Can McLaren score big for the first time this year? Will Ferrari have things all their own way? And what can we expect from Williams’ ‘super sub’ Paul di Resta? We consider these and the other key talking points ahead of this afternoon's race in Budapest...
Get ready for a Ferrari walkover?
The Hungaroring is an unusual circuit. It’s a permanent facility that has many of the characteristics of a street track, including maximum downforce and extreme difficulty overtaking. And Ferrari had such a clear advantage all through qualifying, but especially in Q3, that Lewis Hamilton knows he and Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas will have their work cut out to beat them.
“We are working hard, and the last race was not great for us,” Vettel said after taking the 48th pole of his career. “But that doesn’t matter now. We are here to do our best and we take it step by step. I’m really happy where we are again, especially when you remember where we were 12 months ago. The car was phenomenal and when I saw it was two reds up front I let out a big scream. It’s only Saturday of course and the big challenge comes tomorrow, but after all the talk after the last race [that Ferrari were finished] it was good to give the answer on the track.”
"You can't overtake here,” Hamilton admitted. “It's most likely going to be a train unless we can do something with strategy. Getting past the Ferraris is going to be an almost impossible task, unless they have problems. I think it’s going to be an easy breeze for them.”
So do Mercedes have a chance?
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff believed an error at the start of Q3 cost him Hamilton his chance of the pole.
In contrast to Silverstone, Mercedes had struggled since Friday, when Hamilton correctly surmised that every tenth of a second would count when it came to qualifying.
“I didn’t for a moment think we had a shot at the pole,” he admitted, in contrast to Wolff. “We’ve been no match here for Ferrari. The vibrations I encountered didn’t give us any issues over the car’s balance, but if you have a vibration you need to have the wheel and tyre rebalanced. It’s like you’ve got a flat spot even before you’ve started. Taking the corners with the vibrations gives you a fake reading on the car’s balance.
“But really, I think that wasn’t the reason our pace was what it was. Ferrari made improvements this weekend, and they deserved to get the pole. Their car was faster and it looks like they had more downforce here.”
The best chance Mercedes have to upset a likely Ferrari 1-2 is to beat them at the start. Two years ago Vettel did just that when the Mercedes of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg lagged off the front row of the grid, and he was able to overtake them before Turn 1.
"The start is the best possibility to jump them, the run down to the first turn is very long,” Wolff said. "Strategy-wise, I guess there is not a lot of possibilities."
Will Red Bull fight Mercedes?
Though he described his weekend here as one of the toughest of his F1 career, Max Verstappen believes that Red Bull can still be a factor in the race, even starting from fifth place.
"The whole weekend I have been struggling a lot with the car and I just couldn't really get the balance right, but we managed to turn it around and the car was feeling good in qualifying when it matters," the Dutchman said.
"Q1 and Q2 were actually very good but in Q3 it's always harder for us to step up by four or five tenths like Ferrari and Mercedes, as we don't have that extra engine mode.
"We have made a good step forward and we are heading in the right direction. I'm actually quite confident for tomorrow."
Disappointed with only the sixth best qualifying time, after losing time at the end of FP3 with a hydraulic problem which stopped his Red Bull out on the track, team mate Daniel Ricciardo promises he’ll be on the attack.
"We'll find a way to be quick tomorrow," the Australian, who won here three years ago, said.
"We had to guess a bit on set-up for qualifying. We did what we thought was going to work but it wasn't quite optimised. The car was a bit of a handful and then we managed to hustle it better in Q3 but still not enough. This morning the track changed quite a bit and Ferrari in particular found a chunk of time. It just seemed we couldn't evolve with that like they did.
"If we can get track position we can help ourselves. It’ll be a fun race. I'm not sure I'll have too many friends after the race, but that's okay. Because I'm at the tail of that pack I need to force my way through, so if I am going to move forward it will take some nice moves.”
But he said he doesn’t necessarily need to make a great start. “I've had fun around here in the past overtaking. If I carry this fire into the race tomorrow I should be fine."
But Lewis Hamilton said he is not expecting trouble from the Milton Keynes cars.
“Red Bull didn’t have the pace we expected from them today. Ferrari pulled out their real pace today. I’m not overly concerned about Red Bull for the race, more about Ferrari.”
Can McLaren pull off the big points score?
