F1: Round 12 – Hungaroring, Hungary – Aug 1

Red Bull had been head and shoulders ahead of every car in the field for the entire weekend, so the prospects for an exciting or even mildly interesting Hungarian Grand Prix were not good. Surely Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber would check out at the start, and the rest of the cars would trudge round in a procession for 70 laps of tedium?

Fortunately, it didn’t work out that way – and we unexpectedly got a half-decent race out of the dusty, twisty and rather old and neglected Hungaroring instead.

As ever at Hungary, the start was the most critical moment: if the Red Bulls had broken away here then all hope for an upset was gone. Vettel hasn’t been doing too well at the start – usually overcomplicating matters trying to swoop across the track to cut off his rivals – but here he kept it neat, simple and precise. Straight line to the apex of turn 1; job done. Nice.

But it was less happy for Webber. He did nothing wrong, but being on the dirty side of the track meant he got less traction off the grid and was no match for Vettel – or for Fernando Alonso, who flew off the second row of the grid. Alonso was even ahead of Vettel as they went into the first corner, but Vettel had control of the inside line and there was no way for Alonso to make the long way around work. He slotted into second, with Webber sandwiched between him and the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa in fourth.

In fifth place was Vitaly Petrov, who had the best start of the afternoon to leapfrog Lewis Hamilton by diving down the inside line into turn 1, forcing the McLaren to yield and run wide. Hamilton was not best pleased, and on lap 2 he blasted his way past on the outside of turn 2, not willing to take no for an answer. Lewis was certainly doing better than his team mate Jenson Button, who had been jostled and crowded into the first corner of the start and who had lost four places from the already lowly qualifying position of 11th.

At the front, Vettel was blasting his way into the distance, while Alonso was keeping Webber firmly bottled up. Webber was clearly biding his time, driving well within himself and looking ahead to pit stop strategy to give him a shot at taking the second spot back by staying out longer than the Ferraris, putting in some fast laps before pitting and emerging in front. That was the plan; it turned out rather differently, as F1 usually does.

The first unexpected problem was Jamie Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso, whose engine died in a plume of smoke in turns 3 and 4 of lap 3. It dripped fluid over the track, and if this had been oil then it would have triggered a full course yellow; but instead it was water that quickly evaporated without harm.

Still frustrated well down the running order, Jenson Button tried a throw of the strategy dice by pitting early on lap 15, hoping to make up some stops that way. But as the McLaren crew got to work, all hell was about to break loose: there was debris out on track between turns 13 and 14 (from Tonio Liuzzi’s front wing). The safety car that had been avoided for Alguersuari’s exit was now deployed, and all the pit crews were caught on the hop as the teams instructed their drivers to come in immediately. Jenson picked up positions straight away by the fluke of already being in the pits, while the call almost came critically too late for Vettel, who had overshot the pit lane entrance and had to clamber over the kerbing to get into the pits.

The result was chaos, and dangerous chaos at that. Robert Kubica was ushered from his pit box just as Adrian Sutil was pulling in to the pit box right in front; a crunching impact was inevitable, with damage to both cars: Sutil retired on the spot, while Kubica limped around for a few laps longer before getting a 10s stop-and-go penalty for the collision and then returning to the pits to retire on lap 25; Renault got a $50,000 penalty for the unsafe release on top of the driver penalty. It was fortunate that no one in the pit area was caught up in the accident; but worse was to come, when Nico Rosberg’s tyre changer crumbled under pressure, messed up the lugnuts – and the right rear tyre flew off as the Mercedes pulled out. The tyre launched itself into the air above the heads of the other teams working on their cars, and proceeded to bounce multiple times before finally being brought under control. An F1 tyre is a heavy object and can do a lot of damage, and a Williams mechanic was struck and taken to the medical centre with a shoulder injury. Mercedes received a $50,000 penalty for unsafe release as well.

This danger was all the result of a chaotic situation caused by the deployment of the safety car: proof once again that F1 needs to get their yellow flag procedures reformed once and for all. Why they don’t just adopt the US principle of closing the pit lane the minute the yellow comes out, with no one allowed to come in until the cars are formed up behind the safety car, is a mystery.

