Mick Schumacher’s robust defence of a points-paying position against then Formula 1 championship leader Max Verstappen in the Hungarian Grand Prix gave his Haas team some much needed “light” amid a demoralising season.
With what is essentially last year’s car with some small improvements and an all-rookie driver line-up, Haas knew it was in for a long hard 2021 before the year began.
However, it perhaps hadn’t quite braced to have only made one Q2 appearance all year and to have faced such a performance deficit to its 2020 rivals Williams and Alfa Romeo.
The Hungarian GP weekend began to look like it would cap off Haas’s testing season with a high repair bill and limited morale boosting before the four-week summer break.
Schumacher found the barriers at the Turn 11 left-hander in Saturday morning practice and the damage sustained put him out of qualifying – a session where his Haas team-mate Nikita Mazepin’s fastest lap was over four and a half seconds adrift of Lewis Hamilton’s pole position lap.
But Sunday brought opportunity and one that 2020 Formula 2 champion Schumacher, who started in 20th and last position, seized with both hands with a confident sweep around the Turn 1 chaos to leap into 11th place.
This became a place in the top 10 when Hamilton had to ditch his intermediate tyres, having been left as the only driver on the grid for the race restart.
Schumacher found himself sandwiched between Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren and Verstappen, with the latter breathing down his neck and desperate to recover after he was wiped out at Turn 1 on the opening lap.
He kept within three seconds of Ricciardo and bottled Verstappen up for 11 laps before the Dutchman made his attack on lap 15.
Verstappen tried driving around the outside of the Haas at the Turn 1 right-hander but he found himself eased off the track by a stubborn Schumacher.
Verstappen then tried it around the outside of Schumacher at the Turn 2 left-hander and after briefly touching on the exit of the corner, it was Verstappen who emerged with the 10th place, but not without a spirited defence from Schumacher.
It would have been easy for the Haas driver to concede to what was still clearly a faster car – even considering the damage to Verstappen’s car and Red Bull team boss Christian Horner’s post-race hyperbole that Verstappen had less downforce than Schumacher.
Instead, Schumacher showed his mettle and looked firmly at home, fighting against one of the toughest racers in the field.
His robust defence was a quality he displayed throughout his junior single-seater career and just as the likes of Verstappen himself and Charles Leclerc demonstrated, Schumacher was never going to drop that ruthless streak when he reached the top of the ladder.
Verstappen’s former team-mate Pierre Gasly and title rival Hamilton then swept past Schumacher, who was powerless to defend, in quick succession.
A long 31-lap stint on the medium tyres ensured that Hamilton would then have to pass Schumacher for a second time, and the Haas then led a three-car train compromised of George Russell, Ricciardo and Verstappen.
Russell only got by Schumacher around the outside of Turn 2 on the final lap of Schumacher’s stint, and Ricciardo and Verstappen were only released by Schumacher’s pitstop.
“I wasn’t anticipating holding them off for that long, but I was glad that I was able to,” Schumacher said after the race.
“I was able to also get the opportunity to fight with the top guys, I was fighting with Max twice on the road, been able to make my experience in that case and feel the pressure, and not crack under pressure.”
There were certainly no signs of cracks, and in the 14 laps after Schumacher made his pitstop, his lap times were all within half a second of each other.
It was a contrast to drives like crashing out of the top 15 in the early laps of the race at Imola, and the scruffy opening lap that undid his Q2 heroics at Paul Ricard.
His pitstop had dropped him to 13th place, but his strong and consistent pace ensured he comfortably kept the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi behind him – the first time a Haas driver has finished in front of an Alfa this season.
And with Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification, Schumacher was promoted to 12th place, which became his best F1 result yet and Haas’s strongest finish since Romain Grosjean’s ninth place at Nurburgring last October.
“It really gave everybody a light at the end of the tunnel again, after a disappointing day [on Saturday],” Schumacher added.
It comes at a crucial time for Schumacher with the identity of his 2022 employer unclear and off the back of the British Grand Prix where Mazepin finished ahead of him in a race for only the second time – thanks to a clinical overtaking manoeuvre in the final corners where he also overtook Schumacher to win the Silverstone F2 feature race in 2020.
While Mazepin said he “strongly believes he has a long career in Formula 1” after what he described as a “f****** annoying” pitlane collision with Kimi Raikkonen, Schumacher is far humbler about his future prospects.
But regardless of where Schumacher ends up, one thing the Hungarian GP showed is that if he is in more competitive machinery next year – whether that be an improved Haas or an Alfa Romeo – he’ll be more than capable at holding his own.