Tires, Vettel pursuit in spotlight

The pressure will be on tire manufacturer Pirelli as much as
those trying to catch Formula One leader Sebastian Vettel at this
weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

While Vettel’s rivals try to stop him from extending his lead
before the season heads into its mid-season break, Pirelli hopes
its much-lamented tires withstand the meltingly hot temperatures
expected Sunday outside Budapest.

Last week, the teams held in-season testing sessions at
Silverstone to assess new tires provided by Pirelli, after several
spectacular blowouts on the same circuit at the British Grand Prix
in June prompted a furious response and even a boycott threat from
drivers.

“We haven’t asked for different tires, we have asked for tires
that are safe,” three-time defending champion Vettel said. “It’s
hard to know what to expect here.”

Under intense pressure, and following its own investigation,
Pirelli decided that from this race until the end of the season, it
will revert to last year’s tires combined with the current
compounds from this season.

Even before Silverstone, there were repeated problems — with
the Spanish GP in May turning into a pit-stop procession as tires
shredded like paper. At Silverstone, they exploded on four cars,
including those of Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. Drivers then
threatened to withdraw from the German Grand Prix if there more
blowouts occurred during the race.

Vettel won that race to open up a 34-point lead over two-time
champion Fernando Alonso — who has not won since his 32nd career
GP in front of his home fans in Barcelona. In the four races since,
he has managed two podiums, fourth and seventh place, as Ferrari
searches for consistency.

“The second half of the season will be extremely tough, lots of
races in only a few weeks,” Vettel said. “With the points system we
have, obviously it’s a very good position we are in at the
moment.”

If all goes to plan, drivers will have to focus only on racing
this weekend after efforts by Pirelli and FIA to appease tensions
led to in-season testing on July 17-19 at Silverstone.

The testing was open to all drivers except Hamilton and Nico
Rosberg because Mercedes was excluded as a punishment for holding
unsanctioned tire tests after the Spanish GP. Pirelli will provide
medium and soft tires for the Hungaroring.

“It would definitely help if we were there,” Hamilton said.
“(To) have an understanding of how to set the car up with the new
tires and see what characteristics they have, and how they behave
on long runs.”

Mercedes has excelled in qualifying — starting five of the last
six races from pole position — but lacks speed over a whole race.
Rosberg has two GP wins, both from the front of the grid, while
Hamilton has none.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to continue our race pace,”
Hamilton said. “It’s going to be tough this weekend.”

Lotus, one of the teams that had the least amount of trouble
with tire degradation, did not test the Pirellis at Silverstone,
choosing instead to let their young drivers test race.

“It was better for the team,” Raikkonen said.

Vettel does not read too much into the Silverstone testing,
either.

“The test last week was very limited with what we could do with
the car,” Vettel said. “We probably didn’t learn that much. We
couldn’t really change anything on the car.”

On Thursday, Pirelli announced the compounds for the first three
races after the four-week break. Medium and hard tires will be used
at both Spa and Monza for the Belgian and Italian GPs, with
supersoft and mediums for the nighttime Singapore GP, where the
supersofts are ideal on the tight and twisty track.

With 14 corners and short straights, the Hungaroring is the
second most difficult track to overtake on after Monaco.

A hot, sunny day is forecast for Sunday’s race with temperatures
expected to reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). As
the course is in a valley, temperatures on the track can reach 45
degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) or more.

“We’re always a bit more happy when it’s more warm,” Raikkonen
said.

In Germany, Lotus bounced back from a poor run of form to place
Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean on the podium with Vettel.

Since winning in Hungary in 2005, Raikkonen has been second at
the Hungaroring three times and third once.

The Finn still has an outside shot of winning his second F1
title, 41 points behind Vettel in third place. But Hamilton, whose
win in Hungary last year was his third on the Hungaroring, has not
finished higher than third so far this season and trails Vettel by
58 points.

“I don’t really look at myself as a championship contender at
the moment,” the 2008 F1 champion said.