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Hungary preview - can Red Bull seize the initiative?

21 Jul 2016

The notional midpoint of the 21-race 2016 season, this weekend’s Grand Prix in Hungary has all the ingredients of a humdinger, with Red Bull going all out to beat Mercedes in a straight fight, the Silver Arrows believing they need a “flawless” weekend if they are to take victory, Ferrari on their back foot and desperate to win as they did last year, and the chance of the weather playing a key role if predicted showers fall in the race.

A big chance for Red Bull

Daniel Ricciardo is adamant that he doesn’t believe in luck, but Budapest is Red Bull’s best chance since Monaco of beating Mercedes and the Australian is ready to go all-out to be the one to snatch the honours after weeks of being upstaged by upstart new team mate Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won on his debut with the team in Spain, and though he crashed three times in Monaco he bounced back to become the team’s more successful driver in recent races.

Ricciardo, meanwhile, has struggled to match his partner’s pace and was out-qualified by him for the first time at Silverstone before losing crucial time in the race under the early Virtual Safety Car following Pascal Wehrlein’s departure. He finished only fourth, as Verstappen took second behind Lewis Hamilton after Nico Rosberg’s penalty dropped him a place.

“I would say things haven’t really gone in my favour of late,” Ricciardo says,” but I don’t believe in luck. Hopefully, coming to Budapest we can have a better one.”

After their strong performance on a super-quick track such as Silverstone, Red Bull firmly believe they have turned a corner, and expect to be very fast on a maximum-downforce track this weekend, which should suit the RB12 down to the ground. Ricciardo would like nothing better than to repeat his triumph here two years ago, and get the win that eluded him through no fault of his own in Monaco.

"Daniel is dealing with it very well," team boss Christian Horner says of the Australian’s recent ill fortune. "He's going to have a couple of Sundays come up where everything will fall his way, I'm sure. It's swings and roundabouts. He’s a class driver, and has demonstrated already this year that he is at the top of his game.”

Horner also stresses that confidence within the team is growing, because everyone can see that the RB12 is improving. A win here would be another huge boost.

Mercedes need a “flawless” weekend

Underscoring Red Bull’s confidence ahead of this race, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says that the Silver Arrows need a perfect weekend in order to win at the Hungaroring, something they have failed to do thus far in the turbo-hybrid formula, though Lewis Hamilton did take the 2013 race.

“This circuit has not been kind to us over the past two years and it plays to the strengths of our rivals,” Wolff says. “The Red Bull, for example, is a car that functions well where high drag isn't penalised as much as at other types of circuit. So, in wet conditions and at low-speed circuits such as the Hungaroring, they are a major threat. We will need to be flawless to come out on top at this track.”

Hamilton, however, says he is still buzzing after winning on his home turf, “and looking forward to carrying those positive vibes into the next race weekend. Ever since the low of Barcelona I've been able to cultivate this really strong mental attitude and I'm really feeling that fire inside me right now.

“Of course, I have good days and bad days, like everyone else. But whatever the case, I'm able to turn negatives into positives when it counts. I'm feeling fresh, feeling powerful and feeling confident heading to Hungary. It's a track that for some reason has always suited my style and I have incredible support there, so I can't wait to get to out on track. The past couple of years I haven't had the smoothest weekends in Budapest, of course. But I know I've got the pace, so I'm gunning to turn that around this time.”

Nico Rosberg, now just a point ahead of his team mate where once he had a 43-point advantage, says after his Silverstone penalty: “It was disappointing to lose a hard-fought and deserved second position in such a way - but we have accepted the decision and now I have to look forward with positivity. I am leading the world championship coming up to the halfway point of the season and there's still a long way to go. The battle is on with Lewis and I'm feeling great in myself and great in the car, so bring it on!”

It's worth noting, by the way, that the Hungarian Grand Prix is the only race Mercedes haven't won in the turbo-hybrid era.

Ferrari facing the acid test

This will be a crucial race for Ferrari, who need a great result on a track that should suit them better than Silverstone did, and where they won last year.

In the week since the British Grand Prix, in which Kimi Raikkonen was fifth and Sebastian Vettel a distant ninth, president Sergio Marchionne has been flexing his muscles and making his presence felt during an intensive fact-finding visit to Maranello. Rumours even spread that an approach had been made to former technical director Ross Brawn, such is the mounting frustration within the camp as they fall further behind Mercedes - and Red Bull - despite a recent raft of upgrades.

Marchionne’s fact-finding trip was designed to give him a genuine understanding of where the SF16-H really is, and what potential remains untapped.

“After Hungary we cannot fool around anymore," says team principal Maurizio Arrivabene. "After that, we will understand what chances there are and where we are - and I believe that we cannot fail.

