2017 Hungarian Grand Prix

by Mark Hughes on 31st July 2017

Mark Hughes reports on the Hungarian Grand Prix

A tense day on the Ferrari and Mercedes pit walls as Sebastian Vettel formed a race-leading but pace-compromised bottleneck, with team-mate Kimi Räikkönen trapped behind, obliged not to pass but under threat from the Mercedes pair, Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton. As a steering offset on the race-leading Ferrari became progressively more pronounced, so Vettel stayed off the kerbs as much as was feasible around a track where kerb usage is extensive, thus slowing him considerably. Enough for Räikkönen to quickly eat into the earlier 3sec margin Vettel had established until he too was consigned to Vettel’s compromised pace – allowing the Mercs to come at them. What to do? With Sergio Marchionne and Piero Ferrari looking on, the Ferrari pit wall pondered on whether it was about to lose the race for the sake of keeping Vettel ahead of Räikkönen.

As the pitstop window for a one-stop race opened up and the Mercs not yet quite an immediate threat, there was just time to bring in Vettel for his single stop, with Räikkönen ordered in the following lap. Such were Vettel’s difficulties that his out-lap was not any quicker than Räikkönen’s in-lap and he only just held on to his position. “Why didn’t you leave me out?” asked Räikkönen, perhaps rhetorically. “My tyres were still good.” To have left him out for another lap or two would almost certainly have jumped Räikkönen into the lead. It would have made a Ferrari victory more secure, but it would have been the ‘wrong’ Ferrari from a championship perspective.

The stops had staved off the immediate crisis. But still the closing Mercs were applying steadily more pressure upon a potentially explosive situation. “Is this as fast as Seb can go?” questioned Räikkönen.

It wasn’t supposed to have been like this. Around the Hungaroring the Ferrari was comfortably the faster car, much better suited to this track that demands full downforce settings. Just as the Merc was better suited to Silverstone. For reasons explained further on.

But Vettel had noticed the steering wheel misaligned to the left as soon as the car was dropped from its stands on the dummy grid. Earlier in the day the whole rear of the car had been off as a hydraulic control unit and moog valve was replaced, but this seemed unrelated to that. At the time of writing Ferrari was still uncertain what exactly had happened. But it became progressively worse, Seb steering it down the straight like an Indycar on an oval and applying only a little lock on left-handers, a lot on rights.

“Does Seb have a problem?” Räikkönen had further queried. “I’m stuck now and obviously the Mercedes is catching. You are putting me under massive pressure for no reason.”

“Yes, we are working on it,” he was told. So he waited, and watched that silver get bigger in the mirrors.

But then the gap stabilised. As if by magic, like there was some force field around the Ferraris that stopped the chasing Merc getting anything closer than 1sec behind. It was neither force field nor magic, of course, but just another symptom of the fact that the Mercedes W08 had an understeery slow speed handling balance – meaning it was not quick through the last two corners of the lap. This in turn meant it was slow just where the DRS detection point was, and slow enough onto the straight that even the occasionally triggered DRS was of no use.

Back in fourth place, Lewis Hamilton couldn’t quite figure what was going on. And there was no way of telling him because a cracked fibre optics cable had taken down the team’s communication system. Radio silence, with just occasional bursts of contact. So the Ferrari scenario played out here too, with Hamilton in the bemused Räikkönen role. Just like Kimi, he’d been disappointed to have been brought in early, just a lap after his team-mate when he felt there was still plenty of life in his super-soft tyres. Now, stuck right behind Bottas who could make no further inroads into the Ferraris, he felt they were running at a crazy slow pace. With the radio finally fully back on line he was able to tell them, “I’ve got a lot of pace here. I can get the Ferraris. You have to let me race past. If I can’t get past, I’ll give the place back.”

He was duly given five laps – “No pressure, then!” – as Bottas dutifully pulled aside. Hamilton immediately began lapping 1sec faster than Bottas had been doing, scything into the gap to Räikkönen. But then the force field… Hamilton encountered exactly the same barrier as had Bottas.

