Rosberg will have his work cut out to defeat Hamilton
Last year a large portion of bad luck prevented Mercedes from scooping victory in Hungary - and much to their rivals’ disappointment it looks like the only thing that can prevent them from taking the spoils this year is more of the same.
Over both single laps and longer stints the Silver Arrows have looked mighty, but in a straight fight between the two F1 W06 Hybrids there has only looked like being one winner this weekend: Lewis Hamilton. The reigning world champion - a noted Hungaroring specialist, having won here four times in the past - has shown scintillating speed from the word go, topping every practice session and every segment of qualifying.
Nico Rosberg by contrast has had a much more difficult time of it, with ongoing balance problems leaving him more than half-a-second down on his team mate’s pole position time. Unless the German finds things dramatically improve on Sunday - when the weather is expected to be cooler than in practice or qualifying - then he could struggle to live with Hamilton’s relentless pace in the race.
The glimmer of hope for Rosberg, who might have won here 12 months ago had Hamilton obeyed team orders, is that only three of the last ten races in Budapest have been won by the polesitter. On each occasion, however, it was by none other than Lewis Hamilton…
If Rosberg is beaten, he might want to take solace in another curious statistic: it has been over a decade since a driver won at the Hungaroring and went on to take the championship in the same season…
Nothing to choose between Ferrari, Red Bull and Williams
“Ahh **** that was close,” was Daniel Ricciardo’s typically frank take on the qualifying fight between Red Bull and Ferrari, after missing out on third by just 0.035s. The Australian knew what was at stake: with so little to choose between the two teams, or indeed Williams behind, every tenth, every fraction of track, could be crucial.
Consider the stats: on Saturday afternoon at the Hungaroring, the three teams covered third through to eighth. Alongside Vettel’s margin, Ricciardo had less than a quarter of a second in hand over Kimi Raikkonen; Valtteri Bottas had 0.110s over Daniil Kvyat; and Felipe Massa was just two-tenths of a second further down the road.
Then consider Friday’s long-run data - with the caveat of potential variations in fuel loads, it suggests there was at most around 0.1s per lap between Ferrari, Red Bull and Williams on race simulations. And in contrast to the qualifying order, it was Williams who were fractionally ahead, with Red Bull in the middle and Ferrari next up.
In many ways that is emblematic of the season so far - Bottas, Raikkonen and Massa are covered by just three points in the drivers’ standings for example. With so little to separate the trio of teams on the track this weekend, the delicious prospect of a thrilling multi-car scrap looms large.
Difficulty in overtaking means pit strategy will be crucial
It’s not for nothing that the Hungaroring has been nicknamed ‘Monaco without the barriers’. The 4.381km circuit is not only short; it’s also similarly twisty and narrow, making it one of the hardest circuits on the calendar to overtake on. That’s not to say overtaking is impossible - as Daniel Ricciardo proved on his way to victory here last year - but it does put added emphasis on the teams to be ultra-efficient with both their pit stops and strategy. It’s simple really - spend too long in the pits and you could lose crucial track position.
Analysis from practice and qualifying shows that the soft tyre has a speed advantage of around 1.8s over the medium compound rubber, and it’s for this reason that Pirelli say the best strategy for the 70-lap race is to do a two-stopper, favouring the soft tyres. The ideal scenario would be to start on the softs, take on another set around lap 29, then switch to the mediums just past the 50-lap mark.
A driver stuck in traffic might try a three-stop strategy in order to gain track position - but again, they’re only likely to be able to make this work if they have enough of a speed advantage to overtake. As ever in Hungary, the best place to attempt a pass is into the iconic Turn 1, which comes at the end of the circuit’s longest DRS zone. A lunge up the inside is not for the faint-hearted however…
Force India looking for points to complete bounce back weekend
Having set encouraging pace in their recently-introduced ‘B-spec’ car during the opening segment of FP1, Force India’s weekend was turned literally on its head when a suspension failure pitched Sergio Perez into a gnarly barrel roll. The team took the sensible decision to sit both cars out of FP2 as they worked to understand what had caused the issue, but in doing so they missed 90 minutes of action in which all of their rivals were busily doing tyre analysis and set-up work for Sunday’s race.
Perez and team mate Nico Hulkenberg did their best to make up for that deficit in FP3, logging 55 crucial laps in their newly configured cars, but there is no doubt that they were still on the back foot entering qualifying, and as a result 11th and 13th on the grid were far from disastrous grid slots to secure. In fact, they give Hulkenberg and Perez the perfect platform from which to challenge for points.
A top ten finish for either driver would not only be hard-earned, but just reward for the efforts of the team this weekend, particularly in rebuilding Perez’s heavily damaged car.
Once again, the pressure is on at McLaren
The story of McLaren struggling for form has, by now, become well-told. But there were reasons why Hungary was supposed to be different.
For starters, they had anticipated difficulties in Canada, Austria and to a lesser extent Great Britain, on circuits where engine power and delivery is paramount. But the Hungaroring, a tight, twisty venue more akin to Monaco, was seen as a chance to overcome some of the power unit deficiencies, and benefit from what the team believe is a fundamentally quick chassis.
Then there is the fact Honda brought new - albeit not upgraded - power units for the weekend. And that, with the summer break looming, this offered a final chance of reprieve against an otherwise crushingly underwhelming start to the renewed McLaren-Honda partnership.
Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso’s failure to qualify higher than 15th - and the emergence of technical gremlins for both - was therefore all the more painful. Sunday is a final chance to find encouragement and rework some of the negative headlines before the summer - and one the team will be determined to take.
Drivers wanting to go out on a high
Formula One racing’s mandated summer break offers teams and drivers a deserved chance to relax and unwind. But it can also be a four-week period of dwelling on mistakes and regrets, particularly for those in need of a big result or two. Finishing on a high in Hungary is key to avoid such lingering doubts.
“After this race, we have our summer break, but I’m not really looking forward to it: I’d prefer to have another three races in the three weeks off,” was Max Verstappen’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek assessment of the hiatus. But there is a truth in his words that underpins how teams and drivers approach Sunday’s race: everyone will be looking to finish, and finish well, to gain a sense of confidence for the second half of the year.