Saturday, 2 August 2008

Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Report: Can Anyone Stop Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton was the class of the field as he cruised serenely to pole position for the Hungarian Grand Prix. In the final session he beat his team mate Kovalainen into second place with room to spare, making things extremely difficult for Hamilton's title rivals in the Ferraris in tomorrow's race. Felipe Massa was third and Kimi Raikkonen was a very disappointing sixth place in the sister Ferrari. Kimi was pushed down the grid by two excellent 'comeback' performances, with Kubica returning to form in the BMW and Timo Glock coming back after a nasty accident in Germany to record his best qualifying performance to date.

The whole session played out under perfectly sunny conditions, ideal for the fans and drivers alike. The first session saw the main championship protagonists make it through comfortably, with the McLarens looking very strong and Raikkonen down in a slightly disappointing 6th place, a position he was to become very familiar with. As per usual with Q1, all the action took place in the squabble for 15th place. With the renaissance of the Toro Rosso team the battle for the final places in Q2 was to be fought between the Honda and Williams drivers, who look to be really struggling for pace at this point in the season.

In the final moments of the session both Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg put in excellent laps to get into fourteenth and fifteenth place. This nudged BMW's Nick Heidfeld down into the drop zone. The German was on his final lap though, and was strong favourite to make it through. However, fate managed to conspire against him in the final turns of the lap. Entering the final hairpin he had Sebastien Bourdais in front of him being held up battling for track position with a Toyota. Bourdais had to back right out of the throttle which ended up putting him right in the path of Heidfeld. Nick eventually ended up skidding across the astro-turf on the outside of the turn and could not improve his lap time. His displeasure was clear for all to see as he was gesticulating at the car in front, but really it was just a case of rotten luck. The incident is being investigated, but it would be extremely harsh to punish Bourdais for it. This was just what Heidfeld didn't need though, as he has struggled with tyre performance in qualifying all season long, and this will have done nothing to silence the doubters.

The second session ended with Felipe Massa in top spot, ahead of Timo Glock's Toyota. After his nasty accident in Germany Glock appears to have bounced back with some great form here. He was getting the better of his qualifying-specialist team mate Trulli for the first time this season. Hamilton was a little further down the field than may have been suspected, but he was clearly taking it easy and doing just what was needed to get through to the final session.

In the closing moments things heated up as per usual, with the battle seemingly being between the drivers from the two Red Bull teams. Webber and Vettel were looking strong in the top ten, with Coulthard just fractionally behind them. However, things were to be upset somewhat when Nelson Piquet put his Renualt up into ninth place, knocking out Vettel. He's followed up his best ever race in Germany with his best ever qualifying performance, good stuff from the young Brazilian. One of the final men across the line was Jenson Button. The Honda has looked pretty horrible all weekend, and with Barrichello down in 18th some may have thought Button would be delighted just to get up to 15th place or so. Button though loves this track after scoring his only ever race win here in 2006, and put in a great lap to put himself in P12, way better than was expected of him.

The final session was expected to be the Lewis Hamilton show, and he didn't disappoint. He has looked extremely comfortable in the car all weekend long, and seems to have pace to spare. In the dying moments of the session he set the fastest lap, but the next fastest lap was his own opening hot lap, which just underlines his superiority here. Kovalainen put in a strong performance to complete the all important front row lockout for McLaren, just edging out Felipe Massa by a few hundredths of a second. Robert Kubica put in a great lap for fourth place, finally getting the BMW hooked up after looking pretty ordinary throughout free practice, and Timo Glock also put in a superb lap to take fifth. Glock may well be light on fuel given how far ahead of his team mate he is, but great stuff nonetheless.

Kimi Raikkonen will be hoping that Glock is indeed light on fuel, and that his Ferrari is running a heavy first stint, otherwise he could be in line for a fairly miserable race tomorrow. At this crucial moment of the season he really isn't rising to the challenge of defending his world title. There have been rumours filling the F1 press for a couple of months now that Kimi is considering retirement when his current contract expires in 2009. Whether all this speculation his distracting him, or he just isn't happy with the set up of the car remains to be seen, but unless he gets his backside in gear quickly he can kiss goodbye to any hope of retaining his championship. Felipe Massa is looking the driver most likely to take the fight to Lewis Hamilton at the moment, and given that we know how poorly Massa seems to handle pressure situations, Ferrari are not in an enviable position at the moment.

Alonso continued his decent form with a 7th place, ahead of Trulli, Webber and Piquet.

So given the strength of McLaren so far this weekend, and the tight and twisty nature of the Hungaroring track, only a fool would bet against a silver car taking the chequered flag tomorrow. Of course, the race to the first corner will be all important here, and Kovalainen will need to have his wits about him to fend off Massa given that he will be starting on the dirty side of the grid. The other major factor tomorrow may well be tyre wear. So far the softer compound tyres have not performed well in the sweltering Budapest heat. All drivers will have to run at least one stint on the soft tyres, and given how badly they have been graining up in practice, it will be a real test for the drivers to manage things effectively.

Provisional Race Grid

1. Hamilton
2. Kovalainen
3. Massa
4. Kubica
5. Glock
6. Raikkonen
7. Alonso
8. Webber
9. Trulli
10. Piquet
11. Vettel
12. Button
13. Coulthard
14. Bourdais
15. Rosberg
16. Heidfeld
17. Nakajima
18. Barrichello
19. Fisichella
20. Sutil

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