In fact not everyone had participated in the pit lane lunge: there were a couple of cars that had opted to stay out. One was Rubens Barrichello, which was fair enough as Williams had opted to start him on the hard tyres and go for a long first stint: switching to the super soft tyres for 55 remaining laps was just not viable. But the other hold-out was a lot more surprising and considerably more risky: Mark Webber. The team hadn’t wanted to stack their cars waiting for the pit box and risk losing positions, so they kept him out. Ferrari on the other hand did ring both cars in, and as a result Massa had to queue and lost fourth position to Lewis Hamilton.

Webber now took the lead of the race but he would still have to stop: could he pull out enough of a gap over the rest of the drivers to make this work? Red Bull’s team strategy was now clear, with Vettel either instructed or taking it on his own initiative to hang back and hold back the rest of the field to allow Webber to break away and pull out the 20s lead he would need to pit and come back out ahead of Alonso and Hamilton. So as the restart happened, Vettel bottled up the field as Webber disappeared and started to put in some dazzlingly fast laps.

Unfortunately, Vettel’s approach had fallen foul of the rules: he had dropped back so far from Webber and the safety car before the restart that he was in breach of the rules, which state that cars needed to stay within ten car lengths of each other under caution. The penalty came down: a drive-thru for Vettel. The German was incredulous, unable to work out what he was getting penalised for and the team not able to explain in detail over the radio. So Sebastian trudged through the pit lane, gesticulating his frustration, but managing to emerge in front of Massa even if Webber and Alonso were well up the road.

Webber, Alonso, Massa – someone missing, surely? Indeed there was. Unfortunately by this stage, Lewis Hamilton had exited the race. He slowed up on track on lap 24, finally pulling to a halt and climbing out by the side of e track. A rare mechanical failure – assumed to be transmission-based – had put an end to his day and meant that there was going to be a big change in the championship points standings.

Now the key interest was all focussed on Webber: how long could he make those worn super soft tyres work? How much of a gap could he pull out? Amazingly he stayed on the tyres for a whopping 43 laps, and even more astonishingly he was still putting in fastest sectors of the race when the team finally pulled him in, having decided that a 24s lap was finally a safe enough margin. It was, and then some: he was able to return to the track with his lead still formidable.

In fact Alonso had long since given up any thoughts of snatching the victory, because he’d seen through his rear-view mirrors Vettel eat through the gap that had been between them after Vettel’s drive-thru penalty, and now the Red Bull was all over him. But Hungary is not compared with Monaco for nothing: Alonso drove robustly and covered any and all openings, leaving no way for Vettel to pass despite the evident speed differential between Red Bull and Ferrari this weekend.

At this point the race was pretty much set, with Webber, Alonso and Vettel locked into the podium positions; but there would be one more incident that would have tongues wagging as Formula 1 packed up for its two week summer vacation.

Rubens Barrichello had been running up in fifth position 34s behind Massa before his mandatory pit stop which finally came on lap 56 with 14 laps remaining. He emerged in 11th position, and – as the team had planned – he was now on fresh super soft tyres just when everyone else was struggling with tyre wear. Could he gain a few positions in the time remaining?

The first challenge was his old team mate and sparring partner, the inimitable Michael Schumacher. And Schumacher, being the multiple world champion that he is, wasn’t about to give anything away – especially not when a single championship point was in the balance. He defended with all his skills and single-mindedness, even though it was clear that the Mercedes was no match for the newly-sprightly Williams. Time and again Rubens make a move, but Michael left his turns late and managed to block the Brazilian every time.

Coming on to lap 66, Rubens finally got an excellent run out of the final corner and had the raw speed to blast past Schumacher on the start/finish straight. But still Michael wasn’t about to yield: he forced Rubens far over to the right, allowing the Williams literally a car’s width between himself and the pit wall. One slight twitch from either driver and it would have been a disaster; and then the wall was finished and they flashed across the pit lane exit – fortunately no one coming out or else it would have all gone terribly wrong – and on to the grass verge, then Rubens was able to force Schumacher to move left and the Brazilian had the corner.

It had certainly got the heart racing. “That was horrible!” Rubens said over the radio, calling for Michael to get black flagged for the highly aggressive move. There was no immediate penalty but the stewards indicated that they would indeed investigate after the race and duly handed Michael a 10-place grid penalty for the next Grand Prix at Spa for “illegitimately impeding car 9 during an overtaking manoeuvre.” Michael, for his part, was adamant that he had done nothing wrong: “We know certain drivers have certain views and then there is Rubens,” said Schumacher to the BBC. “I’m known not to give presents on the track. If you want to pass me you have to fight for it, and so it was.