So Ferrari was off the hook and as a reward for having stayed calm at the critical moment, it got to see Vettel – and not Räikkönen – lead the Scuderia 1-2. With Max Verstappen charging at Bottas on much newer tyres, it looked for a time like Hamilton wasn’t going to be able to hand third place back without risking the Red Bull passing them both. But he manged to do it – on the very last corner. Thereby surrendering three points that might prove crucial in his title fight with Vettel. But at least he’d kept his word and at least Mercedes was able to keep its in-team equality status viable on a day when Ferrari again showed it operates a different, though perfectly legitimate, policy.   

But there was actually even more intrigue than apparent on the surface…

Qualifying

Ferrari arrived here with an extensively modified floor, clawing back what had been lost to its enforced stiffening since Austria. But even without that its traits were better suited to the repeated, shortly spaced, long turns of this snaking track. With the left-rear the limiting tyre rather than Silverstone’s left-front, the Ferrari-Mercedes contest always looked likely to swing back this way here. With a track temperature in the scorching mid-50s degC by Saturday afternoon, that pattern was just reinforced. The Ferrari’s benign balance was even better than it had been in the cooler temperatures of Friday – and the Merc’s was worse. Red Bull had been the fastest of all on Friday, but that was before the Ferrari’s improved balance combined with the greater power boost of the Ferrari and, particularly, the Mercedes. But even so, Max Verstappen was less than 0.1sec away from fourth-fastest Hamilton. So the front row was all Ferrari, row two contained the Mercs, with the two Red Bulls next.

Vettel won pole, Räikkönen lost it. Their underlying pace was much the same but Kimi messed up the Turn 6-7 chicane on his final run. “I braked with my wheels on the outside kerb and the car got loose and that really threw away the pole. Disappointing. I felt I had it quite comfortably.”

Vettel’s runs weren’t perfect either but were more nearly so than Räikkönen’s or Hamilton’s. “The car was phenomenal here,” he said, “and I was fairly confident. I was quite happy with my first [Q3] run but knew there was a bit more. It felt faster after the first two sectors but in the last sector I think I’d asked too much of the tyres beforehand and in the last three corners I sort of lost the advantage I’d built up and did about the same time.”

Just like in Sochi and Monaco, when the Mercedes W08 is struggling, Bottas gets more from it than Hamilton, asking less of the front of the car. It was a tricky car here, snappy through the faster corners, understeery through the slower ones but Valtteri strung together a near perfect lap within those constraints, less than a tenth away from splitting the Ferraris to line up on the inside of row two. Hamilton’s aggressive hustling of the car just wasn’t working here and twice he ran wide through the fast uphill sweep of Turn 4, the second time forcing him to abandon his first Q3 run. With no Q3 time on the board, he was conservative through that turn on his final run, this losing him time that couldn’t be made up on the remainder of the lap, leaving him a tenth-and-a-half adrift of Bottas.

Max Verstappen was rueing adding an extra notch of front wing onto the Red Bull for his final Q3 run. The slightly oversteery balance it brought him cost him the tenth that would otherwise have seen him demote Hamilton to row three. The RB13 was heavily updated here, new sidepods, extensively different in shape, a new footplate area ahead of them and changes to the diffuser. In response to other teams’ complaints that the car’s front wing endplates were flexing independent of the main plane at Silverstone, they had fitted an added connecting stiffener between the two components. Into the slow corners – most notably the downhill Turn 2 – the car was visibly grippier than any other. Daniel Ricciardo did a near identical time to Verstappen but was disappointed with that, having been fastest through all of Friday. He’d lost track time to a hydraulics problem in FP3. “I’m not going to be finishing sixth,” he promised.

