Grand Prix Notebook – Hungary

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Mark Hughes

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Rd 10 Hungaroring, July 26 2015
1. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 46min 09.985sec
2. Daniil Kyat Red Bull RB11 1hr 46min 25.733sec
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB11 1hr 46min 35.069sec

Fastest lap: Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB11 1min 24.821sec
Race distance: 69 laps, 188.667 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 22.020sec

This year, as last: once the safety car came in it was impossible to call whether the Ferrari, the Red Bull or one of two Mercs was going to win this race. This time it was Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, but it could easily have been a repeat for 2014 winner Daniel Ricciardo.

What could have been Red Bull’s first victory of the year went up in front wing shards as a desperate lunge on Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes failed to come off. After the inevitable drive-through penalty he took a distant third, with team-mate Daniil Kvyat following Vettel over the line – a disappointing outcome for Ricciardo after an impassioned drive. But for Red Bull, taking two podium places and being in the fight for victory was by far its strongest showing of the season. What had gone right?

Partly it was circumstantial. On another day Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes would have waltzed it, but an over-hot clutch led to him being mugged at the start by both Ferraris and his team-mate. This in turn triggered that over-striving to which he’s prone – twice, in fact. Rosberg was off his pace having over-compensated to protect the left rear tyre with his set-up. This exacts a heavy time penalty on a track mainly of long duration turns linked by short straights – another of Red Bull’s favourable circumstances, taking the emphasis away from engine power.

But there was merit there too from both Ricciardo, who drove a spectacular, passionate Gilles Villeneuve sort of race, and Red Bull. The RB11, having struggled to match the form of last year’s car and often overshadowed by the Toro Rosso STR8, was finally coming good. A new front wing introduced at Silverstone had addressed the car’s difficulty in linking up the airflow coming off the endplates with that in the super-sensitive area just ahead of the sidepods.

It’s now clear that the current formula hurt Red Bull in more ways than just power and the abolition of exhaust blowing. The narrower front wing impacted much more on Red Bull’s aerodynamics than on others. Into this year, further regulation tweaks have compounded that damage. Red Bull had been able to combine a big rear ride height, to maintain rear slow-speed downforce, with extreme rake, leaving a tiny gap between the road and the floor’s leading edge. The smaller this gap, the more the diffuser’s effect as the tiny gap and the extreme rake combine to make the whole underfloor a venturi, with the diffuser acting as a smaller venturi behind it, pulling the flow through yet faster. Crucial to pulling the air hard through the diffuser is the ability to create a pressure difference behind it by getting the flow around its outside moving fast – and a crucial part of achieving that is generating vortices ahead of the sidepods, to accelerate the flow coming off the front wing, around the bottom of the sidepods and on to the top of the diffuser. With 2014’s rules, linking up that airflow became rather more difficult. Adrian Newey is now convinced that the Mercedes aero department made a better job of doing that than Red Bull’s. It was no longer possible to run the Red Bull’s rear ride height so high, but the front could still be low. Until this year, that is.

The 2015 stipulation of magnesium skid blocks within the underfloor plank defining the ground clearance put a stop to that. Magnesium is much softer than the metal previously used, so to avoid wearing the plank illegally thin the ride height had to be increased. As Red Bull relied more than others on a tiny front ride height, it almost certainly suffered more than the rest. Furthermore, this year’s bodywork regulations introduced to avoid the ugly nose solutions of 2014 are believed to have caused Red Bull further problems in joining up that front wing-to-sidepod airflow, further hurting its ability to increase rear ride height.

A Mercedes-like front wing was introduced at Silverstone and through the fast sweeps the RB11 was among the very fastest cars – and it was running visibly more rake. “Until Silverstone we hadn’t been seeing the high speed aero advantage we had last year,” said Ricciardo.

For Hungary another new feature was added – a blown front axle, whereby air from the brake cooling ducts exits through the centre of the wheel. The correlation between this and the new front wing wasn’t quite as expected and for most of the weekend both cars ran the blown axle with the old wing, albeit with tweaks to the guide vanes.

Ricciardo was delighted: “It’s the first time in a long while we haven’t really touched the balance through the weekend. I felt I could dictate the balance a bit more and position the car more where I wanted to. Everything we’ve brought over the last two races, we’ve made it work.”

