would have taken P1 for sure. Sometimes you need a bit of luck in this sport, and today we had some definitely.”
Ghiotto’s victory owes a lot to a sublime race start. He flung himself from fifth to second at the first corner, which set their battle in motion. Ilott had got away fantastically himself and was initially out of reach, but Hitech racer’s calmness in the situation was imperative to his win.
Ghiotto knew from his own experience of the medium tyres in the Feature Race the day before, that they would struggle to go the distance without some seriously careful management. So, he didn’t instantly go about chasing down the British driver, he hung back, and opted to let the race place out.
He continued: “After I overtook two cars and I was P2 I thought that this could work. I was in clean air basically, for the whole race, because Callum got a good gap in front of me. I was not really fighting for any of the first laps let's say.”
When Callum stopped, I got the call from the pits to decide on Plan A or Plan B, and I decided to stick with Plan A.
Just like Ilott and UNI-Virtuosi, Ghiotto and Hitech were left with the same call to make – stick or twist.
“When Callum stopped, I got the call from the pits to decide on Plan A or Plan B, and I decided to stick with Plan A. At that moment I felt more confident on that side. The tyres felt alright. They were okay at that moment. As I said, it just worked out well for us at the end.”
After a tough opening few rounds for himself and Hitech, Ghiotto had plenty of praise for his team, who had helped both him and his teammate Nikita Mazepin to enjoy top five finishes in both races – a feat neither of them had managed up until this point.
He concluded: “In the Sprint Race in Austria we struggled a lot with tyre management, but today the car managed the tyres better. It's completely the opposite. As I've already said on Friday, they are doing a great job. They are working really hard.
“We can only be proud of the work we've done so far because it's such a high-level field this year. To be able to get these results already, so early in the season, is a good thing. And with both cars. That proves that we're doing a mega job.”