Just over half a second covered the pole-sitter to sixth, after which there was a bigger gap than that back to seventh. Hülkenberg’s Renault headed this second group (before taking a five-place gearbox penalty), the German extracting everything from the improving R.S.17, always with a handy margin over the McLarens, Force Indias, Haas and Toro Rossos. Team-mate Jolyon Palmer, after twice damaging his car with offs on Friday, got a better balance from it into Saturday and only just failed to make it into Q3, 11th fastest, albeit three-quarters of a second off Hulk.

Around one of the least power-sensitive tracks on the calendar, the McLaren was always comfortably a Q3 car, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne eighth and ninth, with Alonso pulling out a spectacularly good lap on his final run, more than 0.3sec faster than his team-mate.

Carlos Sainz delivered a similarly great Q2 lap to get the Toro Rosso into Q3, but made no serious effort to better it once there, given that anything other than 10th was out of reach. Team-mate Daniil Kvyat was in the wars, spinning through Turn 8 in Q1 and rejoining in a way that impeded Lance Stroll. He made it through to Q2 and qualified 13th there but took a three-place penalty. Further penalty points on his licence puts him perilously close to an automatic one-race ban.

The Force Indias were set up very much with race day in mind, leaving Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez to drive around their unresponsive front ends on the way to 12th and 14th respectively, the latter admitting that, “my first lap was pretty poor and that threw my reference points for the second attempt.”

The Haas was lacking mechanical grip in the slow corners and neither Romain Grosjean (15th) nor Kevin Magnussen (16th) could do much with them. The latter’s car had been crashed heavily on Friday by reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi, losing the team a lot of valuable running.

The Williams was proving edgy and unstable upon corner entry, leaving Stroll failing to make it out of Q1, in 17th. Reserve driver Paul di Resta stepped into Felipe Massa’s seat for the first time in Q1. In a car he’d never driven before – not even on the simulator – he had five flying laps, each of them a significant chunk faster than the last. The best of them was 0.7sec off Stroll in what was a typically measured and professional performance. Massa was suffering dizzy spells that seemed to be triggered by being in the car. He awaits the results of further tests.

Pascal Wehrlein put the updated Sauber in between the two Williams, more than 1sec faster than team-mate Marcus Ericsson.

Race

There were several keys to why this race played out in the shape it did around this snaking, high-downforce track.

Why the Ferrari was faster

It seems the Ferrari is faster around any tracks demanding high downforce settings. Just like at Monaco, just like it will almost certainly be at Singapore. That’s certainly the considered opinion within both teams. At low speeds, with maximum wing settings, the Ferrari simply generates more downforce.

Furthermore, around the Hungaroring the Merc’s aero concept without the accompanying banned hydraulic heave spring left the team with not enough tools in their box to find a balance that worked at the very different speed ranges of this track. So it snap-oversteered its way into some of the quicker turns, yet understeered through the critical final two long, slow Turns 13 and 14.

With its low-rake concept and very powerful forward floor, it suffers quite a balance change as the speed bleeds off, increasing the ride heights. As that floor height increases at lower speeds, it becomes less powerful and the aero balance moves rearwards. And the car then understeers. The very same car that through the fast sweeps of Silverstone was fantastically balanced as its forward floor was able to stay low. Hungary was just not its track.

Mercedes’ strategic long shot

The team had committed to a one-stop strategy from Saturday, using up all but one set of softs. With a track at a scorching 55 degC, it was a brave commitment. But it had been rather predicated on getting a car on the front row, so as not to be vulnerable to undercut threat from Red Bull. If that happened they’d have to convert to a two-stop and Ferrari would be long-gone. But it turned out Red Bull wasn't going to be around to be a threat. Verstappen crashed into Ricciardo on the first lap taking the latter out and giving the former a 10sec penalty. 

But one-stop was Ferrari’s Plan A also. Mercedes saw the scorching pace that had Vettel 10sec ahead of them within 10 laps of the safety car restart, having already noted that Ferrari had saved two new sets of softs, and assumed Vettel and Räikkönen were going to two-stop and that therefore Merc might be able to beat them through track position, a slower car fending off a faster, two-stopping car.