"Earlier in the season we had some problems related to certain components of the power unit, and these were sorted to the point that today our strong point is the engine. Now we need to work on reliability and other areas such as the aerodynamics."

Though he said he welcomes Red Bull’s recent surge in performance, which saw the Milton Keynes team draw within six points at Silverstone, he added, “I still think that our goal is to counter the Mercedes and not Red Bull. If we said that we give up, it would be wrong. We need to be focused to solve problems, and to do so in tough times.

"At this stage of the season, you cannot have revolutionary solutions. Silverstone highlighted problems that are not only related to that track, but which had already emerged in Barcelona and in Baku.”

Failure here could have dramatic consequences.

WATCH: Your guide to the Hungaroring

Force India gunning for Williams

After a series of strong results has brought them to within 19 points of Williams, Force India are adamant that they can challenge the Grove team for fourth place overall behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

The Silverstone-based squad made a relatively slow start to the year, but where Williams have scored only 27 points since Monaco, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg have amassed 59, and Perez lost a chunk with his late brake failure in Austria.

“I’m very proud of our performance at Silverstone,” says team owner Vijay Mallya. “14 points represents our best ever score from a British Grand Prix and it means we are closing down the gap to fourth place in the championship. I take real encouragement from our pace across the whole weekend, especially during the race. With half the season to go, there’s no reason why we can’t score good points at every race. If we want to fight for fourth, that’s what we need to do.

“Budapest last year was a pretty challenging weekend for the team and a race we prefer to forget. So things can only get better this year. The twisty layout of the Hungaroring is the complete opposite of Silverstone so it will be interesting to see how we perform there. We’ve worked hard to improve the car through low- and medium-speed corners, so I think we should be in good shape.”

The last big update to the VJM09 came in Spain in the form of a new front wing, floor and sidepods, but though there are still a few pieces of that upgrade still in production which will duly come on stream, to all intents and purposes the team have ceased development of the 2016 car and started on the VJM10 for 2017.

Mallya, nevertheless, remains confident his team can keep pushing and scoring.

"I've said our objective is to secure fourth in the championship, and we are now only 19 behind Williams with 11 more races to go. So generally I'm feeling optimistic."

A superfast weekend?

Observers believe that the complete resurfacing of the Hungaroring ahead of this season’s race, allied to easing of some of the kerbs and smoothing of bumps, could lead to record speeds this year.

The new asphalt is very grippy, and lap times at the World Touring Car Championship event here earlier this year were nearly three seconds faster. Rubens Barrichello set the fastest-ever lap here at 1m 18.436s in the first qualifying session in 2004, before team mate Michael Schumacher put his Ferrari on pole with 1m 19.146s. Hamilton’s pole time last year was 1m 22.020s, but the 2016 cars and tyres alone are a lot quicker in themselves. For instance, Hamilton’s pole time in Silverstone recently was 2.9s faster than his 2015 figure, 1m 29.287s against 1m 32.248s. Add in the stickier new track surface…

Pirelli have brought their medium, soft and supersoft tyres, which were last used in Baku. With only a single straight, the Hungaroring keeps the rubber working. The traction, braking and lateral energy demands are all roughly equal, but the high track temperatures make thermal degradation a significant factor.

“Hungary provides a very different type of challenge to what we’ve seen at Silverstone, but some of the teams used the recent Silverstone test to try out a few ideas that could be relevant to the Hungaroring, so it will be interesting to see what effect this has,” says motorsport director Paul Hembery. “The track has been completely resurfaced, and we saw in Austria that this had quite a profound influence as well: we will need to see if this is case in Hungary too, so free practice will be very important.”

Last year’s race was notable for a number of incidents and safety-car deployments which influenced strategy. Winner Sebastian Vettel stopped twice: starting on softs, completing a middle stint again on similar rubber, and finishing on mediums. Nico Rosberg should have finished second with a one-stopper, starting on softs and switching to mediums, but lost time right near the end following contact with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull.

Interestingly, while Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull have all gone for one set of mediums per driver this weekend, the respective selections for soft and supersoft tyres differ, and are respectively: four and eight; three and nine; five and seven; and five and seven.

Storms brewing?

The other significant factor that could come into play this weekend is the weather.

The forecast is for high humidity and ambient temperatures. It will be sunny with 29 degrees Celsius for practice on Friday, 30 degrees with possible thunderstorms in the region on qualifying Saturday, and 30 degrees with possible showers on race day.

Sunday’s action begins at 1400 hours local time (two hours ahead of GMT) will be run over 70 laps or 306.630 kilometres (190.553 miles).