Will Rosberg’s ‘lucky’ pole prove decisive?
The manner in which Lewis Hamilton lost his chance of pole position - when he encountered Fernando Alonso in a spin in his McLaren at the top of the hill - and Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg’s subsequent faster lap when it was clear he had driven by waved yellows while setting the fastest sector two time, prompted many cynics to suggest that Rosberg had ‘lucked out’ - and the stewards to investigate.
Hamilton’s frustrated lap was already four-tenths quicker in the first sector alone than Rosberg’s comparable time for that sector on his subsequent pole-winning lap of 1m 19.965s, but the world champion was left to ponder what might have been.
“For sure there were double waved yellows, yeah, but I had a very, very big lift and lost a lot of time as a result and I was also slower than on my previous lap in that yellow sector, or in that yellow segment, or whatever it’s called, so I’m sure it will be okay,” Rosberg said.
Others in the paddock, Red Bull’s Christian Horner among them, voiced scepticism on this prior to the stewards’ enquiry, but ultimately - and most importantly - the officials came down on Rosberg’s side.
In the end, it may all be academic. Overtaking is perfectly possible at the Hungaroring - indeed Jenson Button famously won from 14th on the grid 10 years ago - and only 13 of the 30 Grands Prix here to date have been won from pole.
Will it be another intra-Mercedes race?
It may sound impossible, given their domination, but Mercedes have not won this race during the turbo-hybrid era, though Lewis Hamilton did win the 2013 event for the three-pointed star.
Both drivers were asked after qualifying whether they are allowed to race, or whether one might get the order to hold station. Their replies should gladden everyone’s hearts.
“For sure we can expect a good battle and free racing,” Rosberg said.
“We’re supposed to race, same as always,” Hamilton said.
The more apposite question might be whether they will be racing for the win or just for points, however, as both Red Bull and Ferrari made up ground since Friday that they had not been expected - or expecting - to regain…
Can Red Bull really take the fight to Mercedes?
On Friday Mercedes looked so dominant that even Daniel Ricciardo appeared to have conceded that Red Bull’s pre-event hope of taking the fight to them was a vain one. He described the 0.595s deficit as genuine and said he didn’t expect it to be reduced, and it certainly seemed that way.
But come qualifying, and Ricciardo managed 1m 20.280s for third fastest time, and Max Verstappen was fourth on 1m 20.557s. That improvement was impressive enough, but circumstances deprived both drivers of their real chance. Ricciardo had to abort his final lap because of Fernando Alonso’s spin, and Verstappen didn’t get to the line in time to get a final attempt.
“Daniel was three and a half tenths up which would have been pretty handy,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said,” and unfortunately Max mistimed things. We were telling him ‘Come on, you need to get on with it,’ and I think he was trying to build a gap so he missed it by 0.8s. It was a shame, on his in-lap he was half a second up as well.
“But the second row is a great place to be starting both cars.”
Red Bull’s performance was so strong - and so unexpected after Friday - that Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted he was relieved to have both of his cars ahead of them, especially as Mercedes had looked shaky at times early on.
"First of all we were nearly out in Q1, then nearly out in Q2, so to then finish P1 and P2 is very good,” he said. "There's more you can do wrong than right, so I'm happy how it ended up. And looking at Ricciardo's pace, he could have been on pole.”
There is a chance of showers in the region tomorrow afternoon, but the latest forecasts suggest they will miss the Hungaroring. Nevertheless, both Red Bull and Mercedes expect the Milton Keynes cars to be very strong in the race.
“Do I think we can fight for the win? That’s the plan,” said Ricciardo. “We’ve more or less fought for it the last two years and I think we’re even closer this year than we have been in the past, in terms of pure pace. We’re getting stronger and we were close today, and in all conditions we weren’t too far off pole. Tomorrow should be interesting. As always the Mercs have had good long-run pace, but we’ll be there and obviously we start close enough to the front to make a fight of it. So hopefully it’s an exciting race.”