It was a long-shot, but it was all they had. Hamilton wasn’t convinced. Even as he sat on the grid he was radioing in that, “Just from the formation lap I can feel the rear tyres are going to go. I’m willing to bet they’re not going to do a one-stop.” He’d needed a lot of convincing that morning too. It was pointed out to him that the decision didn’t need to be made until 15 laps or so into the race.

So when Vettel began to slow from around lap 15, Mercedes hoped it was because he’d gone too fast too early. But that wasn’t the reason; it was just Vettel’s steering problem. Ferrari’s inherent pace advantage was real – and without the steering problem they’d been set to maintain it and remain wedded to a one-stop. Vettel was going to walk this race, ably supported by Räikkönen who would be left to rue that small but crucial mistake in qualifying that had denied him pole.   

How Verstappen’s impetuous moment turned the race

The interlinked Turns 1 and 2 – and how crucial it is to get ahead at a track where passing is so difficult – ensure drama in the opening seconds. Vettel converted pole, Räikkönen sweeping across protectively behind him, with Bottas line astern and Hamilton trying to fend off two Red Bulls. Verstappen swept around the outside of Bottas in Turn 1, but no sooner had he achieved it than he was making an emergency avoidance, across the run-off area to avoid hitting the back of Räikkönen who’d backed off to keep from hitting the other Ferrari, as Vettel had locked up slightly going in. As Bottas flashed by the sliding Verstappen, Ricciardo was grinding ahead of Hamilton to the right – putting the Red Bull fourth but on the outside of the downhill approach to Turn 2, the rejoined Verstappen trying to sit it out with him from the inside, intent on quickly regaining what he’d just lost. Braking too late, Verstappen locked up and hit his team-mate’s car hard in the sidepod, breaking Ricciardo’s radiators and puncturing a tyre. Hamilton just missed the wildly slewing Ricciardo whose car came to a halt in the middle of the track in a pool of its own oil and water. Safety Car. Ricciardo didn’t hold back in laying the blame. Verstappen later apologised.       

As the safety car circulated ahead of Vettel, Räikkönen, Bottas, Verstappen, Hamilton, Sainz, Alonso, Pérez, Vandoorne, Ocon and the rest, the fall-out of a few other red mist moments became apparent. The Force India drivers had banged wheels on the exit of Turn 1, Pérez aggressively taking no nonsense from Ocon. It gave Pérez a bit of non-critical front wing damage but gained him the track position that would be the foundation of his eighth-place result. Ocon’s floor was damaged, inflicting a bit more of a performance loss, but once he’d undercut his way past Vandoorne at the stops, he’d close right back up to his team-mate and finish just a couple of seconds behind.

Hülkenberg had tipped Grosjean onto two wheels into Turn 1 and would later incur the wrath of the other Haas driver Magnussen – something that was mutual, as you might have seen by their salty exchange afterwards.   

But aside from the exchanges of the tough boys, something of more significance: Verstappen’s accident had removed the undercut threat to Mercedes’ one-stop plan. This was good news for Mercedes.

Also, it created a five-lap safety car period that more comfortably allowed everyone else – notably Ferrari – to remain on a one-stop. This was bad news for Mercedes.   

Vettel’s steering and the problems that ensued

“I felt already that there was something not right when we dropped the car on the grid. Driving the car to the grid was fine but then for the formation lap the steering wheel was not straight and then… well, I did the start and then there was a safety car and then during the opening laps I felt that it wasn’t right but it didn’t impact too much because it was only small. Then it did get worse and towards the end of the stint it started to ramp up and it was more and more difficult.”

