Sunday, 3 August 2008

Hungarian Grand Prix Race Report

Lewis Hamilton will head to the European Grand Prix in Valencia with a slim lead in the driver's championship after a dramatic and unpredictable race in Budapest. The usually tedious race threw up a couple of real surprises, most notably for Hamilton and title rival Massa, meaning that in the end Heikki Kovalainen sensationally took the chequered flag for his first ever F1 race victory.

As ever with races on the Hungaroring, the run down to the first corner would be all important. So often here the man who leads out of the first corner ends up winning the race. With both McLarens on the front row it seemed like the script was pre-written for a straightforward victory for Lewis Hamilton. Felipe Massa clearly hadn't read the script though, as when the lights went out he got an inch perfect start off the line. Kovalainen struggled off the line with starting from the dirty side of the track and within 100 yards Massa had passed him.

Massa was now tucked into the slip stream of Hamilton on the run down to turn one, and was clearly carrying far more speed than the McLaren. Lewis went defensive on the inside as Massa drove up alongside as they approached the braking zone. On the brakes Massa locked up slightly but managed to recover just enough to squeeze Hamilton onto the kerb on the inside. Hamilton wasn't able to get the power down quite as effectively as Massa and the Brazilian won the drag race down to turn two. It was the perfect start from Massa and a real shock to the system for McLaren, who would have expected to have this race sewn up fairly early on. Indeed, the frustration was evident as Hamilton very nearly lost it through the high speed turn three as the back end snapped wide suddenly and he had to correct, losing more ground to Massa.

Behind the battle for the lead there were some very close battles in the very tight opening couple of corners. World Champion Kimi Raikkonen didn't have particularly good start, just to compound his distinctly average qualifying performance. He would have been looking to get past the BMW and Toyota in front of him off the line, but instead ended up losing sixth place to Fernando Alonso's Renault. Another driver having a bad start was Vettel. He lost a place or two from the start, and then at the final corner of the first lap found himself squeezed out onto the run off area. He dropped from 11th to 15th. There was a much better start for Rubens Barrichello who ended the opening lap un in 12th place ahead of team mate Button, despite starting all the way down in 18th. A good couple of minutes for Brazilian F1 fans!

The race settled down within a lap or two into a fairly comfortable pattern with the tight twisty nature of the track making following the car in front closely or overtaking extremely difficult. Hamilton was staying fairly close to Massa but not close enough to attempt a pass. If anything, Massa was starting to pull away slightly. The pace advantage the McLarens were supposed to have didn't seem to be materialising. It wasn't as though Hamilton wasn't pushing or driving well, he was pulling away from team mate Kovalainen in third at almost half a second per lap. So far it was just a flawless performance from Massa.

The big question on everyone's mind now was that of fuel loads. Who was running lighter than who in qualifying? Did the McLarens really have that much in hand over their rivals? Massa was the first of the front runners to pit, doing so with a 3 second or so lead over Hamilton. It was a good stop for Massa, and we all waited to see how much further Hamiton could run. The answer was: not very far. Hamilton was in next lap, showing that the two lead cars were indeed very closely matched on pace and fuel. Lewis had no where near enough time in the lead to have overhauled the deficit to Massa, and he emerged back behind the Brazilian.

Everyone had expected Timo Glock to be running extremely light after his stunning performance in qualifying yesterday, but amazingly it wasn't the case. He actually had MORE fuel on board than the front runners, and emerged from his first stop in an extremely strong looking fourth position. The other star of qualifying Robert Kubica wasn't having as good a day. He had nowhere near the pace to match Glock, and after the first stops he had gone backwards in a big way. The other talking point of the first round of pit stops was the fact that there were three minor fires while cars were refuelling. Bourdais received a face full of fire extinguisher foam after his Toro Rosso caught fire. Rosberg was next to have a fiery exit from his pit box, followed by Barrichello in the Honda. There hadn't been any modifications made to the fuelling rigs, so the sweltering heat must have been the culprit.

