The Formula 1 circus made its way to Budapest for round 11 of the 2016 season last week, with Sunday providing a race that didn’t quite deliver in terms of excitement, but that ranked high in terms of overall importance…
With the Hungaroring making overtaking difficult without a significant speed advantage, the race became a high-speed chess game as the teams and drivers were forced to rely on smart strategy calls in order to obtain the optimal result.
There was little margin for error, as any mistakes were always going to be quickly pounced upon by rivals around the narrow and twisty Hungarian circuit. Regardless, F1’s visit to Hungary raised a few interesting points for discussion…
A significant race for the Driver’s Championship?
Lewis Hamilton’s victory in Hungary sees him move ahead of Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the Driver’s Championship for the first time in 2016. The Briton was left trailing Rosberg by 43 points earlier in the season, but a spectacular run of five victories in the last six races has seen him overturn the deficit and take the lead. There are still 250 points left to play for in the 2016 season, but it cannot be denied that the tide of the championship battle has well and truly turned.
Hamilton’s driving has been majestic of late and he has clearly grown in confidence and rediscovered his best form over the past two months. Rosberg, by contrast, is beginning to look more and more like the driver who clearly knew by the halfway mark of the 2015 season that it wasn’t going to be his year. The German did well to secure pole in Hungary on Saturday, but in general his back is firmly against the wall. Of course, Hamilton still has the significant problem that he has effectively run out of engines, but based on his recent form, you simply wouldn’t bet against him overcoming that obstacle.
In the end, all that matters is who is leading the Championship after the last race of the season. However, Hamilton has a habit of not looking back when he gets the bit between his teeth. Rosberg will have to respond, and preferably sooner rather than later.
The Honey Badger smiles again
Daniel Ricciardo has cut a slightly forlorn figure of late, with the Australian smarting after the loss of two victories (in Spain and Monaco) that seemed to be within his grasp. Furthermore, the Australian has found himself under growing pressure from new team-mate Max Verstappen of late. The Dutch youngster had slowly seemed to be gaining the upper hand over his more experienced teammate, especially after producing a remarkably complete weekend in Great Britain last time out.
In Hungary, however, Ricciardo reasserted his authority. The Honey Badger, so nicknamed for his tenacity, bounced back in style around the Hungaroring and produced a textbook weekend to finish on the podium. He left Verstappen firmly in the shade, first in qualifying, and then after the opening stages of the race on Sunday. A driver of Ricciardo’s quality will only be truly satisfied when he is consistently fighting for wins and the world title, but a podium finish to put an end to a difficult run will certainly make him feel like things are headed in the right direction again.
The Australian and his new Dutch stablemate seem to be set for a thrilling battle over the second half of the season, and if Red Bull continue their revival, the stakes may be a little higher than competing for the odd podium finish.
A costly spin for Palmer?
It is no secret that Jolyon Palmer is under growing pressure to keep his seat at Renault. The British rookie seemed almost resigned in Silverstone to the possibility that 2016 might be his one and only visit to the iconic circuit. As such, a strong result in Hungary would have been a welcome boost, and on paper, his P12 finish in Sunday’s race may appear to be just such a result.
However, Palmer’s weekend around the Hungaroring was case of “what could have been” rather than “what was”. The Briton showed encouraging pace in practice despite his Renault R.S.16’s lack of performance and found himself running as high as P11 during the race. A top-class pitstop effort by his team allowed Palmer to jump Force India’s Nico Hülkenberg and move up to tenth place.From there, Palmer seemed comfortably on course for his first-ever Formula point until he spun at Turn 4, thus ending such ambitions.
A point would have meant a great deal to the French manufacturer given their struggles so far in 2016 and would have made a more compelling argument in favour of retaining Palmer. As it is, Hungary goes down as a missed opportunity for the rookie.
More radio communications drama
Despite the FIA clarifying what the teams are or are not allowed to tell their drivers over the radio, yet another radio-related controversy reared its head in Hungary. Jenson Button informed his team that his brake pedal was remaining stuck to the floor, thus inhibiting his ability to accelerate. The Briton’s McLaren-Honda team quickly informed him that his car had lost hydraulic pressure and that he needed to avoid shifting gears.
The stewards took a dim view of McLaren’s actions and swiftly handed Button a drive-through penalty, a decision the 2009 World Champion was noticeably unimpressed with, arguing that the communication was made in the interest of safety. With various drivers and other paddock members becoming more vocal about the seeming inconsistencies around the policing of the radio communications clampdown, matters appear to be coming to a head. Clearly, the present situation of uncertain radio rules coupled with uncertain penalties for breaking those rules cannot continue.
McLaren may have reached the limit of their 2016 ambitions
The Hungaroring has usually been a strong circuit for the McLaren-Honda partnership, despite the lack of performance from their Honda power unit. In 2015, the team enjoyed a solid points finish from both drivers, with Fernando Alonso finishing in P5 and Jenson Button in P9. While Button was forced to retire from this year’s edition of the race, Alonso produced a strong performance to pilot his MP4-31 challenger to seventh place.
This is an encouraging result for McLaren, even on a circuit that tends to disguise their lack of pure engine performance. However, it was also clear during Sunday’s race that even though McLaren were arguably the fourth fastest package, the gap to third-placed Ferrari remains substantial. Alonso came home a mammoth 43 seconds behind the Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen, a gap which the Woking-based team are unlikely to close by the end of the season. Thus, while McLaren are likely to enjoy a few more points finishes before the end of the season, they are unlikely to trouble the three leading teams unless circumstances intervene. McLaren have done an admirable job of becoming more competitive this season, but 2017 remains their best hope for any remarkable success.
Verstappen courts controversy
Max Verstappen has garnered much attention for his fearless and decisive overtaking manoeuvres, as well as his stubborn defence when being pursued by faster cars. His defence against the obviously-quicker Mercedes of Nico Rosberg in Canada was a particular highlight, with the Dutch youngster remaining firm but fair in his battle with the German.
In Hungary, however, Verstappen was noticeably aggressive while defending fifth place against Kimi Räikkönen, with the Finn complaining over the radio that the Dutchman was moving around under braking. The pair eventually made contact but were both able to finish, with Verstappen holding on to his position to the flag. Much was made of the Red Bull driver’s aggressive defence after the race, but the stewards felt that no wrong had been done. Verstappen’s detractors are likely to point out that his actions could have caused a far more serious accident. Perhaps that is true.
However, it is often such stubbornness and an unwillingness to give an inch to the opposition that sets the F1 greats apart from their lesser colleagues. Names such Schumacher, Senna, Hamilton and Vettel have all had their share of controversial on-track moments, and all of them have also had their share of phenomenal success.
Of course, there is a fine line between aggression and recklessness. Verstappen may have come close to overstepping that line at times on Sunday, but as the old saying goes, only those who are willing to exceed the limits are able to learn where the limits truly are. Formula 1’s youngest-ever race winner will certainly store his duel with Räikkönen away in his memory banks and is likely to benefit from the experience at some point in the future.
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