F1: Round 10 – Hungaroring, Hungary – July 26

The script for this weekend’s race appeared set: a Red Bull 1-2, the only questions being which way round and who would pick up third. But Lewis Hamilton and McLaren had other ideas right from the green light.

It had all looked good for Hamilton’s arch-rival Fernando Alonso at the beginning as Alonso had got off to the perfect start, his light fuel load allowing him to race off into the lead by the first turn and leave the fight for second well behind him. As predicted, the KERS runners – chiefly Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen – had the best of things in the pack, dodging through the slower starters and nearly colliding into one another at one point in the run down to turn 1.

Ultimately Hamilton went into the turn in second place down the inside of Mark Webber, but Webber cannily ceded the inside line to the McLaren in order to get the better line out of the corner and up to turn 2, which he used to retake the position and put an end to Hamilton’s initial charge. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was tangling with Webber’s team mate Sebastian Vettel, the two cars colliding slightly in the fight on the way out of turn 1 that was finally decided in the Ferrari’s favour.

If things appeared to be settling down, it was only for a brief gasp of air. At the end of lap 5, Hamilton got close up on Weber and used the KERS down the start/finish straight to pounce into turn 1, effectively re-enacting the move on the first lap but this time casting himself in the position of having the superior exit from turn 1 into turn 2 – and dispatching the Red Bull with surprising ease as a result. Hamilton was second and started pulling away from Webber, immediately making in roads into Alonso’s lead by half a second or more a lap.

Hamilton was almost up to Alonso by lap 13 when the Renault had to come in for its first pit stop, even earlier than anticipated. Fernando came in – but was then released before the front right wheel man had done his work. It was immediately clear that the “spinner” (the hubcap teams use as an aerodynamic aid) wasn’t on properly, and a few corners later it shattered into pieces. But it was worse than just the cover – the wheel’s lugnuts hadn’t been fitted properly either. A few more corners, and the wheel simply dropped off and went bouncing to a mercifully safe resting place against the barriers. Alonso crawled around to the pits for a new tyre, but the damage done was enough that he had to retire the car shortly thereater.

That left Lewis Hamilton – remarkably, given McLaren’s form this season so far – in the fully deserved lead. Webber was getting hurry-up calls to do something about the gap, but there was nothing they could do in time for the first round of pit stops around laps 20 and 21.

Webber and Raikkonen came in at the same time, the two battling for position; and it went badly for Red Bull, with a miscue nearly releasing Webber with the fuel hose still connected. As it was, the delay meant Webber was finally released right at the moment Kimi was coming past. Webber was lucky not to get a penalty for unsafe release, but even so the damage from his point of view was done – he’d lost the position to Raikkonen.

Things were worse for his team mate Sebastian Vettel, who radioed in on lap 28 that something was broken on his car. TV footage showed smoke coming from under the car as the underside rubbed on the tarmac, and when Red Bull brought the car in again they confirmed that it was front suspension damage almost certainly caused by that collision with Raikkonen on the first lap. Vettel’s day was done, a potentially major milestone in the championship battle.

All this would have been music to Jenson Button’s ears – had he been anywhere in the running. Instead, Button had fallen to 9th off the grid before managing to re-take Kazuki Nakajima for 8th on lap 2. But thereafter Button looked leaden, holding up not just Nakajima but Jarno Trulli behind him. The pit stops and tyre change just added to Button’s woes, the new set of super-softs being nigh-on undriveable and leading to a series of radio complaints from Button from the cockpit. He lost places to both Toyotas by mid-distance, Timo Glock in particular making an extremely long first stint pay off handsomely to vault him into 6th place to come within one second of Heikki Kovalainen in 5th and Nico Rosberg having worked his way up to 4th.

At the front, however, there was no stopping Lewis Hamilton; it was as though the last ten races had been swept away, and we were back to his 2008 championship-winning form. Not even the switch to the unloved harder tyres seemed to affect the McLaren’s performance; by lap 62 he was over 17s ahead of Raikkonen, who himself was coming under renewed pressure from Mark Webber.