When the problem was only small, Vettel ran off and hid – lapping around 1sec faster than third place Bottas and 0.5sec faster than Räikkönen. The Merc drivers were in tyre conserve mode, with that one-stop target very much in mind, yet even so their rear tyres could be seen soon to be roughing up whereas those on the Ferraris looked clean. In between Bottas and Hamilton, Verstappen circulated knowing he was going to take that 10sec hit at his stop, so Red Bull decided to run him for as long as feasible on these tyres in order to give him a bigger new tyre performance advantage in his second stint.

This phase of the race saw a stalemate develop as each car backed away from that in front in order to keep temperatures under control. Those on the Mercs were particularly marginal, as the cooling slots had been opened up no further than was absolutely necessary in order to get what qualifying performance they had the day before. At this pace, Bottas and Hamilton were finding they could make the tyres live after all – and that the one-stop was going to be fine.

An increasing distance behind Hamilton was an initially close dice between Sainz and Alonso, Carlos getting very physical in fending off the McLaren as they exited Turn 1 after the restart – enough that the stewards took a look at it before concluding it was just about OK.  Alonso backed away after a few laps to keep those temperatures down but he wasn’t finished with his countryman yet.

By the 13th lap Vettel’s lead over Räikkönen was out to 3.4sec, with Bottas now almost 9sec behind the leader. But with Seb’s steering problem worsening, so his pace began to drop off and Räikkönen was making steady inroads. Bottas remained at about 9sec behind, very conscious of preserving his tyres but not getting much guidance from the team because of the communications problem. The drivers could hear them most of the time, but they couldn’t hear the drivers.

In the midfield, just behind Vandoorne and Ocon, Palmer gave team-mate Hülkenberg right of passage under instruction from his team and was later undercut at the stops by Magnussen and Kvyat.

20-20 hindsight: did radio problems lose Mercedes the race?

Bottas was brought in for his fresh softs after 30 laps, Hamilton the lap after. Bottas’ rear tyres had been just about finished, Hamilton’s had been still in good shape. With Verstappen staying out for many laps yet, Hamilton rejoined just a couple of seconds behind Bottas. Had he been able to communicate with the team, he’d have asked to stay out as he felt still had plenty of tyre life left.

With the Mercs soon up to speed on their new rubber, Ferrari needed to respond. Räikkönen for several laps had been backing off to stay around 1.5sec behind Vettel, but had a lot more pace in hand – and was pushing the team hard for answers about what to do. Ferrari answered by bringing Vettel in on the 32nd lap and fitting him with the new softs. Räikkönen was brought in immediately afterwards but his in-lap was a whole 1.6sec faster than the struggling Vettel’s had been. Together with a pitstop that was a couple of tenths faster, it meant Räikkönen emerged from the pitlane only just behind the other Ferrari – and could surely have fought out the corner had it been another team’s car.

His pace was such that had he been left out, he’d have been faster on his old super-softs than Vettel was initially going on his fresh softs – and Kimi would have overcut into the lead after stopping. He knew this, and made a point about asking why he’d not been left out. With the two Mercs now gaining on them, it was putting Kimi in an impossible situation.

A parallel situation at Mercedes had Hamilton pondering that he’d have preferred to have stayed out too. Had Mercedes done this, but Ferrari still kept Vettel ahead of Räikkönen, could Hamilton have made up enough time go have jumped ahead after stopping? He probably didn’t have quite enough tyre life left to have done that from 11sec behind, but it would have got him a lot closer, would have leapfrogged him past Bottas and put him right on the tail of the Ferraris and on fresher tyres after his stop. “Without the radio problem," said Toto Wolff, "we could have had the discussion probably a couple of laps earlier. Later, when we could hear him he told us he could have gone much quicker and he even said that the first set of tyres were in good shape and we could probably have tried to leave him out and that could have had a potentially massive outcome on the race because we were so close to the Ferraris at the end.

“Our whole comms and data systems broke down and we didn’t have any communications on the ‘fantasy island’ [the central computer console in the garage]. Or on the pit wall. No radio comms, no data, no TV feed and we somehow managed to get it back occasionally.” Meanwhile a whole team of engineers and analysts back at the factory bases in Brackley were in communication with strategist James Vowles, giving him the numbers he couldn’t see.

