Monday 20 July 2015

Hungaroring Preview: The new, old world

Have you ever looked at the modern F1 calendar, and wondered about 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? That which is super safe, has gleaming facilities, and all is bankrolled by the national government keen to 'brand' the country?

The Hungaroring round has become a fixture
Photo: Octane Photography
And have you in turn wondered which venue was the first of these? That set this trend in motion? Well (after you've got out a bit more) the most likely answer is Hungary's Hungaroring, the scene of the latest F1 gathering this weekend coming.

The track made its bow as an F1 host in 1986, constructed in just the seven months prior on a greenfield site not far outside the city of Budapest. And 29 years (gulp) on it's easy to forget what a complete step into the unknown this represented at the time for both the F1 circus and its hosts, and this was in more ways than one given the fraternity was venturing behind the Iron Curtain into the 'Eastern Bloc', which Hungary was then part of, for the first time and when contact between 'east' and 'west' was close to non-existent. Never one to pay heed to impediments Bernie Ecclestone held a long-standing desire to host a race therein, 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 up to the plate and Bernie was happy to pitch a ball their way.

As intimated and without over-egging matters when F1 arrived for its debut event there it was a leap into a new world, or a new world leaping into an old one depending on your perspective. Reflecting this Martin Brundle for one has spoken of the incongruous hush of the vast throng assembled in the stands as all prepared on the dummy grid before the freshman race. The event was however considered a success. The facilities were immaculate, the sun was warm and most of all the mentioned vast throng on race day was made up of a staggering 200,000 people, including some from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. It also benefited from a fine and occasionally lairy battle for the win between Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna - no love was lost between those two countrymen.

The track is notorious for being tight and twisty
Photo: Octane Photography
But enthusiasm wasn't universal, as another departure marked by the new event was in the circuit's layout. For a sport used to fearsome high speed challenges like the Österreichring and Zandvoort (and it didn't help that the Hungarian track replaced the latter on the calendar) particularly in the European season this was also one of the first tracks that by contrast was torturous and low-speed, the sort that since has become a little more familiar. Some cynics have it that Bernie surmised this tepid pace would make it easier to see the various sponsors' logos...

Nigel Roebuck noted that when the fraternity first laid eyes on the 'purpose-built' venue in 1986 "we swiftly concluded that part of that purpose had been to prevent motor racing. Tight and sinewy, it amounted to a prescription for soporific grands prix". Another legendary scribe Jabby Crombac was less restrained, as when one year he was asked by a local how the track could be improved his curt reply was "dig it up".

And today all-in that's broadly how things remain at the Hungaroring. A twisty track and a low grip surface, overtaking difficult, and a large, enthusiastic, multi-national crowd in attendance. And as is often the case its popularity more widely has crept up over time, probably reflecting the changing context of the other tracks that fill the calendar around it. Even so this circuit still has the lowest average speed of any purpose-built one on the calendar.

This place also has somehow 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 from 12th on the grid 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 (and sadly largely forgotten) progress in the wet in 2006, among plenty of others. In last year's race too in a wet then drying afternoon there were many heroic efforts on display.

Lewis Hamilton is hard to stop at the Hungaroring
Photo: Octane Photography
More lately though the great drives here haven't been spread around so much. This weekend's gathering like most recent F1 gatherings at the Hungarian track looks in advance a lot like a matter of halting Lewis Hamilton. Little change there you may say, but this circuit even among the others is a particularly happy place for him. He's won here four times in eight visits and almost always has been a contender. He even won for Merc in 2013 before the Merc got good. Twelve months ago too he didn't let starting from nearly last stop him from finishing on the podium. It seems the track's acrobatic layout and low grip surface are relished by the Englishman. No one quite makes a car dance through the Hungaroring like him.

The slow track isn't destined to result in a change in the car to have though - the Mercedes chassis and handling is about as good as its power unit, meaning the silver cars should be well on top again. This in turn means that Hamilton's only rival is likely to once more be team mate Nico Rosberg. For the reasons given this might be viewed as something of an away fixture for Nico, but he's been in good form lately, and while the Silverstone result last time out appeared to check his momentum it wouldn't have taken a lot to have happened differently there for him to have won out there too. Plus he can take encouragement from the existence of previous examples of him winning out on pace and points on tracks that his team mate in advance was expected to dominate on - see Canada last year for a quintessential example.

Another facet of the Hungaroring that hasn't changed over time is that overtaking here is very difficult. Even in the age of DRS and gumball Pirellis it was common to see some drivers' races ruined by being bottled up beyond one slower for what seemed an age. Much of the trouble is in its almost never-ending succession of slow but often lengthy and lingering corners, and especially in the one that leads onto about the track's only straight worth the name. When in another's wake through these the front grip of cars tends to wash out meaning competitors for the most part run a respectful distance apart from each other. This year with the tyres less extreme and the aero apparently making it difficult to run close passing is likely to be even more rare than before if anything. With this qualifying and the first lap shake out should do a lot to frame the race.

Sunshine and heat can usually be expected at this venue
Photo: Octane Photography
Another close to habitual factor at this track is beating sunshine and intense, sapping, heat - the rain that arrived just before last year's race was entirely out of character. This combined with the long turns tends to ask a lot of the Pirelli tyres, especially those on the front, so the recent run of one-stop races is unlikely to continue. Last year's rain threw race strategy out of kilter but prior to that the best approach had tended to alternate between two and three stops. With this season's Pirellis seemingly more durable than before the smart money this time is on two.

Therefore there at least will be more scope than has been the case lately to make up places via race strategy. There are recent examples of people having joy at this track with bold strategies too, such as Kimi Raikkonen in 2013 vaulting up to second by stopping once fewer than those around him and him achieving the same effect the year before except via an offset approach wherein he pressed on for longer before his stops. Mark Webber also had something of a wildcard presence in 2013 having started on the medium tyre which helped him to a fourth place finish after he started tenth.

While the usual heat and sunshine is again forecast this weekend the same forecasts also have some showers around for Friday and Saturday, which may curtail set-up time as well as jumble the grid if one arrives at an awkward moment in the qualifying hour. The former point may be rather troublesome too as this track isn't often used and usually is very dirty when running commences on Friday, meaning tyre readings that day can be misleading.

Can the Ferrari drivers bounce back here?
Photo: Octane Photography
With the likely Merc domination it'll still be worth keeping Ferrari in mind, though not for the reasons those in red might have hoped. The Italian cars have slipped away from the Mercedes pace in recent weeks and months and indeed appear now to be sliding into the Williams' clutches. Without the late rain in Silverstone they would have been nowhere near the Grove cars indeed. And as if to show that not everything about the Scuderia changes murmurings about yet more internal strife - possibly as a result of the above - have started already, but at least the Hungary track should suit it a little more relative to the Williams. The Merc power unit will not be able to stretch its legs nearly as much as usual while traditionally the Williams goes better in low drag spec which has been required in the last three rounds but very much will not be here. Furthermore James Allison's Lotuses tended to go well here in the past plus if tyre wear is a greater consideration than it has been lately then that also should be good news for the Italian team.

A few others that have been struggling with their power units will also be looking to this race for a better than usual result. It was said indeed that when Red Bull and McLaren took hefty engine penalties in Austria a couple of rounds back it was done at least in part to ensure they wouldn't have to take a drop here where they expect with the slow track to make relatively large quantities of hay. And even over and above this pair the Toro Rossos are worth a watch, as they won't be nearly as impeded by their Renault engine and we might get to test the theory of its drivers that it has the second best chassis out there.

There's no doubt over which is number one though. And if this Hungarian weekend runs to form that will go for the drivers as well as for the cars.

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