Saturday 30 July 2011

Hungaroring Preview: Closer than close

Three is the magic number at the Hungaroring. All of the 'big three' teams - McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull - are in the mix on pace. It's looking like this weekend will be an intense three-pronged battle for supremacy, just like last weekend in Germany. And that wasn't bad, was it?

Each of the three cars appear to have relative strengths and weaknesses, but they've met in the middle beautifully, meaning it's hard for onlookers to predict with confidence who'll come out on top this weekend.

Ferrari will hope to trouble Red Bull this weekend
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
In many ways the big story of today, certainly in terms of the balance of F1 power over the season, is that practice does further indicate that Red Bull have been caught up. Of course, fuel loads vary (some in the paddock reckon they were running heavier than their rivals today), and the Bulls do tend to hide their light a little on a Friday. No one's got rich betting against Red Bull, and more to the point against Sebastian Vettel, on a Saturday in 2011. But this is a track (downforce required, barely half the lap spent on full throttle) that was supposed to be their territory - they ran and hid, until Vettel fell foul of safety car rules, here last year. If they can't win here we may be entitled to ask where exactly they can. And Vettel, while his championship isn't really under threat, won't welcome the chatter that will come with another iffy result this weekend, especially as he'll have a month before he can bounce back.

It's also the case that McLaren and Ferrari getting onto the Bulls' pace isn't that much of a turnaround. As Mark Webber pointed out after the German race, their advantage has been concentrated in qualifying rather than the races, where things have invariably been tight.

Lewis Hamilton and McLaren look to be continuing their good form
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
If anyone can be said to be on top on the basis of today then it is Lewis Hamilton, who headed both sessions with a clear two tenths on his closest challenger (Vettel in the first session, Fernando Alonso in the second). Lewis appears to have taken the form and confidence straight with him Germany last weekend. It's hard to bet against him when he's in this sort of form and he's got the wheels to get the job done, which he appears to have.

The McLarens' longer runs have also looked good, including on the super soft tyres, quelling some of their fears on tyre wear. The conditions have been cool (and a bit damp) for Hungary, which will likely have helped things. The Ferraris' runs looks about as good and both look better than Red Bulls, whose are still pretty solid. If it does heat up throughout the weekend, which some forecasts suggest it will, then tyre wear may prove to be the Scuderia's trump card (Alonso has said the hotter it is the better for them) especially as they have no medium or hard tyres to worry about, and it may give the Red Bulls more wear problems.

So it may be a repeat of Germany: Red Bull stronger in qualifying, Ferrari stronger in the race, and McLaren good at both, and the three teams very close. This means that a sharp pit stop call or a decisive overtake could be enough to make the difference between winning and losing on Sunday. Qualifying and the race will be worth watching.

First practice highlights, courtesy of the BBC (UK users only)
Second practice highlights, courtesy of the BBC (UK users only)
Free practice times

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