During the second stint Massa still had the edge over Hamilton. It wasn't a huge difference, but a tenth here and a tenth there meant that he was slowly but surely creeping away into the distance. After all the doubts over Massa after his appalling race in Britain, Massa was doing exactly what was necessary to get his title challenge back on track. Of the two Ferrari drivers, it was Massa looking the most likely title challenger. Raikkonen was still staring at the gear box of Alonso's Renault as he had been all day long. Timo Glock was still having a fine performance, managing to keep a comfortable distance between himself and those behind him, and Kubica was still struggling in the BMW.

Everyone was eagerly checking the timing computers to see how big the gap between Massa and Hamilton was, trying to calculate how many more laps Lewis would need to run in this stint to have any chance of getting ahead of Massa. However, that was all suddenly rendered irrelevant when the cameras cut to Lewis's McLaren creeping through a gravel trap very slowly. It soon became apparent that his left front tyre had punctured, meaning he was having to creep around the circuit back to the pits. He didn't appear to hit anything or go off the track before hand, so it was either a random tyre failure or he ran over some debris. Either way, terrible luck for Hamilton, especially as it appeared to hand the race victory to his biggest rival Massa on a plate.

Hamilton pitted and changed to the super-soft option, meaning he would have to run 25 laps on the notoriously hard wearing tyres. He emerged in 12th place, with a real mountain to climb to limit the damage to his title challenge.

As the second stops arrived for everyone else it was a routine stop for Massa as he had a massive gap back to Kovalainen and had no need to push too hard. In the other big battle on track between Kimi and Fernando, traffic conspired to wreck Alonso's chances. He pitted first, but emerged right in the middle of a battle between the two Williams drivers and Fisichella. He lost at least a second or two, meaning that Raikkonen was able to pass him in the pitstops fairly easily. Raikkonen now had clear air in front of him for the first time in the race, and we would see what kind of pace he had underneath him. With Kubica having a bit of a nightmare and Hamilton's puncture, it looked as though it would be a straight fight between Glock and Kimi for the final podium place.

Hamilton had recovered well and had his old adversary Alonso in front of him, several seconds down the road. That would be his target, but certainly not an easy one. Massa meanwhile appeared to have eased off the gas and was cruising, as the gap to Kovalainen was shrinking with every lap. In the sister Ferrari, Raikkonen was setting fastest laps as he was finally able to show what pace the Ferrari really had. Nice of him to show up to the Grand Prix at last, shame it was about a day and a half too late.

Just when everything seemed set for a well deserved and comfortable victory for the flawless Massa, disaster struck. With just 3 laps remaining his engine blew coming past the pits, causing him to grind to a halt on the home straight. His distress was clear for all to see, as his victory was stolen away from him by the unreliability of the Ferrari. You couldn't really imagine a worse place for something like that to happen, right on the home straight right in front of about ten thousand fans in the grand stands.

The cruel blow for Massa meant that Kovalainen was leading the race, after having a quiet and fairly ignominious performance. He was nowhere near able to match the pace of Massa and Hamilton in front of him, yet here he was with the finish line in sight. He was able to cruise to his first ever F1 race victory with plenty of room to spare. Probably not the circumstances in which he dreamed his first win would come, but a win is a win and it is a moment he will remember for the rest of his life. Massa's misfortune also meant that Timo Glock was promoted to second place and his first ever podium. A fantastic performance from the German. He ended the previous Grand Prix in the back of an ambulance, yet here he was two weeks later on the podium! It also meant that Kimi Raikkonen lucked his way into the final podium spot. After a pretty mediocre performance all weekend long he managed to come away with a sizeable point haul.

Alonso was able to hold off Hamilton for fourth place, but Hamilton will not have too many complaints with fifth place after his puncture earlier on. He leaves Hungary still with a lead in the championship standings, which will be of huge comfort to him and McLaren. Ferrari will be furious with themselves though for throwing this one away. After their drivers finally managed to get their act together, they were let down by a reliability problem. Back to the drawing board before Valencia for the Scuderia. Little of this will matter to the top two finishers today though. Kovalainen will party the night away after his first ever victory, and Glock will be equally delighted with his superb second place that has really announced him on the global stage in a big way.

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