Will Ferrari be in win contention too?
Ferrari have an engine that isn’t far off Mercedes’, but recent events have highlighted the SF16-H’s shortcomings in low-speed corners and the overall downforce stakes. But the car is kind to its tyres and its long-run pace is comparable to Red Bull’s and likely superior in the degradation stakes.
"We had to come in a couple of times and re-programme the car, so we lost a bit of the rhythm," Vettel said on Friday. "But the car felt fine and we can improve the set-up and find a better balance.”
They did just that for Saturday, and the German said he could have been ahead of the Red Bulls in qualifying had he not come across Jenson Button going slowly.
“I don’t think it’s fair, we had a yellow at the end and I don’t know why Jenson didn’t move out of the way, so I couldn’t close the lap and lost a lot of time,” he said. “I think he was sleeping. I think he didn’t expect anyone to keep going after the yellow flags, so after that he backed off, I guess, and came back to the pits. But going into Turn 12 he didn’t move and by Turn 13 he realised and did move but by then, yeah, I’d already lost quite a lot of time.”
Tellingly, Vettel thought he was on a lap similar to the one which won Rosberg the pole…
“We did some changes after FP3,” he revealed, “and I think they worked. The car was really coming alive, but we couldn’t show that.”
Of his race chances, he added: “I think we have the pace to compete for the podium. Hopefully we'll have a good start then we'll go from there. It's a long race, anything can happen here. Other than that, I think that on race pace usually we are quicker. Usually all the people decide to do the fastest strategy possible, but there's always something you can do. If the occasion comes up to do something smart I know we have the people on board to do it, so I trust them.”
Can McLaren score big?
McLaren have looked very strong here all weekend, and seven and eighth places on the grid are a sign of the progress that the team are making. It was the best result in their renewed alliance with the revitalised Honda, and the first time since Brazil in 2014 when they have got both cars through to Q3.
“Both McLarens are in the top 10 in qualifying for the first time in a long time, so it’s definitely a step forward for us again this weekend and I’m happy with the direction and progression the team is heading in,” Fernando Alonso said. “We now need to finish the job tomorrow, hopefully with some points.”
Jenson Button was also happy. “The car was working well today in the mixed conditions. You always enjoy it when you’ve got to think on your feet and it’s different every lap - I think Fernando and I are both very good at that.
“It’s pretty good to have both cars in the top 10 but as soon as you do that, that’s not enough and you want more. We’re in front of all the cars we should be racing which is good, but the others in front are too fast for us.
“I really don’t know what to expect tomorrow - but I’m looking forward to it anyway!”
Will track limits be an issue?
Track limit violations have been a major discussion point in recent races, and the FIA are determined to stamp them out.
Race director Charlie Whiting issued a note to all the teams on Saturday informing them that the FIA will adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach where Turns 4 and 11 are concerned. Timing loops in the kerbs will register and measure whenever a car is more than 20 cm beyond the white lines. In qualifying, the poor weather meant this wasn’t an issue, but could the race be a different story?
Drivers will each be permitted three indiscretions, after which a black and white warning flag will be shown. A fourth transgression may result in a drive-through penalty. If, however, the FIA are satisfied that a driver left the track at these points for reasons beyond their control, such as being forced off, such incidents would not count against them.
“You can see the white line and I’m sure it will be fine,” polesitter Nico Rosberg said of the new electronic monitoring system.
Lewis Hamilton said he didn’t think it was going to be a problem: “It’s relatively easy, you just don’t go through as fast as you would if you could go wider.”
And Daniel Ricciardo said it was just a matter of being disciplined in your driving: “That’s all it is really. It’s good that they are applying it. I think three times is definitely enough. Some people try to say ‘What if this happens? Or in this scenario…’ Three times is enough and that’s that. We can see it. It’s not like, as Lewis said, we can’t see the kerb, we can see the track limit. So, just be disciplined, be sensible and not too greedy.”