Verstappen stayed out leading the race for a further 10 laps or so after the Mercedes/Ferrari stops, before coming in for his new tyres. Watching a crew stand around the car motionless for 10sec before springing into action is always a bizarre sight, he exited the pits 20sec behind the leaders.

By now Räikkönen and the two Mercs were in an evenly spaced queue behind Vettel – and the realisation was dawning that actually the Merc’s understeering traits through the last two corners meant it just couldn’t get within DRS reach of the Ferraris, despite being potentially much quicker over the lap. Bottas was running out of answers. Each time he tried to push up to Räikkönen, his tyres would slide and overheat. Finally the radio comms came back online – and Hamilton was able to have his discussion with the team. Let me at them, he requested. ‘OK, you’ve got five laps’.

Bottas pulled aside at Turn 1 on the 46th lap, with 24 to go. Hamilton was at that moment around 3.2sec behind Räikkönen. From lapping in a Vettel-dictated 1m 22.0sec when behind Bottas, Hamilton immediately went around in 1m 20.9sec and within three laps was right on Räikkönen’s tail. But he could no more get into DRS range than had Bottas been able to. He was even ready to surrender the place back after misunderstanding his engineer telling him he had been given another five laps in which to try it. “I don’t think there’s any more I can do,” he responded. “Do you want me to give the place back to Valtteri now?” Negative, he was told. Not yet.

Ferrari was going to hang onto this precarious 1-2 after all. They weren’t even going to need to swap positions to ensure the victory.

Bottas meanwhile had dropped right off the pace after letting Hamilton by. Partly he was giving his tyres a breather preparing for the Verstappen attack he knew was coming before the end, Max on tyres 12 laps newer than his. But partly it was the way the backmarkers fell. “It was difficult. They were getting out the way of the first three because they were running together in a train, but I’d have to find my own way through. Then you get off line, you pick up dirt on the tyres, they lose their grip and temperature and it takes a lap or two to get them back.” With Verstappen getting ever-closer, there was a real danger that he wasn’t going to be in a position to be handed the place back as it opened up the possibility of Max passing them both. “Push up to Lewis,” Valtteri was instructed. But it was easier said than done.

A long way behind the top five, Sainz and Alonso had continued their battle with a pitstop race from which the Toro Rosso emerged still just in front. A lap later and Alonso managed to nail a DRS pass into Turn 1, but Sainz hung on and their wheel-to-wheel dice continued down to Turns 2 and 3, with Alonso nailing the definitive move around the outside of Turn 2. Sixth place now his, he began to edge away. The car was feeling good as the fuel load came down and with the leaders compromised at Vettel’s pace, he was vying with Verstappen as the fastest man on track. As Verstappen caught up to the Mercs, so his pace was slowed but still Alonso was pushing – and just for the hell of it he wound everything up for the penultimate lap and squeezed all it had to give. Fastest lap of the race. “A little present,” as Fernando put it. A reminder too…

Meanwhile, Vettel was enjoying his own present. His fourth victory of the season was perhaps the most stressful, and it owed a lot to Räikkönen, dutifully following to the end. All that remained was how the hand-back from Hamilton to Bottas might be achieved. With Verstappen right on their tail. Hamilton was instructed by the team to only do it if he thought it could be accomplished without risk. He did it at the very last corner. Verstappen followed Hamilton by 0.5sec over the line.

Pérez, Ocon and Vandoorne took the final points. Hülkenberg retired the Renault from just behind them with gearbox and brake problems after a very physical dice with Magnussen, who was later awarded a 5sec penalty for forcing the Renault off the track. Stroll managed to stay ahead of the Saubers (where Wehrlein prevailed over Ericsson) while di Resta was retired from behind them with 10 laps to go as the Williams was losing oil pressure.

“A great result,” beamed Vettel. “But how we got there was a bit tense.”

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