25.07.2014 - 27.07.2014 29 °C
I've been following Formula 1 since the heyday of Senna and Prost in the late 1980s. I've grown up with sounds of the sport: screaming engines, Fleetwood Mac's The Chain and the hyper-enthusiastic commentary of Murray Walker. I've cheered to "Our Nige" winning in '92, cried at the horror of Senna's death, endured the never-ending era of Schumacher-Ferrari dominance and cheered once again as first Lewis Hamilton and then Jenson Button scored back-to-back championships for British drivers. But I'd never been to a race - until this year!
The Hungarian Grand Prix is a somewhat unlikely event for this most glamorous of sports. The inaugural race at the Hungaroring in 1986 was the first to be held behind the Iron Curtain, and the place hasn't changed much since then. It's a tight and twisty circuit with a reputation for processional races because of the lack of overtaking opportunities. It's also the slowest track on the calendar after Monaco. Despite this, there have been a few classic races, including Mansell's charge through the field in 1989 and Button's maiden victory in the wet in 2006, and it remains popular with the drivers.
My home grand prix in Britain was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014. But a weekend ticket to Silverstone in a decent seat would have cost me a minor fortune, and Hungary was half the price. Then there's the location: the Hungaroring is only 20km north west of Budapest, meaning I could combine my F1 experience with a weekend break in a city I know and love. It was an easy decision.
I based myself at a hotel close on the Buda side of the Danube, where the main attraction was an open-air 50m pool. It was handy for the Castle District and trams to the sights in Pest. Budapest deserves more than a brief aside in a motor racing article, so I'll return to it in a future blog post.
My first stop was Bikebase (near Nyugati Station) for a hire bike to get to and from the track. Why cycle? Well, the Hungaroring is not the easiest place to get to by public transport and I didn't fancy the idea of standing in a long queue for a shuttle bus. With pre-loaded maps on my iPhone I managed to navigate my way out of the city, following the busy Kerespeci Road. It wasn't the most scenic of routes but it got me to the circuit in an hour and a half, where the stewards let me lock the bike to a fence just inside the gate.
The hybrid bike was heavy and unable to carry luggage, but reliable and coped with the variable quality of Hungarian road surfaces. On the return to Budapest I discovered a more scenic route by following a cycle trail on my map (I used the Gaia GPS app for IOS with preloaded maps from OpenHikingMap). This included a short but unavoidable off-road section across farmland near the village of Csömör, followed by a pleasant ride through the leafy suburbs and the City Park.
The Hungaroring lies in a wide, shallow bowl ringed by low hills. The main straight is at a slightly higher elevation than the infield section, giving spectators in the big grandstands views across to the far side of the circuit. My seat in the Red Bull stand was opposite Turn 13 and the pit lane entry. After settling in for Saturday morning's final practice session, I used the opportunity to observe the drivers in action and for some practice of my own, learning how to focus my camera on a 200mph machine – which takes some doing!
Prospects for an exciting race were enhanced by some unexpected events in Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session. Lewis Hamilton, who had topped the standings in each of the practice sessions, retired with a spectacular engine failure without setting a time. With Maldonado’s Lotus also exiting the session early, the rest of the teams gambled that the remaining four to be knocked out in Q1 would be the Marussias and Caterhams. The gamble backfired for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, as Jules Bianchi pipped him to the final place with a late flying lap.
At the start of Q3 a short rain shower nearly claimed pole position favourite Nico Rosberg, who just managed to avoid the tyre wall after running wide at Turn 1. Kevin Magnussen, next on track in the McLaren, was not so lucky, and crashed. He would join Hamilton in starting the race from the pit lane. With 3 fast cars at the back of the field, we were guaranteed some action! Rosberg’s Mercedes claimed an easy pole position, ahead of current world champion Sebastian Vettel and the two rising stars of Formula 1, Valteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.