He was just edged out for third on the grid by Vettel’s Ferrari, with Kvyat fifth. It’s difficult to out-drag Ferrari and Mercedes engined cars with a Renault engine – and predictably Ricciardo didn’t. So while Vettel got a flyer and was intimidating Hamilton into surrendering the lead, Ricciardo was failing to hold off Bottas for fifth. Daniel hung on side by side with the Williams through the first turn until eventually they interlocked wheels, the Red Bull pitched into the air as Bottas went through. This was bad news as the Williams was a much slower car around the Hungaroring than the Red Bull. Not only that, but Kvyat and the Force India of Nico Hülkenberg were able to take advantage of Ricciardo’s loss of momentum. Kvyat had flat-spotted his tyres and was passed by Hülkenberg at the end of the first lap.

“Daniil is struggling. I’m much quicker,” reported Daniel over the radio. Daniil turned the airwaves blue when it was suggested he allow Ricciardo an easy passage, but conceded nonetheless – and it took only a few laps then also to find a way past the Force India. With Hamilton off on the first lap trying to pass Rosberg and rejoining way back, Ricciardo was running a solid fifth, later fourth when Bottas pitted early. He was, however, a long way behind the Ferrari one-two.

His race would eventually be brought alive by a Red Bull strategy call that paid off. At the first of what would be two stops, when most went onto a second set of the softer tyres, Red Bull put both its drivers on the harder primes, which allowed the recovering Hamilton on his soft tyres to relegate Ricciardo to fifth. But there was almost no risk – and the possibility of being able to challenge for the win if there was a late safety car. Which, thrillingly, there was – after Hülkenberg’s front wing disintegrated and spread shards over a big area of the pit straight.

After the leading runners had pitted under the safety car, Ricciardo lay fifth on his new soft tyres, with every car ahead of him now on the slower mediums – and the previously big deficit to the Ferraris wiped out. Game on. He made a move on Hamilton the moment the safety car came in, getting ahead into Turn One. In trying to resist, Hamilton understeered into the Red Bull’s side, causing it some bodywork damage but not enough to stop Ricciardo’s charge. His fourth place became third as Räikkönen’s Ferrari was retired with an ersH problem. Next he was all over Rosberg’s Mercedes, but it was too fast at the end of the straights. This wasn’t a day for settling for a result, though. With time running out, he felt if he could just scrape past the Merc, Vettel’s Ferrari would be within reach. Making an incredibly late dive down the inside of Turn One, smoke pouring off the front tyres, he was briefly ahead – but as they exited the corner their lines converged, each refusing to cede. The Red Bull’s wing cut the Merc’s left-rear tyre, consigning Rosberg to a long, slow drive for a replacement, and Ricciardo to the pits for a penalty, extinguishing any hope of victory and dropping him a place to Kvyat.

With the Mercs in trouble, it had been a day of opportunity for everyone – and Ferrari had grasped it. But for Red Bull to have been in the hunt to do so was a measure of its recent progress on track.

Turns 8&9, Hungaroring
Trackside view

Up at Turns Eight-Nine, at the track’s maximum altitude, the breeze that is blowing up the dust and swaying the branches is a calming balm beneath a savage, unrelenting Budapest sun.

Up here the sonic echoes of the car that’s just flashed by interweave with those approaching from down below, an F1 wall of sound. They pop over a crest on the approach to the chicane, run hard over the kerbs out of there, ragged, their rear tyres finding the brown dust between the kerb serrations, throwing it into the air as they accelerate hard towards you, growing bigger in the frame dramatically quickly. Understeer is the enemy as they attack the left-hander of Eight, taking them out too far to the right, off the optimum approach line for the right-hander at Nine.

Nico Rosberg is trying to find a way around this inconvenience, briefly experimenting with a shallower turn-in to Eight from farther back, carrying more speed up to the apex, but then having to get messy and slow to bring it all into line. He wrestles with this transition for a couple of laps before accepting the cure is worse than the problem.

The Toro Rossos are understeering more than the others, the team trying to protect overheating rears, and standing up so close you can hear their front tyres scrabbling across the surface, trying but failing to get a bite. The generic understeer limitation is bringing out the ghost of the flick and catch technique of Kimi Räikkönen’s more exuberant younger days, when his future seemed as limitless as that bright Budapest sky. The echoes of his car hang poignant in the dusty air.

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