“As a driver, you have the ability to change the line once. That’s what I was driving to. Obviously there was space enough to go through,” he said, continuing his robust defence of his driving. “We didn’t touch, so I guess I just left enough space for him to come through.” However, other drivers and pundits watching the footage were startled by what they saw, almost unanimously condemning Schumacher and bewildered that the German hadn’t simply conceded that he’d overdone it rather than trying to blame Rubens. It seems the below-par Mercedes hardware Schumi’s returned to in F1 is perhaps exacerbating some of his old, much-criticised character flaws.

Anyway, the move was done and Rubens was rewarded with that final championship point – pulling out a whopping 19s lead over Schumacher in just the remaining four laps, emphasising just how much more speed he’d had – as the race concluded without further incident or controversy. Webber was naturally exuberant, but Vettel was notably subdued as he sulked his way back into parc fermé – warned over his team radio not to say anything about the matter until they’d had a chance to discuss it as a team in private and explain everything. Vettel obeyed, but his unhappiness was fully communicated via body language in the after-race ceremonies, and he intently quizzed the first FIA official he set eyes on (Herbie Blash) about what exactly he’d been penalised for. At least for once it wasn’t an intra-team civil war breaking out, and his congratulations to winner Webber were sincere enough.

And with that Formula 1 goes to the beach for two weeks, with an enforced shutdown for a fortnight. Not just no races: the teams can’t even turn on their CAD terminals back at base to tinker with new parts. No, everyone has to go and enjoy themselves on holiday. Whether they want to or not.

But a few team bosses will be going into that holiday with their brains buzzing at the thought that nothing and no one can now stop Red Bull. Are they just too far ahead of everyone else? Or will the final seven races of 2010 pull more surprises out of thin air and deliver more twists and turns before the next world champion is crowned?

Race result

Pos  Driver      Team                 Time
 1.  Webber      Red Bull-Renault     1:41:05.571
 2.  Alonso      Ferrari              +    17.821
 3.  Vettel      Red Bull-Renault     +    19.252
 4.  Massa       Ferrari              +    27.474
 5.  Petrov      Renault              +  1:13.100
 6.  Hulkenberg  Williams-Cosworth    +  1:16.700
 7.  De la Rosa  Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
 8.  Button      McLaren-Mercedes     +     1 lap
 9.  Kobayashi   Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
10.  Barrichello Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
11.  Schumacher  Mercedes             +     1 lap
12.  Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
13.  Liuzzi      Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14.  Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth       +    3 laps
15.  Trulli      Lotus-Cosworth       +    3 laps
16.  Glock       Virgin-Cosworth      +    3 laps
17.  Senna       HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
18.  Di Grassi   Virgin-Cosworth      +    4 laps
19.  Yamamoto    HRT-Cosworth         +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:22.362

Not classified/retirements:

Driver      Team                  On lap
Hamilton    McLaren-Mercedes      25
Kubica      Renault               25
Rosberg     Mercedes              17
Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  17
Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari    2

World championship standings after round 12

The success of Mark Webber (and the third place for Sebastian Vettel), coupled with a retirement for Lewis Hamilton and an anonymous race for Jenson Button, means that the balance of power in both championships has emphatically changed.

Coming into Hungary, McLaren had the one-two in the driver’s championship and the lead in the constructors. Now Mark Webber tops the driver’s battle, and Red Bull have at last displaced McLaren in the team stakes.

But only 20 points separates the top five drivers – less than the points for a single Grand Prix win in the newly revised FIA scoring system. It’s still very evenly balanced – providing the other teams can find some boost to their form in the remaining races of 2010 and prevent Red Bull and Webber/Vettel from sweeping all before them.

Drivers:               Constructors:             
 1.  Webber     161   1.  Red Bull-Renault     312
 2.  Hamilton   157   2.  McLaren-Mercedes     304
 3.  Vettel     151   3.  Ferrari              238
 4.  Button     147   4.  Mercedes             132
 5.  Alonso     141   5.  Renault              106
 6.  Massa       97   6.  Force India-Mercedes  47
 7.  Rosberg     94   7.  Williams-Cosworth     40
 8.  Kubica      89   8.  Sauber-Ferrari        23
 9.  Schumacher  38   9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    10
10.  Sutil       35  
11.  Barrichello 30  
12.  Petrov      17  
13.  Kobayashi   17  
14.  Liuzzi      12  
15.  Hulkenberg  10  
16.  Buemi        7  
17.  De la Rosa   6  
18.  Alguersuari  3 

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