Vettel About To Put Title Away?

Photo: LAT Photographic

As in previous years, the Hungarian GP leads into Formula One’s August summer break, so a good result this weekend will be a huge boost for any team or driver – and, equally, a bad one will be even more painful than usual, because there’s a long wait until a chance of redemption at Spa-Francorchamps in late August.

The bottom line is that if wins again, and his main pursuers Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso don’t bag some significant points, the German will be well on his way to securing a fourth title long before the end of the season. Not too many people currently expect this year to conclude with a final round showdown, although stranger things have happened.

The Hungaroring will, of course, see the debut of Pirelli’s revised tires, which have been introduced after the spectacular series of blowouts at Silverstone. With the support of the FIA and the teams, Pirelli has been able to take the route it had hoped to follow after delamination problems earlier in the season. In essence, the new tires feature 2013 compounds but with the 2012 structure, featuring Kevlar belts rather than the steel version that was run until Silverstone.

After an interim solution was used without problems in Germany, this will be the first race for the new tires, which were recently tested at Silverstone. And that means it’s impossible to predict what will happen this weekend, as everyone still has a lot of learning to do, and no one more than Mercedes, the team having been excluded from participation in the test by the International Tribunal verdict in June.

It remains to be seen what effect the change will have on the performance of the top runners, especially over a race distance. It’s no secret that Ferrari, Lotus and Force India were very comfortable with the original 2013 tires, and until safety became an issue, they were not keen to give up their apparent advantage. However, there are suggestions that it could ultimately help those who are kind on their tires by allowing them to choose the softer compound as their main race tire, while rivals have to stick with the harder prime. This weekend, the two choices are the soft and medium.

Judging form for Hungary is always difficult, anyway, given the high downforce nature of the track, and the extreme temperatures that we usually see. And this week it promises to be baking hot, which in turn will have an impact on how the tires behave, and could mean that the soft proves to be so fragile that we will have to wait until the next race before we see if some teams really can chose the option as the main race tire.

And an added complication this week is the reduction in the pitlane speed limit, hurriedly introduced in the wake of the incident in Germany that saw Mark Webber’s lost wheel strike a cameraman. In Hungary, the change will add a not-insignificant four seconds to each pit stop.

The man everyone is chasing is, of course, Vettel. He only turned 26 earlier this month, but the German is already well on course for that fourth World Championship, and as noted earlier, a good result for him in Hungary – and a bad one for his closest pursuers – will give him some useful momentum heading into the summer break.

Vettel and Red Bull have been competitive at every track, picking up solid finishes on the days when victory isn’t possible. Retirement from the lead at Silverstone was costly, but nevertheless, he’s had better luck than his main rivals, and his win at home in Germany gave him a hefty championship lead.

Curiously, he has never won in Hungary. He was on pole in both 2010 and 2011, but had to settle for third and second places in those events, while last year he could finish only fourth. Nevertheless, he has to start as favorite this weekend.

Vettel’s biggest challenger may well turn out to be Mark Webber, for whom the season has turned into a sort of farewell tour prior to his move to sportscar racing next year. A charging drive to second at Silverstone showed that the Australian is not backing off just yet, and he recovered brilliantly in Germany after an early delay, with the help of the safety car. He’s obviously determined to win again before the season is out. He was third in Hungary in 2009, and scored a good victory in 2010, although last year he finished a frustrating eighth.

The team most likely to give Red Bull Racing a hard time, at least in qualifying, is Mercedes. The W04 has been fast from the start of the year, although initial races proved difficult as the team struggled with overheating rear tires, and Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton slipped down the order after qualifying at the front. Monaco was a turning point, when Rosberg scored a memorable victory.

The real proof that the team had addressed its problems appeared to come at Silverstone. Hamilton led until a puncture, and Rosberg was right with Vettel when the Red Bull man retired, and was able to slip past to claim a second win of the year. However, in Germany, the silver cars once again struggled for pace on Sunday, and the heat this weekend is unlikely to help.

As noted earlier, the team has some catching up to do after missing the Silverstone Pirelli test. It also remains to be seen whether the superb Monaco high downforce form translates to this track.

