Travelling to the Hungaroring means travelling to the one track that Mercedes has not won yet in the V6 engine era. It’s their personal waterloo, and Ferrari and Red Bull will be hoping to make the most out of their historically shaky performance over there.
Friday didn’t start with Mercedes under pressure. If anything, people were surprised by just how well they were getting along on the twisty circuit. Lewis Hamilton’s best lap was a massive 1.6 seconds quicker than Vettel’s best lap, a gap that’s unexpected even by Mercedes standards. Red Bull, fifth and sixth quickest of FP1, were quick to explain that the other teams just need more time to find a working setup.
McLaren sees Hungary as one of the few tracks where they can compensate for a lack of engine power. Alonso and Button in P7 and P8 showed that a Q3 participation and points are indeed possible for them.
Throughout the field, drivers were busy getting used to the newly surfaced track. The curbs changed and allegedly were very slippery. Additionally, the FIA is now controlling track limits via an electronic device that reports each driver taking too much space on corner exits. Discussions about running wide will probably be part of Sunday’s race – the rule makers threatened that running wide three times would even result in disqualification, which is a bit harsh if you ask me.
FP1 also was the session where two rookies got their chance to get behind the wheel of some expensive machinery: Charles Leclerc, Ferrari junior driver, was in the Haas replacing Gutierrez for the session, and Mercedes protégé and DTM racer Esteban Ocon got to drive the Renault. His performance was sublime again, just like it was when he was on testing duty for the Mercedes works team. Thanks to Max Verstappen proving that young doesn’t equal stupid, his chances of driving next year are not entirely zero.
The second practice session would be the one where long runs are in the focus. Not so for Lewis Hamilton: instead of doing the important prep work for race day, he threw his Mercedes into the barriers four laps into the session, causing a red flag. He actually managed to only break minor parts and drove away cautiously back to the pits, but Mercedes opted to rebuild the car for safety reasons. Hamilton’s ear g-force sensors recorded an impact of up to 12g, but he passed the mandatory medical examination without any issues and didn’t seem too phased about the whole mishap.
Nico Rosberg ended up being the quickest by six tenths, followed by Ricciardo, Vettel and Verstappen. His 45 laps should be plenty to provide data for the strategy and setup department. Even with the gap shrinking, it doesn’t look like Mercedes is as easy to reach as they have been in the past two races. Rain, Safety Cars and the like would certainly help. As for the longruns: Mercedes was still dominant, but Red Bull showed promise and Ferrari, while struggling for pace in the first laps, was constant. It’s not impossible to get a victory against Mercedes here if the strategy is right.
At 2pm local time, rivers and puddles made the circuit barely drivable. Even Bernd Mayländer in the Mercedes AMG GTS Safety Car had trouble keeping it on the grey stuff. Understandably, the FIA delayed the start of Q1. Once it started, everyone made their way onto the track – a second shower was expected, and no one wants to miss that perfect lap when the conditions are the driest.
The first period of driving didn’t last long: more rain made the track borderline undriveable for F1 cars at least. Rain stopped, the green flag was waved but was quickly replaced by another red one: Ericsson stuffed his Sauber into the wall and the track marshals had to rebuild the barriers. The new owners of Sauber F1 will learn pretty quickly that having an F1 team is an expensive affaire.
Once the track was ready again, it was drying out to the point where Intermediate tires seemed viable. One after the other made the switch and set a lap time, with no major surprises in sight. For Massa, the switch came to early – one of the oldest drivers of the grid gave the car too much throttle on acceleration and had to be taken back to the pits in the Medical Car.
When the session was restarted, Wehrlein came close to getting another sensational result but his lap, which according to him would have given him P9 and a spot in Q2, was stricken from the record. Why? The session was red flagged for the fourth time just before he could finish it because his teammate Haryanto crashed. That was it for Q1, and in the end Palmer, Magnussen and Ericsson didn’t make it through, just like the guys that crashed.
In Q2, the weather improved again. In fact the combination of wind, heat and 16 cars on track resulted in every driver using slick tires for the final run. It made things pretty interesting as well: a mistake in the last lap could lead to a driver in a very quick car not making the top 10. Lewis Hamilton came really close to that: he was turning some knobs on the steering wheel and forgot to brake soon enough for turn 1. He ran wide which cost him about three seconds – if he’d lost another tenth, the session would have ended in P11 and with no shot at pole position for him. Lewis’ luck was Grosjean’s misfortune as he was done for the day, together with Kvyat, Perez, Gutierrez and, surprising, Räkkönen.
Q3 approached, and we went from water standing inch-tall on the track to almost bone-dry. That’s the beauty of a wet Qualifying. From the performance we have seen, the pole would be decided by the Mercedes guys and maybe a Red Bull driver on a perfect lap.
The first run on Super Soft tires was won by Hamilton: he was three tenths quicker compared to Rosberg, both Red Bull drivers right behind them. Not all was lost for Nico yet: he’d get two more laps on a new set of tires to try and stop Hamilton from taking a fifth Hungarian GP win.
The first run was not good enough and the order stayed the same. With seconds to spare, a whole train of cars came down the front straight for a final quick run. Hamilton was running between both McLaren and in front of Rosberg, which is an important detail for what happens next: Hamilton has a tremendous first sector, Nico doesn’t, and he’s looking like the man who’s gonna be on P1 tomorrow. Then Alonso spins in front of Lewis and causes a double yellow. Lewis drives by slowly, so does Ricciardo. TV commentators already congratulate driver #44 to another pole. But then the camera switches and shows Rosberg and Vettel still driving in anger. And then Rosberg crosses the line and is the only driver to go sub 1:20. What did we miss?
Well, as Rosberg was further back than Hamilton, by the time he passed the corner in which Alonso spun Alonso actually was already driving back to the pits. Yes, there was a double yellow flag, but for no apparent reason. Nico allegedly slowed down just a bit, saw his chance and set the quickest time of the weekend while Hamilton was cruising home. Dr. Marko of Red Bull was not amused while Toto Wolff defended his driver. At press time, the FIA is still looking into the data to see if Rosberg slowed down enough.
Results of that pending, it’s a Mercedes front row and Ricciardo and Verstappen behind. Vettel in fifth is not to be forgotten as the Ferrari was solid on long runs. This Hungarian Grand Prix could actually be a proper thriller.
Hungaroring Track Guide: