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
Read more!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Hungarian Grand Prix: Friday Practice Sessions

Lewis Hamilton ended the first day of track action at the Hungarian Grand Prix on top, but the day ended fairly even for the top two teams with Ferrari dominating the opening session and McLaren dominating the afternoon's proceedings. Whilst this news will not really surprise anyone, the apparent strength of Renault on this opening day may surprise a few. Fernando Alonso was the "best of the rest" in the first session, and Nelson Piquet built on his first ever F1 podium from the last race by coming second place in the second session. On current form they are looking the team most likely to cause problems to Ferrari and McLaren, and may have leap-frogged BMW in terms of pace.

The first session was relatively quiet with very few drivers venturing out on track early on. When the action did get going with a vengeance it was Ferrari who came to the fore. Felipe Massa ended the session on top, with his team mate Raikkonen four tenths adrift in second. Kovalainen and Hamilton took the next two spots on the time sheets, with Alonso and Glock in fifth and sixth respectively. The times tumbled dramatically throughout the session as the notoriously dirty and dusty Hungaroring circuit gradually rubbered up.

The second session saw yet further time improvements and ended with four drivers breaking into the 1:20s. Hamilton, Kovalainen and Alonso have been regular residents in the top four on the time sheets, but the man in second would most certainly have raised a few eyebrows. Nelson Piquet split the two McLarens by taking second spot, building on a decent P8 from the first session. He excelled at this track in his GP2 days, and he clearly loves the track. He had a truly awful first half of the season, and then lucked into a podium finish in Germany. Has he perhaps finally found his feet in the sport?

Ferrari had a fairly unremarkable second session with Massa and Raikkonen in 5th and 6th. It wasn't a great day for the other team running Ferrari engines with Sebastian Vettel ending up stopped out on the circuit in similar circumstances in BOTH sessions. There was no suggestion of driver error at all, just mechanical gremlins and bad luck for the talented young German. He managed a total of just 9 laps throughout the two sessions and will have a lot of work to do come Saturday's brief practice session.

The other talking point arising from today's sessions was McLaren's interesting new nose/wing arrangement that was first seen out in testing in recent weeks. It has drawn comparisons with that of BMW and also Honda's 'bunny ears', and shows that there is no sign of McLaren letting up in terms of their car development heading into the season's run-in. There was no sign of it in the first session, but it was eventually seen in the second session. The wing didn't really seem to add or subtract too much from the McLaren's times, but it was notable that Hamilton's fastest time of the day was set with the 'old' wing.

Practice One Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:20.981 19 laps
02 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:21.345 21 laps
03 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:21.410 17 laps
04 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:21.535 18 laps
05 F. Alonso Renault 1:21.802 18 laps
06 T. Glock Toyota 1:21.931 22 laps
07 R. Kubica BMW 1:22.267 18 laps
08 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:22.326 19 laps
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:22.370 22 laps
10 J. Trulli Toyota 1:22.457 25 laps
11 M. Webber Red Bull 1:22.654 23 laps
12 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:22.700 16 laps
13 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:22.900 26 laps
14 J. Button Honda 1:22.917 27 laps
15 R. Barrichello Honda 1:23.093 26 laps
16 N. Rosberg Williams 1:23.147 21 laps
17 K. Nakajima Williams 1:23.274 22 laps
18 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:23.353 25 laps
19 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:23.459 28 laps
20 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:23.923 4 laps

Practice Two Times

01 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:20.554 35 laps
02 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:20.748 38 laps
03 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:20.760 33 laps
04 F. Alonso Renault 1:20.923 35 laps
05 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:21.009 36 laps
06 F. Massa Ferrari 1:21.010 36 laps
07 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:21.138 46 laps
08 R. Kubica BMW 1:21.363 36 laps
09 J. Trulli Toyota 1:21.505 42 laps
10 N. Rosberg Williams 1:21.581 34 laps
11 T. Glock Toyota 1:21.662 39 laps
12 M. Webber Red Bull 1:21.733 43 laps
13 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:21.837 34 laps
14 K. Nakajima Williams 1:21.902 33 laps
15 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:21.955 41 laps
16 J. Button Honda 1:22.150 41 laps
17 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:22.197 36 laps
18 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:22.358 37 laps
19 R. Barrichello Honda 1:22.448 33 laps
20 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:22.945 5 laps
Read more!

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Hungarian Grand Prix Preview: Hamilton in his element?

After racking up hugely impressive back to back wins in tricky conditions in both Britain and Germany, championship leader Lewis Hamilton heads to the Hungaroring looking to score his third win in a row and his second consecutive victory in Budapest. Ferrari will have been licking their wounds after taking a bit of a pounding in the past couple of races, and will be determined to turn the tide of McLaren victories. It's getting toward the crunch time of the season as they get closer to the final run in, and any more mistakes for Ferrari could be catastrophic.

Last year's Hungarian Grand Prix became notorious for the pit lane incident during qualifying rather than anything that happened during the race. The highly embarrassing pit lane squabble between Hamilton and then team mate Alonso was the first major public indication that there were serious problems within the team; problems that would eventually lead to them throwing away the World Driver's Championship that one of the McLaren drivers should have won.

There should be no such worries for Ron Dennis and McLaren this year as Heikki Kovalainen has just put pen to paper on an extension to his contract, and given that he's so far behind the front runners in the title race he will no doubt be playing the team role and supporting his team mate's title challenge. This could well be McLaren's secret weapon in the title run in. Last year they had two drivers fighting for the championship and they ended up taking points of each other and fighting bitterly between themselves, while Kimi Raikkonen came from nowhere to to take the title. This time Kimi and Massa are extremely closely matched, and whilst they may not be at each other's throats like Alonso and Lewis last year, neither driver will be willing to play the good team mate and take a supporting role. Lewis knows he has a team mate that will be well and truly focussed on helping his title challenge.

Another team looking to impress in Hungary will be BMW. Their constructor's title challenge has gone off the rails somewhat in recent races. Strangely it has been ever since they had that remarkable 1-2 finish in Canada that their fortunes have taken a bit of a dip. However, they have had good form here in recent years and the high downforce, tight and twisty nature of the track seems to suit their car. Also this race is a favourite for both of their drivers. Heidfeld has finished on the podium here two years running, and Robert Kubica made his spectacular debut here in 2006.

Amazingly it seems as though we may get some unpredictable, unsettled weather conditions throughout the course of the weekend yet again, for the third race running. Early forecasts are suggesting that thunderstorms are likely to hit intermittently throughout Saturday and Sunday, potentially causing all sorts of fun and games in qualifying and the race. The rain has already contributed to two fantastic races this season, in Monaco and Britain, could it be about to happen again?
Read more!