Race Report: The Hungarian Grand Prix

August 1, 2010

Red Bull’s utter dominance in qualifying, at a track where overtaking is a rarity, suggested today’s Hungarian Grand Prix would be a tedious affair. While the chequered flag fell to a Red Bull, the race was anything but predictable, raising many talking points as Formula 1 enters its summer break.

After Ferrari’s actions at Hockenheim prompted a week of debate on team-orders, qualifying in Hungary saw action on track return to the limelight. While Red Bull have been nothing short of dominant in qualifying in this season, their performance in Hungary saw their hegemony emphatically reasserted. Locking out the front row with ease, the leading Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel qualified 1.2 seconds clear of third-placed Alonso’s Ferrari, with the red cars comfortably ahead of championship leader Hamilton, who would start from fifth. The 2008 champion had reported vibrations in the car during his reconnaisance lap, but following a check by his team, started the race without further action.

The notorious difference in grip between the clean and dirty sides of the Hungaroring grid led to a shuffling of the order at the start, with Alonso leapfrogging Webber into second. Hamilton encounted Webber coming into the first corner and, backing off harder than necessary, was passed by Petrov’s Renault. Hamilton was able to retake fifth from the overly-cautious Russian on the second lap, after which the order until the first pit-stops was established: Vettel in the lead, pulling away from the pursuing group of Alonso, Webber, Massa and Hamilton.

The race took an unexpected turn when, as the first cars began to pit for tyres, the safety car was deployed to clear a front-wing endplate which had fallen from Liuzzi’s car. The result was an incident-strewn dash to the pits, in which Sutil’s Force India collided with the Renault of Robert Kubica while a wheel which had worked itself free from Rosberg’s Mercedes ricocheted through the pitlane. Remarkably, no-one was seriously injured.

The first round of pitstops shook up the order at the front. Webber now led, but was yet to pit. Vettel and Alonso followed, but Hamilton took fouth from Massa after the Brazilian had to queue behind his teammate in the pits. The most significant effect of the safety car was not immediately obvious: as the safety car drove around the final corners before coming into the pits, closely followed by Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel – whose attention had wandered, and whose failed radio had left him unaware the safety car was returning to the pits – lagged far behind.

With Vettel holding Alonso, and Massa unable to challenge Hamilton, the only question seemed to be where Webber would emerge after his pitstop. Webber, who – unlike second placed Vettel – needed to push as hard as possible, started to open up a sizeable gap between himself and the rest of the field, aiming to build a sufficient cushion between himself and the pursuing pack that he could reemerge in first or second.

At this point, Vettel was radioed by his team with the news that he was being investigated by the race stewards for his behaviour under the safety car, and that he should pull out a gap from Alonso in case of a penalty. Regulations state that, during a safety car period, a driver must remain within ten car-lengths of the car in front, and Vettel had fallen much further than that behind Webber. He was soon notified he would have to serve a drive-through penalty. Just how much performance the German had in reserve became obvious: as soon as his team gave him the call to speed up, Vettel pulled out seven tenths a lap over the Spaniard.

As Webber continued to pull out a lead, pushing his option tyres further than anyone had during the weekend, Hamilton parked his car at the side of the circuit. The vibrations he had felt on the way to the grid had returned, only this time the effect was fatal. A gearbox failure cost him a good chance at a podium finish.

Eventually, both Red Bulls came into the pits, Webber to change tyres, Vettel to serve his penalty. Webber’s strategic ad-libbing had paid off, as he rejoined comfortably ahead of Alonso, but Vettel dropped to third. While he gave chase to Alonso for the remainder of the race, maintaining a distance of under two seconds to the Ferrari, passing proved impossible, and the race finished in that order: Webber from Alonso, Vettel and Massa.

The frontrunning teams were followed home by three drivers who put in season-best performances: Petrov continued the strong form he’d shown all weekend to take an important fifth, Hulkenberg drove well to finish sixth, while De La Rosa scored his first points of the season in seventh. Eigth for Button concluded a dismal weekend for McLaren, while Kobayashi’s remarkable charge through the field meant he finished ninth after starting from the back row.

The biggest story of the weekend, however, was provided by Barrichello and Schumacher’s battle for 10th place in the closing stages of the race. The German led the Brazilian, but Barrichello’s had the benefit of a fresh pair of tyres after gambling on a long first stint. Barrichello made a series of failed overtaking manoeuvres on the more powerful Mercedes before finally getting a run on Schumacher into the start/finish straight.

As Barrichello drew alongside Schumacher, the German moved right, forcing the Williams driver within inches of the pitwall at speeds nearing 200mph. In a radio message to his pitwall, Barrichello described the incident as “horrendous”, calling for Schumacher to be black-flagged. The seven-time world champion was investigated by the stewards after the race, and will suffer a ten place grid penalty at the Belgian Grand Prix in four weeks’ time.

For the first time at the back of the grid, all three of the new teams recorded double finishes, despite the race’s high attrition rate. As the circus packs up for its summer break, Red Bull now lead both championships, and the top five drivers are separated by 20 points – less than a race win. With seven races to go, the result of the 2010 championship remains anybody’s guess.

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