Hamilton has enjoyed a much better season than many had predicted, but he’s struggled with some aspects of the car, especially braking. He thrives in Hungary, having won in 2007, 2009 and 2012, and also been on pole three times. Rosberg was fourth for Williams back in 2009, but logged only a modest ninth and 10th in previous Merc outings.

Ferrari will be eager to see how the tire change has impacted Fernando Alonso’s prospects of maintaining a title challenge. After a great start to the season, with wins in China and Spain for the former champion, the team has lost performance in recent weeks. Alonso has continued to extract the best possible result from the car, but poor qualifying positions have not helped, and he’s had to work hard on Sundays.

This is a special weekend for the Spaniard, as it’s the 10th anniversary of his first F1 victory with Renault back in 2003. Since then he’s had mixed fortunes in Hungary, and his three starts with Ferrari have seen him earn second, third and fifth. The track has significance of a different kind for Felipe Massa, who endured his terrible accident in 2009. His best result remains fourth in 2010, although he led much of the 2008 race until a late retirement.

The other title-chasing team in need of a boost is Lotus. Until May, Raikkonen looked like a real title contender, winning the opening race and earning a string of good results. However, since Monaco luck has often conspired against him and he’s had to fight to pick up points here and there. In Germany he bounced back with second, although a different strategy call might have earned him a win. The team is pushing hard on development in an attempt to stay in the fight, but inevitably the crucial factor is how the tires impact form.

Kimi has a superb record in Hungary. He won with McLaren in 2005 and was on pole in 2006, and his record includes five other podium finishes, including a second place last year. That race saw a great effort from teammate Romain Grosjean, who qualified second and finished third after a tussle with Kimi. The Frenchman has shown erratic form this year, but he’s capable of great things, and he was quick in Germany.

Against expectations, Force India has emerged as the fifth best team this year, ahead of McLaren. The returning Adrian Sutil made his mark by leading in Australia, and Paul Di Resta has been consistently competitive. Both men have also had their fair share of bad luck, and without that, the team would be even better placed. Like Lotus, Force India has been extremely good at making the tires work this year, and it remains to be seen what impact the changes will have.

McLaren has a great record in Hungary, having won five of the last six races. However, another win in 2013 looks a little unlikely, despite a slight upturn in fortunes in Germany.

The MP4-28 had problems from the start, and while there has been much work by the team in an effort to improve it, the car hasn’t moved very far up the order. The downturn has been very disappointing for Jenson Button, who scored his first ever win in Hungary with Honda in 2006 and added another five years later with his current team. New boy Sergio Perez has remained motivated and caught the attention with some charging drives, although sometimes he’s been a little too aggressive.

It’s been a disappointing season so far for the Mexican’s former team, Sauber. Strategy has occasionally pushed Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez temporarily up the order, but good results have been hard to come by, and last year’s regular podium visits seem like a distant memory. News of massive new funding from Russia will provide a timely morale boost.

In contrast, Toro Rosso has made good progress in recent races, regularly getting into Q3 and the points. With a seat now available at RBR for 2014, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne have plenty of motivation, and both men have impressed on occasion. The Australian started as high as fifth at Silverstone, although he slipped back to eighth come the race itself, and was again quick in Germany. That put him in a prime spot to land the RBR seat, and a test with the team at Silverstone was further proof that he might beat Raikkonen to the job.

Williams has won the Hungarian GP seven times, but it says a lot that the last victory was with Jacques Villeneuve way back in 1997. Pastor Maldonado is clearly frustrated by the current lack of form, and it’s been a tough rookie season for Valtteri Bottas, who did at least earn a few headlines by qualifying a remarkable third in the wet in Canada. Hopefully, Pat Symonds, who starts work as chief technical officer on Aug. 19, can help to turn things around.

Finally, Caterham and Marussia will as ever enjoy their own little battle at the back of the field, although Williams has come under pressure at times from the sport’s youngest teams. Of the four drivers, only Charles Pic has competed in the Hungarian GP previously, although Jules Bianchi drove on Friday for Force India last season, and thus knows his way around. In addition, Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton know the track well from GP2, and indeed both have won there in the past, Chilton taking victory in the Saturday feature race last year.

Tags: ,