What to watch for as the F1 battle for Budapest heats up this weekend.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU
The F1 traveling roadshow rolls on to Budapest this weekend, with the Hungarian Grand Prix the first leg of yet another back-to-back with Germany that will see the weary teams, drivers and small armies of personnel to their mid-season break. And with the championship lead poised to change hands for the first time all year, inter-team rivalries hotting up and Mercedes looking to conquer its bogey track, there’s plenty of talking points ahead of round 11 of the season.
1. Can Hamilton make his point?
Two more points than Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg will do, as that’s all reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton needs to snare the series lead for the first time this year after the German dominated the opening part of the season. The Briton comes to Budapest with four wins in the past five races, and if he salutes on Sunday, he’ll become the most successful driver in the history of the Hungarian Grand Prix with five victories. Hamilton’s first win for Mercedes – when victories for the Silver Arrows were rare – came in Budapest in 2013, but he’s had two scruffy races at the Hungaroring since, an engine fire in qualifying and a row over team orders with Rosberg seeing him finish third in 2014, and he was sixth last year after an off on the opening lap. Hamilton’s momentum appears irresistible, and you can’t help but wonder if Rosberg will lead the championship again this season if he’s beaten by his teammate on Sunday.
2. Seeing Red?
Hamilton will be desperate to finish in front of Rosberg, but will he finish ahead of everyone else? Recent history suggests it will be tough – remarkably, given their domination everywhere else, the Hungaroring is the only circuit where Mercedes hasn’t won since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era, Daniel Ricciardo winning for Red Bull in 2014, and Sebastian Vettel taking victory for Ferrari 12 months ago. While Max Verstappen won in Spain and Ricciardo could have won in Barcelona (and absolutely should have in Monaco), Hungary was the race Red Bull would have surely circled at the start of the season, its lack of anything resembling a long straight and seemingly endless succession of medium-speed corners playing right into the hands of the RB12. And Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff knows it. “We will need to be flawless to come out on top at this track,” he said earlier this week. “We face a very different challenge – this circuit has not been kind to us over the past two years, and it plays to the strengths of our rivals. The Red Bull is a car that functions well where high drag isn’t penalised as much as at other types of circuit.”
Against the backdrop of the inter-term rivalry that’s bubbling at Red Bull, the Ricciardo v Verstappen fight this weekend could well be for the biggest prize on offer. Verstappen has scored 77 points to Ricciardo’s 64 and taken three podiums to one in the six races they’ve been teammates, but the Australian is dynamite in Budapest, backing up his victory there two years ago with third last season.
3. Remember me?
Carlos Sainz has been the ‘other’ guy in Red Bull’s quartet of drivers this year, going about his business as former Toro Rosso teammate Verstappen was promoted to the senior team, Ricciardo was taking a mesmerising pole at Monaco, and Daniil Kvyat was demoted back to the company’s ‘B’ team after a calamitous race in Russia. But the Spaniard has shone of late, scoring points in five of the past six races, and fighting the good fight with a chassis propelled by a year-old Ferrari power plant that’s starting to look a little breathless – at the last race at Silverstone, the Toro Rosso was slower than only the Renault and the Honda-powered McLaren through the speed trap, but the Spaniard still managed to make Q3 and raced to eighth 24 hours later. Sitting 12th in the championship isn’t going to win Sainz too many headlines, but he’s doing a very strong job.
4. Stopping to go faster?
It’s the question teams wrestle with in the season ahead of a major regulatory change – how much time and money do you spend on developing a car that’s soon to become obsolete? With less than half of the season remaining and the new-for-2017 rules approaching at the speed of a Mercedes – rules that mandate wider cars with wider tyres, a shorter rear wing and, perhaps, some form of cockpit head protection – is it worth chasing performance and allocating resources to climb a spot or two in the constructors’ race, or is it better to think solely of next season?
Ferrari came into the season confident of challenging Mercedes but are now looking over their shoulders for second in the constructors’ race, the Prancing Horse now just six points ahead of the stampeding Red Bulls. Short of Vettel reprising his Budapest brilliance from last year, will the week after Hungary see a change of focus at Maranello?
Further down the grid, Force India is grappling with balancing an unforeseen opportunity to chase a best-ever constructors’ result with the harsh realities of development and expense for next season. The Indian-owned British-based squad is only 19 points behind fourth-placed Williams with 11 races to go and has superior momentum, but the upgrade introduced for the Spanish Grand Prix, which featured a new front wing, floor and sidepods, will be the team’s last.
“If I said we wanted to continue development during 2016 just to beat Williams, then I might compromise myself in 2017,” team principal Vijay Mallya said.
“2017 is a big opportunity for us to be really competitive, and I don’t want to lose that opportunity; 100 per cent of our resources are on ’17. There will be no more development on this year’s car.”
5. F1’s changing face
Hungary represented a seismic shift for F1 when the sport went behind what was the ‘Iron Curtain’ in 1986, but times have changed, and fast. Thirty years on from that first race (which featured one of the best overtakes in F1 history when Nelson Piquet put some manners on Ayrton Senna), the Hungaroring has become just the 10th track in F1 history to host 30 races, and only six circuits on this year’s calendar have held more Grands Prix.
The global imprint of F1 may have expanded, but genuine passing opportunities at the sinuous circuit remain slim. One statistical nugget to consider when watching this weekend unfold: just two of the 30 races in Hungary have been won from outside the first two rows on the grid, making qualifying more important than usual – and Red Bull’s chances of Sunday success hinging very much on what it can do on Saturday. Q3 will be very, very tense.