On race day, a heavy thunderstorm at noon turned the track into a skidpan and meant a hurried change to wet weather tyres for all the teams. From a spectator’s point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better, for these "wet to dry" races often turn out to be thrillers. After taking refuge in a barbecue and beer marquee, I headed back to my seat. Formula 1 has always attracted the rich and famous, and Hungary was no different, with Santa Claus, two Smurfs and a Viking all taking their seats in the stand. This race also attracts lots of Germans and Austrians, showing plenty of support for Michael Schumacher, and legions of Finnish fans (hence the appearance of Santa).
The crowd rose to their feet as the red lights lit up on the gantry, and at lights out the race was underway. We were able to follow the action on a giant screen on the opposite side of the track, with accompanying commentary in English, German and Hungarian (not all at the same time, I should clarify). And there was no shortage of action!
On the first lap Hamilton span and kissed the barrier, but was able to continue. A few laps later a more spectacular crash for Marcus Ericsson left debris from his mangled Caterham strewn across the track, and the safety car was deployed. Some cars took the opportunity to dive into pits for slick tyres, but the front runners missed their chance. This shook up the running order leaving Ricciardo and Button to duel for the lead. Unfortunately McLaren had already sabotaged Button’s race by putting him on another set of wet weather tyres, thinking more rain was coming. It didn’t, and Button was back in the pits a few minutes later.
Lap 23, and just as things were settling down Sergio Perez ran fractionally wide out of Turn 13 and put a tyre on the grass, sending him careering across the track into the pit wall. Perez walked away unharmed, the safety car was back out and the field bunched together again. Ricciardo sacrificed his lead to Fernando Alonso and pitted for fresh rubber, a decision that was to prove crucial to the outcome of the race. Another driver who profited from the safety cars was Jean-Eric Vergne, running in second behind Alonso. Behind him, a queue of faster cars was starting to build, led by Rosberg, Vettel and – incredibly – Lewis Hamilton, who had brought himself right back into contention after a surge through the field. Rosberg should have been able to pick off Vergne quickly, but the Toro Rosso held its position for lap after lap. Meanwhile Hamilton was harrying Vettel, and eventually the German made a mistake, spinning after running wide out of Turn 13. He was very lucky not to end up in the wall like Perez.
After the second round of pit stops, there were four cars in with a chance of victory, but they were running different strategies. Alonso and Hamilton were trying to get to the end of the race on two stops by eking out the maximum life from their tyres. Ricciardo and Rosberg were going to pit a third time, but could lap at a quicker pace because of the shorter stints. The stage was set for a nail-biting conclusion as first Hamilton caught Alonso, then Ricciardo caught them both. The Red Bull fought past to take the lead right at the death, and the chequered flag. It was Ricciardo’s second victory of the season. Alonso clung on for second after a remarkable 31-lap stint on the soft tyres, and Hamilton blocked an attempted pass on the last lap from the charging Rosberg to snatch third, which could be crucial for his world championship prospects.
Hamilton was strangely subdued on the podium, and I couldn’t understand why after a stunning recovery drive. It was only later that I read about the controversial radio messages, which explained his reaction. Mercedes had asked him to move aside to let Rosberg through. It was a poor call, as even they admitted afterwards, and Hamilton was entitled to ignore it.
Formula 1 is doing a lot of soul-searching in 2014, after criticism from several leading figures in the sport. The new formula, with quieter V6 turbo engines and hybrid technology, has inevitably resulted in winners and losers up and down the paddock, and it’s no surprise that the strongest critics are from those teams who are struggling. Some fans lament the end of the ear-splitting V8 era and the perception that the sport is more about tyre and fuel management than out-and-out racing. Add to this the unpredictable stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone, whose latest bright ideas include the controversial staging of a Russian Grand Prix and the gimmick of double points at the final race of the season, and there are surely grounds to complain. The best answer to this is for Formula 1 to do its talking on the track, and those of us at the Hungaroring on 27 July 2014 certainly could not complain!