With their best qualifying positions of the season in Hungary, and starting positions seventh and eighth for birthday boy Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne respectively, McLaren have their best chance yet this season of a respectable points haul.
“It’s been a positive weekend so far for us as a team,” Alonso said as he celebrated turning 36 in a post-qualifying party in the McLaren hospitality unit. “We knew the top three teams would effectively be out of reach, so fighting for seventh and eighth was the maximum target we could aim for today.
“Hopefully we can convert those positions in the race and score some good points. They’re very much needed by the team at the moment.
“In terms of race pace we should be okay. This is a circuit where it’s difficult to overtake; the tyres are very stable and have low degradation so I think that, if we have a good start, we should have a good chance to maintain our positions – that’s the target.”
Vandoorne was equally upbeat, having traded lap times with his team mate all weekend.
“We pretty much got everything out of the car today. We’d been looking strong all weekend, so it was good to get both cars in Q3 and to carry our pace through into qualifying.
“My car felt quite strong – it felt pretty good in the corners. I think we maximised the package we had today. But the race is the most important thing: I hope we can get both cars into the points. Our pace has been inside the top 10 all the time, so we’re looking strong.”
Racing director Eric Boullier said he was optimistic.
“We always knew that this was likely to be a strong track for us, but what’s more satisfying is that we’ve shown such consistent pace throughout the whole weekend. That gives us the confidence to believe that we can convert these starting positions into equally strong points-scoring places.”
McLaren are currently last in the constructors’ stakes with two points to ninth-placed Sauber’s five.
What can we expect of Di Resta?
When Felipe Massa was taken ill with a virus infection that obliged him to make a hospital visit on Saturday morning and then to stop running partway through FP3, Paul di Resta was called up as Williams’ reserve driver. The 31 year-old Scot came to Hungary expecting to deputise on TV commentary duties for Martin Brundle, who was taken ill with a similar problem at Silverstone two weeks ago.
“My wife Laura said wouldn’t it be funny if I ended up being called up to drive,” Di Resta admitted. “So if you ask me which is more nerve-wracking, doing the TV bit or driving the car, I’d say it’s actually knowing that she can predict the future.”
He last raced in F1 for Force India in Brazil at the end of 2013, and since then has raced in DTM for Mercedes and only driven the current Williams FW40 in the simulator prior to the Australian Grand Prix, and done 10 laps in a 2014-spec car.
The team left the car largely as Massa had set it up for FP3, and as he used that baseline he was able to do only four timed laps as he was thrown in the “deepest of the deep ends,” in Q1. He didn’t put a wheel wrong as he improved with each lap and set the 19th best time of 1m 19.868s to split the Saubers at the back of the grid. Better still, he was just a quarter of a second off rookie team mate Lance Stroll, who record 1m 19.102s and has been racing the car all season and finished third in the recent Azerbaijan round in Baku.
“He was amazing,” technical chief Paddy Lowe said. “He did a mind-blowing job. Tomorrow you don’t what might happen, so it depends how the race pans out as it is often full of incidents. But Paul is a good, solid driver who doesn’t make mistakes.”
Di Resta himself, at just 31, knows that against all expectations a good showing here could rekindle his F1 dream.
“This is a nifty little track that requires a lot of confidence, and these cars are not very forgiving, so I have no idea what to expect tomorrow,” he admitted. “These are the best cars in the world to drive and I felt back at home this afternoon. But I don’t know how much front wing to carry, what the option tyres will feel like, stuff like that, so I will rely totally on the team and my plan is just to keep it simple. I’ll be concentrating on pushing two pedals and turning the steering wheel.
“The F1 dream could still be there. Since I stopped racing F1 I’ve had two kids and the best time of my life, but I still have the ambition to drive the best race car that I can.”
Despite the challenge he faced, and his lack of experience and track time, he did a massively effective and professional job at zero notice, and hopes a strong race tomorrow can open up fresh opportunities in the category in which he believed his career largely to be over.
What are the best strategies?
As Pirelli’s supersoft tyre proved around 0.8 seconds faster than the soft, lap times plummeted in practice and qualifying at the Hungaroring. Sebastian Vettel’s pole position time of 1m 16.276s was nearly 3.7 seconds faster than last year’s.
Thermal degradation will of course determine individual pit stop strategies, but the most likely is one or two stops according to Pirelli.