Renault rivals know they must fight back in Budapest
McLaren chief Ron Dennis said after Kimi Raikkonens sudden retirement from the lead of last weekends German Grand prix at Hockenheim that the mountain they have to climb had just got steeper and higher. McLaren will therefore be going to Hungaroring this weekend intent on finishing one-two to keep Fernando Alonso as far back as possible when it comes to scoring points. The team must also desperately be hoping that unreliability visits itself upon the Spaniards Renault.
However, under the current rules, as the sole retirement in Germany, Raikkonen must go out first for qualifying and that will surely compromise his chances this weekend. Not for the first time does a driver found himself hit with a double-whammy after the heartbreak of retirement in a previous race. Raikkonen likens the Hungaroring to a kart circuit because it is quite tight and relatively low-speed, but it is also very dirty so he will certainly be handicapped as the first man out.
The car is quick, he says, and I will push hard.
This problem puts an even greater responsibility on Juan Pablo Montoya to take the pole and not to make the sort of error he did in the last corner at Hockenheim. McLaren have to finish strongly, and control this race, to stay in the hunt.
All of this suggests that Alonso can cruise home third, on the circuit on which he won his first grand prix back in 2003, but that is not the Spaniards style. Besides which, Renault chief Flavio Briatore is pushing everyone in the team hard while refusing to acknowledge that they have won anything until the championship is over.
Hungary was my first victory in Formula One, so I have some very good memories! Alonso says. Actually, it is a circuit I like a lot - it is quite slow, but there is a good flow to it for the drivers, and you need a good level of physical preparation to cope with the race in very hot conditions. After taking my first win there, I think the Hungaroring is a little bit more special for me, and I just really enjoy this weekend - the city, the paddock and the atmosphere as well. I am really looking forward to it.
The Hungaroring is quite complex and the second slowest circuit after Monaco. You need good traction on the exit of the slow corners, but also a stable front end on the car - you need to be completely in control of the car through the long slow corners, and any understeer will cost a lot of time. Also, it may be surprising, but the engine is very important here as well - it needs to be driveable from low revs and to be able to operate in the very high temperatures. It may be a slow track, but it is demanding in a lot of areas.
Third place for Jenson Button and BAR in Hockenheim was a major fillip, especially as he overtook Michael Schumacher along the way, so he will be pushing just as hard for a repeat, or something even better, this weekend.
"Our podium finish has given everyone at the team a boost, so we head to Hungary in high spirits, Button says. The Hungaroring is a very twisty circuit and it's also pretty bumpy. It's not one of my favourites when it comes to the actual racing because it is so hard to overtake. It's also a tough race for the drivers physically because the temperatures are usually so hot. We can lose around two to two and a half kilos around there when the temperatures are high in the thirties. I did reasonably well last year so I'm looking forward to going back, especially after the result we had last weekend."
For Ferrari, Hungary was a nightmare in 2003, and after their tyre troubles in Germany it remains to be seen how effective their Bridgestones are in the heat this time out. It is just possible that both the champion and team mate Rubens Barrichello will struggle to score decent points.
Toyota were in strong form courtesy of Ralf Schumacher last weekend, and he and team mate Jarno Trulli will be pushing to maintain Toyotas points-scoring performances and to keep out of the clutches of Williams, who are chasing them for fourth place in the constructors title. The Anglo-German cars qualified well in Germany but lacked race pace as Nick Heidfelds three-stop strategy backfired and Mark Webber was attacked by Takuma Sato on the opening lap and lost 11 more having repairs made in the pits. However, Hungaroring is one of those places where you can keep others behind you, so it is possible they will be able to make three stops work better here.
Red Bull Racing and Sauber are slugging it out for sixth place, the latter determined to score another 12 points to bring the teams overall total to 200 before founder Peter Sauber retires at the end of the year. David Coulthard likes the Hungaroring and Christian Klien will be pushing hard to make an impression in what could be his final race of the season before Vitantonio Liuzzi takes over his seat. Felipe Massa was flying recently in testing at Jerez and hopes that form will carry over here, while Jacques Villeneuve will be looking for some glory as a past winner of the race (back in 1997).
On current form the Minardi duo of Christijan Albers and newcomer Robert Doornbos will be strong competition for Jordan drivers Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro, as this inter-team battle continues.
Although it doesnt look like Monaco, Hungaroring requires the same maximum downforce, and presents similar difficulties when it comes to overtaking. It is also very hot, so cooling apertures get opened up to their maximum and engines get put under a lot of pressure.
Tyre performance and wear is also high here, because of the dirtiness of the track. Even after practice sessions a lot of sand tends to get blown on to the track, so oversteer is quite common and can exacerbate tyre wear. Despite this, most teams still manage to get away with relatively soft tyre compounds, but looking after your tyres will be an even more crucial part of this race, especially if a driver is under serious pressure in the closing laps.
If you can qualify well and have the speed to run with the leading bunch, a three-stop strategy can work here; if you dont have the pace it is easy to lose the benefit of that strategy by getting trapped in midfield traffic after your first stop. Tactically, then, this will be an interesting affair, both in qualifying and the race.