The expected challenge to the front-runners from Red Bull simply didn’t materialise at the Hungaroring.
Mercedes cannot be caught
Their car should have had a shot on a circuit where sheer power is negated, as they did at Monaco. They were blown away, six-tenths off on Friday and although Max Verstappen put his car within two-thousandths in final practice, come the race, whenever Mercedes needed more, both their cars had it in the bag.
“They were obviously cruising very conservatively,” said Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner. “We saw their true pace when they could match Daniel’s pace, and go quicker, on a worn tyre compared to him on a new tyre.” By the end both Mercedes had more than 25 seconds on the Red Bulls. Renault are not expected to update their engine again in 2017, which means more power will not be forthcoming for Red Bull. Ferrari have more power but lack the chassis to bridge the gap to the front. The Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, is taking nothing for granted but said: “We are looking good for the end of the season as most of the teams have switched off 2016 development and are looking to 2017.” The next round is likely only to make more obvious the fact that catching Mercedes is now beyond the opposition. Last time the V6 turbo hybrids were at Hockenheim, Nico Rosberg won by nearly 21 seconds.
Time to rip up the rule book
The arcane and convoluted rules of Formula One used to be mainly of concern to designers and engine manufacturers. Now they are news at nearly every race, and in the face of fans who are required to grasp the intricacies of why penalties are being applied or positions dropped. It is a distraction from the racing and hugely off-putting for casual viewers who have tuned in to watch a race and instead are trying to work out why Jenson Button was given a drive-through for communication about a brake problem with his pit crew.
An exasperated Button said “It’s a joke really. Stopping an incident should be praised, not penalised. The sport’s got a long way to go before it’s good again.” He was not alone. “It’s a joke with the rules,” said Kimi Raikkonen of Saturday’s panic, when the rule on setting a time within 107% in qualifying had to be effectively ignored to prevent five cars, including Ricciardo and Verstappen, being sent to the back of the grid. The obvious demands from many drivers to have the double waved-yellow flag rule clarified and made explicit in terms of how much they should slow was the clearest example. “You need to keep it simple, such that a casual viewer can tune in and pick up what’s going on without over-regulating,” Horner said. He is absolutely spot-on.
More Max and Kimi required
With the Mercedes coasting to the win by managing their tyres and engines it was down to the pack to offer some thrills at the Hungaroring so good for Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen for making a race of it. When Verstappen came out behind Raikkonen after his first stop, he was on fresh rubber and the scene was set for the battle of Spain to be rerun in reverse. And it surely was with the car in front winning again – this time Raikkonen using all his skill to defend the place on older tyres. When they came together at the end of the race it was reversed again and this time Verstappen held off the charging Raikkonen. This was great stuff and while some of the Dutchman’s moves did look on the very limit of what was legal in terms of moving across the line twice, the stewards did not intervene and chose not to investigate.
Raikkonen’s swearing filled the airwaves – now it seems that both Ferrari’s have had a bleep button installed – and afterwards he was not happy. “I tried to miss him and I just managed to but there were two times that in my feelings it wasn’t correct,” he said. Verstappen, who is not afraid of verbal sparring, relied succinctly. “As a driver you always try to find excuses,” he said. This is a battle that simply cannot resume soon enough.
Max must also face resurgent Ricciardo
The young Verstappen must also keep one eye on his team-mate. The Dutchman’s career at Red Bull has been remarkable – one win three and podiums in seven races – and that in combination with his tender years, he is still only 18, has rather overshadowed Red Bull’s other driver, Daniel Ricciardo. In Hungary the Australian made sure everyone knew he was not going to be overshadowed, or out-raced, by the youngster. First he did what he had to and outgunned him in qualifying and then his drive on Sunday was superlative, wresting as much from the Red Bull as was possible and daring even to put the wind up Mercedes at one point. He finished 21 seconds clear of his team-mate, who admittedly had to defend against Raikkonen for the latter part of the race, but Ricciardo would have been well clear regardless. He, like Hamilton, has a knack for the Hungaroring, his win there in 2014 has now been followed by two podium finishes. He now needs to reassert himself at a more typical track. Verstappen had the advantage at both Austria and Silverstone, but Hockenheim will do perfectly for Ricciardo. In the meantime he was adamant he is not threatened by the young man across the garage. “The only things I’m scared of are sharks and snakes,” he said at the weekend.
Jenson backs Fernando
By the recent standards of Hungarian Grands Prix, Sunday’s fare was fairly pedestrian, especially at the front. Hamilton – and Mercedes – blamed his lack of pace on exceptionally careful tyre management. The jury remains out on whether he was really trying to back Rosberg into Ricciardo. After all it is highly unusual for a team to have to threaten a driver to make him speed up. As Niki Lauda noted wryly, “Lewis went quicker after we suggested that Nico would come in first. Maybe he was a little tired and then he woke up.” That Hamilton immediately found around six-tenths a lap on his way to taking the championship lead makes the plot thicken. For now Rosberg, Hamilton and Wolff are all singing from the same song book – tyre management was the issue.
Regardless of which, it is no great advert for the sport not to see the cars pushing and racing flat-out. Tyre management, fuel consumption and power management are the culprits, as it has long been known. Fernando Alonso aired his unhappiness in the week before the race. Now Alonso likes a moan but Button was unequivocal that his team-mate was right. “You do feel you can’t push, even in qualifying,” he said before the race. “Physically the cars are not tough enough and you are saving a lot of fuel still.” The current formula simply wasn’t Formula One but maybe next year would be, he argued. “F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, it is supposed to be high-tech, high downforce, high power and it should be physically demanding as well, and it’s none of those things. So, yes, we do need regulation changes and I think 2017’s are in the right direction.” Let’s hope so. In the meantime McLaren have probably taken this year’s MP4-31 as far as it will go. Button’s travails aside, it looks like the package is now a solid top-10 finisher, although still way off the top three. Alonso showed how consistent it can be with the following results in Hungary: FP1: 7th. FP2: 7th. FP3: 7th. Qualifying: 7th. Race: 7th.
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