Wednesday 23 July 2014

Hungaroring Preview: A matter of halting Hamilton?

The Hungaroring is important. No, really.

Have you ever ruminated over the modern F1 calendar, and that sort of track that gets added to it almost exclusively these days it seems? That which is purpose built from ground up especially to hold an F1 event, is super safe, has gleaming facilities, and all is bankrolled by the national government keen to promote or 'brand' the country?

And have you in turn wondered which venue was the first of these? That set this trend in motion? Well, the most likely answer is Hungary's Hungaroring.

The Hungaroring now is a fixture on the calendar
Photo: Octane Photography
The Hungaroring made its bow as an F1 host in 1986, constructed in just the seven months prior to the event on a greenfield site not far outside the city of Budapest.

And 28 years on (gulp) it's easy to forget what a complete step into the unknown this represented for both the F1 circus and its hosts, stepping as the fraternity was behind the Iron Curtain into the 'Eastern Bloc', as Hungary was then part of. It may be difficult for us in the now to comprehend, but contact between East and West then was near non-existent. Without hyperbole, when F1 descended neither party had the first idea what to expect.

Bernie Ecclestone - F1's very own Henry Kissinger - had eyed a race in 'The East' for some time, and indeed as early as 1983 a street race in Moscow appeared on the provisional F1 calendar. That plan foundered on insurmountable bureaucracy, but by 1986 Hungary, always the most outward-looking of the Eastern Bloc countries, stepped in and Bernie was sold on the idea.

The initial event was all in considered a success. Even though the track was incredibly slow, tight and twisty particularly by the standards of the age (though that was in part down to a detour being required in the early years because of an underwater spring), overtaking opportunities were few and the track surface was very slippery, there were plenty of pluses. The facilities were immaculate as mentioned, and most of all a staggering 200,000 people came through the gates on race day, including some from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.

Crowds in Hungary remain large
Photo: Octane Photography
And today that's broadly how things remain at the Hungaroring. A twisty track and low grip surface, overtaking difficult, and a large, enthusiastic, multi-national crowd in attendance. It's popular especially with those from countries that don't have their own race, most notably Finns (and Poles in the days of Robert Kubica - to the point that when Kubica retired early from the 2010 race you almost expected half of the attendees in the grandstands to depart at the same time). And as is often the case its popularity among the fraternity itself has crept up over time, probably reflecting the changing context of the other tracks that fill the calendar around it. I'm told that most drivers enjoy pushing a car through the Hungarian track's acrobatic layout.

Whatever is the case, while it in its early days represented a giant leap into a new world (or perhaps a new world leaping into an old one), now pushing three decades of its uninterrupted presence on the calendar on it is something of a fixture.

It also has developed a knack of being the stage of where every so often great drivers put in great drives. One can think of Nigel Mansell's against-all-odds beating of the McLarens in 1989, Damon Hill oh-so nearly pulling off probably the biggest shock win of all time in the Arrows in 1997, Michael Schumacher's suspension of normality to win in 1998, and Fernando Alonso's astonishing progress in the wet in 2006.

But in among all of this there these days is a running thread. Hungary is Lewis Hamilton country. He appears to adore racing around the Hungaroring, having won here four times in seven visits - including the last two - and often looking spectacular around here. No one it seems makes a car dance around the twisty low-grip circuit quite like he. This was quintessentially so here twelve months ago, when on a day wherein few expected the Merc's tyres to last Lewis's drive to take the flag first was ultra quick and crisply aggressive - it was arguably the most impressive victory drive of anyone in 2013.

Lewis Hamilton won at Hungary for the fourth time last
year, and looks the favourite again
Photo: Octane Photography
With this while Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg usually is a hard call, this time Lewis must be classed in advance as favourite - which will be some relief to him as once again it feels a lot like he needs a strong result, given what happen at Hockenheim.

Nico may therefore look at the weekend as one in which to limit the damage. But then again we thought the same for Montreal too, and from what I recall things worked out rather well for him there.

Once again the rest are unlikely to get near to the Mercs, unless the W05s wilt in the Hungaroring's usual heat - though this is not necessarily a forlorn hope, ambient temperatures were a contributory factor in both silver cars hitting problems in Canada, while the Mercs' reliability generally remains imperfect. This is also a track that a strong aerodynamic balance, particularly at the front end, is necessary; it's not a track that under-performing cars can be hustled around with great success. This suits the Three-Pointed Star just fine.

On this point however the Red Bulls can be expected to show up a bit better here. Time was when the Bulls at the Hungaroring could count on being a second a lap faster than the next best (see 2010). While that won't be the case this time, as a fine-handling chassis combined with the fact that there isn't a straight worthy of the name here meaning its power deficit won't be shown up nearly as much as usual, the RB10 should have one of its more competitive 2014 weekends. It'll still be a surprise if it is all enough for them to leap clean ahead of the Mercs but they look well-placed to keep them honest, possibly as best of the rest.

Given the layout other non-Merc runners, such as Ferrari, may also have a relative degree of joy here. While some at Williams have hinted that Hungary may not be happy hunting ground, but the FW36 keeps surprising us, and has looked persistently the best of the non-works Merc class in recent weeks, and even good enough on occasion to give the drivers of the haugty silver cars something to think about. The Grove team lacks nothing in ambition either.

Overtaking on the tight Hungaroring is difficult
Photo: Octane Photography
Qualifying and lap one will also be crucial. Something that's dogged the Hungaroring since its very inception is that the overtaking opportunities it offers are paltry. This remains so even in the age of DRS, as seen last year when Sebastian Vettel - in the middle of a spell of several months wherein he could barely stop winning - had his day here unravel by spending several laps stuck behind Jenson Button after pitting, and the year before Hamilton was able to hold off an apparently faster Kimi Raikkonen for Lords-knows-how-long to win. Following a car ahead though the slow, but often fairly lingering, turns around the back of the track ain't easy.

Therefore an elephant in the room for Lewis is that he really can't afford any of the sort of qualifying fun and games that have afflicted him persistently since Barcelona in May.

With this some teams with better race pace than qualifying may get a bit creative with stint length and compound choices on the Sunday, particularly if they're easy on the tyres. Raikkonen and Lotus made hay last year with a two-stopper compared with the three of most others, while Mark Webber and Jenson Button also had some joy from going against the grain.

But not for the first time in 2014 the matter of who fills the top two is unlikely to go against the grain. Perhaps even within that the fight will be a one-sided one.

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