F1: Round 11 – Hungaroring, Hungary – August 3

What a weird race. Nothing went how it was supposed to, and some of the happenstance we saw was just plain … weird. This was meant to be a walkover for Lewis Hamilton, but we got that assumption knocked out of us pretty quickly.

Hamilton got away to a decent enough start, while beside him on the front row Heikki Kovalainen got the dirty side of the track and clearly was in no position to hold back Felipe Massa, who got a flier.

We’ve seen Hamilton produce some audacious overtaking banzai moves on the first turn of a Grand Prix before – but now it was payback time. Massa lured Hamilton over to the inside line and then swerved left, late-braking and plunging around the outside. It was a do-or-die move, and it “did” – quite brilliantly. Hamilton, shocked, had nothing he could counter with; the Ferrari had the lead.

Okay, well, no problem; practice and qualifying had shown that the McLaren was faster, so surely Massa was running light and all Lewis had to do was camp on his tail and wait for the pit stops? A solid plan – but based on a couple of bad assumptions. For one thing, the McLaren wasn’t faster at all: in fact Felipe was pulling away by several tenths every lap. And as for running lighter on fuel? True, as it turned out. But only by one meagre lap, not the 4 or 5 Mclaren were expecting, and far too little to help Lewis out. To make matters worse, Hamilton emerged from his own pit stop behind the duelling Fernando Alonso and Raikkonen who were yet to stop and lost more ground.

So that was it. Nothing could stop Massa now, while Hamilton – losing ground on Massa – was still far ahead of 3rd-placed Kovalainen. As for Kimi Raikkonen, well – he was down in 7th at this point, continuing a decidedly lackluster race weekend.

At this point the race seemed to have settled down for the long haul procession to the end – this is the Hungaroring, after all. Overtaking simply isn’t viable here. So provided nothing out of the ordinary happened, this was set to be a Massa/Hamilton/Kovalainen podium. Job done, game over, nothing to see here any more, move along.

No, that’s not a fire in the pit lane. You’re mistaken. And that’s certainly not another one. And are you seriously suggesting that was a third?! Well – yes. Something very odd was happening with refueling, with small amounts of fuel seemingly leaking out of the fuel nozzles of multiple teams – Sebastien Bourdais, Kazuki Nakajima and Rubens Barrichello – and Bourdais got the worst of it, getting a face full of extinguisher blasted at him by the Toro Rosso team during his stop – and having it happen not just once, but twice. Some sort of expansion problem in the high heat of Hungary was provisionally blamed; the fires were brief and ultimately harmless and the affected cars were able to carry on after a brief delay.

Nothing affecting the lead positions of the race, however. Nothing, that is, until the fox was well and truly shot on lap 37 for Hamilton, who suddenly and apparently without any warning developed a left front puncture. He ran wide on turn 5 as a result and then had to limp back painfully slowly to the pits for a new set of rubber; the one small saving grace was that it was just far enough into the race to serve as Hamilton’s second and final pit stop. However, that put Hamilton out for a longer-than-ideal final stint on the soft tyres than he’s been known to shred in past outings. Tense times, then, as Hamilton both had to recover from 11th position on the track – but also play very, very safe with the tyres.

All pressure was off Massa at the front, as he now had a huge lead over Kovalainen. Behind Heikki was the incredible Timo Glock: not noted for particularly great runs this year, and returning after being hospitalised at Hockenheim, many put his stunning 5th spot on the grid down to a superlight fuel load. Not a bit of it, as it turned out – in fact he had a lap more in his tank than the other leaders. And to make it even better, he was able to take 4th place from Robert Kubica (who had the same dirty-side-of-the-track problem that Kovalainen did a row in front) going into turn 1; and he then kept that relative position behind Kovalainen for the rest of the race.

With three laps to go, then, everything seemed nice and settled. Massa roared along the start/finish straight again, and … Hang on. Why’s he slowing down? What’s all that smoke? Surely the Ferrari’s engine couldn’t have let go?

Oh yes it could. And the strains of the Hallelujah chorus rang out from behind Lewis Hamilton’s visor, as this was a huge get-out-of-jail-free card for him. If Massa had won and Hamilton had been 6th, as had seemed set to be the case, then Massa would have stormed into the lead of the championship title by some 6pts. Instead, Hamilton’s championship lead just got a massive boost.

Sometimes it’s not about talent or even luck, it’s just a sense of the way that the current is going. Last year you could almost taste the exact moment that the tide turned against McLaren, and Ferrari seized the opportunity. The last two races before Hungary this year, it seemed as though the tide was completely behind McLaren; but Massa’s performance has threatened to change that momentum. Instead, the current reasserted itself and stated clearly: this is McLaren’s year. This is Lewis’s year. Unless, of course, the unexpected happens and the tide changes again. Hungary reminded us of the certainty that, in Formula 1, there is no such thing as a dead cert.

But wait a minute, there’s a race to finish off first. The devastated Brazilian coasted to a halt near the pit exit and was left to walk back to the garage, leaving Heikki Kovalainen to sweep past to inherit an unlikely first win – incidentally making him the 100th driver to take an F1 victory, no bad perk to have in one’s cap. Behind him was Timo Glock taking an impressive and thoroughly deserved second place – surely driver of the day? – while Raikkonen finally rallied sufficiently to come 5th, having finally overtaken Alonso in the final pit stops. Close behind Alonso was Hamilton, having made it up to 5th place in damage limitation mode.

Not the greatest of races, frankly – Hungary just isn’t an exciting circuit. But certainly a lot of incident!

The Hungarian Grand Prix
The Hungaroring, Hungary;
70 laps; 306.663km;
Weather: Sunny.
Classified:
Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  1h37:27.067
 2.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +    11.061
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    16.856
 4.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  +    21.614
 5.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +    23.048
 6.  Piquet        Renault               (B)  +    32.298
 7.  Trulli        Toyota                (B)  +    36.449
 8.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +    48.321
 9.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +    58.834
10.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +  1:07.709
11.  Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +  1:10.407
12.  Button        Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
13.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     1 lap
14.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     1 lap
15.  Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +     1 lap
16.  Barrichello   Honda                 (B)  +    2 laps
17.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +    3 laps
18.  Massa         Ferrari               (B)  +    3 laps
Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1:21.195
 
Not classified/retirements:
Driver        Team                      On lap
Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)    63
Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)    23
 
World Championship standings, round 11:
Drivers:                    Constructors:
 1.  Hamilton      62        1.  Ferrari               111
 2.  Raikkonen     57        2.  McLaren-Mercedes      100
 3.  Massa         54        3.  BMW Sauber             90
 4.  Kubica        49        4.  Toyota                 35
 5.  Heidfeld      41        5.  Renault                31
 6.  Kovalainen    38        6.  Red Bull-Renault       24
 7.  Trulli        22        7.  Williams-Toyota        16
 8.  Alonso        18        8.  Honda                  14
 9.  Webber        18        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      8
10.  Glock         13
11.  Piquet        13
12.  Barrichello   11
13.  Rosberg        8
14.  Nakajima       8
15.  Vettel         6
16.  Coulthard      6
17.  Button         3
18.  Bourdais       2
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