Button meanwhile had found that the supersofts became more tolerable as the long middle stint wore on, and when he came in for his final stop – and the switch to the dreaded prime tyres – he had managed to recover a position by beating out Jarno Trulli for 7th on lap 60. Button’s team mate Rubens Barrichello was having a less than great day, having sunk almost to the back of the pack on the first lap, and who was now in 10th fighting it out with Trulli and Nakajima for the last championship point.

Ultimately however this is Hungary, and overtaking – once the race settles into its rhythm – is nigh on impossible. Despite some close running toward the end of the afternoon, everyone ran out of laps to pull anything off and the positions were decided some time before the chequered flag greeted Hamilton home.

It would be nice to think that Hamilton could make a late charge to hold on to his world title, but in truth it’s too late in the season for that. But it’s no flash in the pan either, as Hamilton also looked well on the pace in Germany but on that occasion was denied the chance to prove it by the first corner accident that put him to the very back of the pack for the afternoon. Now Lewis has proven the very real quantum leap in form and we can expect more of the same in the remaining races.

It’s also good to see Ferrari take second considering the traumas of the weekend for the team. Raikkonen seemed unusually inspired for once, perhaps spurred on to carry the flag for the team in Massa’s absence; but in truth Kimi’s second place owes more to the woes that beset Webber and Vettel rather more than they may like to admit.

But if Hungary was meant to show that Brawn were still in the game, then – well, it did anything but. Jenson struggled to get into the points, and Rubens never looked like coming close, and that’s despite the team getting the hot and dusty conditions that the car was meant to suit. Sad to say, but it’s looking like the team are a busted flush without the development finance available to their rivals; the only question is whether they have enough momentum from their incredible early season performances to stagger across the line before the likes of Red Bull catch them in the championship points.

In footnotes: great drives today for Nico Rosberg (finishing 4th in a quiet but hugely effective drive) and Timo Glock (a more unusual strategy and eye-catching drive). And also an honourable mention for Jaime Alguersuari, who might have finished a lap down in penultimate position but who acquitted himself well in his first race and made no major mistakes in completing a full race without drama.

His Toro Rosso team mate Sebastien Buemi did make the odd mistake – going off-track on occasion – as did Alonso’s team mate Nelson Piquet, in what must surely be his last F1 outing. And sadly Adrian Sutil, after a string of strong performances, didn’t have the chance to put in another one today – with the car’s temperatures going through the rook even on the formation lap, becoming a steam cooker shortly thereafter and obliging Sutil to park up the Force India in the pits.

Ultimately the Hungarian Grand Prix felt an odd race out of time, a flashback to 2008 while everyone’s minds were distracted thinking about race safety and an injured comrade. Whether this truly reflects a new phase and a new order in the 2009 season or is a strange out-of-place anomaly we won’t know for sure until F1 returns from its four week summer hiatus with the next race at Valencia.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        1h38:23.876
 2.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +    11.529
 3.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    16.886
 4.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    26.967
 5.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +    34.392
 6.  Glock         Toyota                  +    35.237
 7.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes          +    55.088
 8.  Trulli        Toyota                  +  1:08.172
 9.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +  1:08.774
10.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes          +  1:09.256
11.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +  1:10.612
12.  Piquet        Renault                 +  1:11.512
13.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +  1:14.046
14.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap
15.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +     1 lap
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:21.931

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Vettel        Red Bull-Renault          30
Alonso        Renault                   16
Sutil         Force India-Mercedes      2

World Championship standings after round 10

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        70        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        114
 2.  Webber        51.5      2.  Red Bull-Renault       98.5
 3.  Vettel        47        3.  Ferrari                40
 4.  Barrichello   44        4.  Toyota                 38.5
 5.  Rosberg       25.5      5.  McLaren-Mercedes       28
 6.  Trulli        22.5      6.  Williams-Toyota        25.5
 7.  Massa         22        7.  Renault                13
 8.  Hamilton      19        8.  BMW Sauber              8
 9.  Raikkonen     18        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
10.  Glock         16       
11.  Alonso        13       
12.  Kovalainen     9       
13.  Heidfeld       6       
14.  Buemi          3       
15.  Bourdais       2       
16.  Kubica         2       

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