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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Lewis Hamilton’s pole position at the Hungarian Grand Prix may have been the 104th of his career, but after a 20-month drought it felt like his first.

“I forgot what it feels like to sit in this spot!” he said as a huge grin spread across his face. “I don’t think I breathed the whole lap, I think I held my breath, and I was so out of breath at the end!

“But it’s an extraordinary feeling, after you’ve been here for such a long time, and you’ve had the success before. Even though it’s 104, it feels like the first.

“It’s hard to explain just how special it feels.”

Saturday afternoon’s qualifying was a fleeting reminder of how exciting F1 can be when two drivers from different teams are fighting over pole position.

Hamilton secured it by just 0.003s ahead of Max Verstappen, halting the Red Bull driver’s march to a sixth consecutive top spots in qualifying.

It also put an end to Hamilton’s run of 33 races without pole, which stretches back to the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

In that time, Verstappen has become a two-time world champion, won 24 races and assumed Hamilton’s position as the man to beat in F1.

The rivalry may have been dormant for the last one-and-a-half years, but it is still real.

Where did Hamilton’s pace come from?

A Red Bull at the top of the timesheets has become such a familiar sight in F1 this year that anyone else on pole position, even a seven-time world champion, has become a surprise.

After struggling to match Red Bull for such a long time, Hamilton’s explanation for Saturday’s result made Mercedes’ problems of the last 18 months seem remarkably simple.

“I don’t know how much it gets commented on, but such a huge part [of F1] is having confidence in the vehicle you are driving and the tool that you are using,” he said. “When you lose that confidence, you shed a lot of time.

“Last year I had no confidence in the car and started the season with very little confidence in the car and bit by bit started to get the thing on the right track and this weekend here, while we struggled in the high speed, the others we are quite good in the low speed as we have discovered at the last few races.

“So the confidence has finally come back and that is what you are seeing today, it is literally having the confidence to throw the car into the corner and know it is going to stick.

“Also, just after driving it for so long you get used to it and now there is no fear that it is going to throw you off into the wall — apart from some of the high-speed every now and again.”

The lap was also a welcome return to the front of the grid for a Mercedes team that has been unable to keep pace with rivals Red Bull since a major regulation overhaul in 2022.

Under F1’s current rule set, Mercedes’ cars have had a tendency to deliver inconsistent performance through corners, especially a lack of rear grip in high-speed corners.

With so much of the aerodynamic performance coming from the underside of the car, there are big downforce gains to be made by running the car low to the ground. But finding consistent performance from those low ride heights requires a stable platform from the car’s suspension that only Red Bull has been able to master.

Without it, the car all too often provides the twitchy inconsistencies that are so devastating to driver confidence.

“The biggest weakness we have in the car is not a lack of downforce, it is that the car is unpredictable,” team principal Toto Wolff said on Saturday evening after qualifying.

“The drivers never have the confidence to really push it hard in qualifying and I think the car they had today was something that gave confidence and allowed them to push without thinking that it could step out on the entrance or exit of the corner.

“I think this is the main area we need to work on, giving them a car balance that is more predictable.”

By contrast, Verstappen, who had been able to tap into such a rich vein of performance in recent qualifying sessions, lost some of his confidence in his Red Bull ahead of qualifying.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the grid, if the car doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel good,” the championship leader said. “The whole qualifying, I’ve been struggling a lot the whole weekend really, with the shift in balance, like understeer, then you try to correct it and it’s oversteer.

“It was just never in a good window. Every time you go into the apex, into the corner, it was just not gripping up for me. That’s probably the worst balance I can have in a car. I tried to correct a few things in Q3, but there’s only so much you can do, and I thought my first lap wasn’t too bad, but it still felt like I was driving on ice with the front axle.”

It’s telling, however, that Hamilton finding confidence in his car and Verstappen struggling with his only resulted in a 0.003s advantage in Mercedes’ favour. What’s more, Red Bull’s car advantage this season has been far more pronounced over a race distance than in qualifying.

“We tend to have decent race pace, but Max’s race pace during Friday practice was, I think, quite extraordinary,” Hamilton said. “I think they were quite a bit quicker than us.

“But if there’s a way to hold position, then maybe there’s a fighting chance for us. Just even being up there in a top three that’s new, we’re going to have a great race, that’s for sure.”

At the very least, the race start should be exciting. Hamilton and Verstappen have not shared a front row of the grid since their explosive title showdown at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“I think it will be good fun, no?” Wolff said.

“Neither of them has anything to risk or lose, so they will be for sure racing each other at the beginning.

“Lewis, I’m sure, will give it everything he has to put up a great fight, but we also need to stay realistic because Red Bull were just in a league of their own on the long runs this morning and yesterday [in practice].

“But that’s motor racing, and everything can be different tomorrow if we have a driver and car in the best state of mind to fight against them.”

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