Hungaroring Race Analysis

Let's be honest, this year's Hungarian GP was a bit of a snooze. If anything, it reminded us of just how spoiled for entertainment we've been recently. It was simply the right time for a dud race to come along, with no overtaking, no stuck wheels in pit-stops, no rain, no safety car and no lunatics on the grass. The race also had that other classic ingredient of a boring afternoon; impressive reliability amongst the frontrunners, with just one retirement - that of Giancarlo Fisichella - from the top 12 qualifiers

Hungaroring Race Analysis

That's not to detract from a fine performance from Mika Hakkinen and McLaren, who did not put a foot wrong. It was a typical Mika win from the front; on the limit when he needed to be, and utterly concentrated on his lap times.

It might not have been a thriller, but there was still much of interest in Hungary, not least the battle for second. And don't forget that eight years ago Nigel Mansell clinched the World Championship at this very race. If nothing else, Hungary left the title battle as finely poised as it's ever been, and mathematically, it now cannot be resolved before Indianapolis. And to clinch it there, Mika has to outscore Michael by 18 points over the next three races - and that doesn't allow for David Coulthard enjoying a resurgence. I haven't worked out the permutations required to take the fight all the way to the finale in Malaysia, although I suspect BC Ecclestone already has a man working on it...

The key was of course the start, when for the second time in a row, Mika ignored the fact that he wasn't on pole and blasted into the lead. My eyes were focussed on DC's spinning rear wheels when the lights went out and, stranded on the dirty inside part of the grid, David had no chance of getting away better than his team mate. Hakkinen's getaway was so much better than Michael's he almost ran into the back of him about 100m down the road. His spectacular dive down the inside was a rare example not only of an overtly aggressive move by the Finn, but of Mika taking on Michael wheel-to-wheel at any point in a race. How often have we seen the two of them actually dicing for position? This time, Michael gave him room.

It was interesting to note that on the second lap Michael closed right up on Mika, whose time on that lap was actually slower than five of the drivers immediately behind him. Not by much, but at that stage you'd usually expect the leader to be driving in qualifying mode in order to open up a gap. It could be that Mika was quite deliberately looking after his tyres while they were still fresh, and if so, he was well advised. On the third lap he improved his pace by a massive 1.8s, and thereafter he continued to bang in quick times that saw a perplexed Schumacher fall away at 0.3-4s per lap. This how the gap went in the opening stint:

As you can see it evened out a little, but at this point Michael was clearly too far behind to think about leapfrogging Mika at the pit-stops. Then a funny thing happened. On lap 25 Mika put in a storming lap almost 1s quicker than the pace he had been running. He was also very quick on lap 26. And then on lap 27, when he did yet another quick time, Schumacher came into the pits...

A cynic might suggest that McLaren somehow knew, two full laps before the mechanics dashed into the pitlane, that Michael was due in for what was a relatively early stop. It was almost as though Mika had been told that he should bang in some quick times in order to put the pressure on Ferrari... Or was it the other way round and Ferrari reacted to Mika's sudden sprint, hoping that new tyres would revive Michael's fortunes?

The significance of this first stop was that it was just about early enough to bring back the spectre of 1998, when Michael squeezed in three pit visits and left McLaren wrong-footed. Perhaps Ron Dennis and his men were wary of a repeat.

Mika did one more super quick lap, on lap 28, by which time Michael was out of the pits and a large gap safely established. At that point Mika's times dropped by 1s a lap once more...

Mika stopped on lap 31, and again he went for a set of four new tyres. This time he didn't seem to concerned about bringing them in gently, and his first flying lap was a stunning 1m20.028s, his fastest of the race and 0.734s quicker than any Michael would run all afternoon! By the time it all settled down, he'd extended his lead to 13s, and there was no sign of any magic sprint from the Ferrari ace. It was effectively all over. In fact Michael had been forced to do the unthinkable - he had given up the chase...

"When Michael tried to push it started to fade away," said Ross Brawn. "He had to keep a controlled pace, so he certainly couldn't catch Mika. We decided to make sure he could keep the tyres together to hold David behind. He was being a little bit cautious, although we couldn't have been that much quicker, just to make sure that the tyres were still there at the end of the stint to keep David behind."

Mika's lead over Michael reached a peak of 27.2s on lap 62, but as he backed off in the closing stages, he allowed the gap to tumble to just 7.9s at the flag. He made it look easy, but the afternoon clearly took a lot out of him. He hardly did a victory jig when he got out of the car, and offered only a feeble wave to the massive Finnish crowd. And after the podium and the FIA press conference, he refused to follow the usual protocol and face the waiting camera crews; they were asked to come back later, after he'd had a rest in the motorhome. Michael's glum expression on alighting from the car told its own story.

At least we had something to watch behind Mika, even if the destiny of the winner's trophy seemed settled. David's first stint had not been a happy one. After a few laps he'd struggled with the balance and had fallen away from Michael. Indeed, by the time the German stopped, he was more than 7s behind the Ferrari.

However, on old tyres and low tanks David was a little quicker than Michael, who had again had opted for new rears and scrubbed fronts when he stopped. So by the time DC pitted, five laps after Michael, the gap had come down a little.

Having struggled with his all-new first set, David went for Plan B and opted for the same new/scrubbed mixture as Michael at his second stop. He immediately went quickly, and closed the gap to Schumacher in just a handful of laps, as you can see:

At this point David lost a little momentum behind Gaston Mazzacane. After that Michael matched his pace, and for the next few laps the gap would stay at around 2s. Still, DC was just about close enough to be able to get past at the stops, if circumstances worked in his favour. They didn't. The gap came down to 1.5s as the stops drew near, but then on lap 47s DC lost more than 1s to Michael when they both came up to lap Marc Gene.

Then on lap 50, with a queue of lapped cars up ahead, Michael dived into the pits for his second and final stop. Normally the routine would be for DC to bang in three or four quick laps and try to get a big enough gap on Michael to be able to stay ahead when he made his own stop. But traffic was likely to get in the way - Zonta, Diniz and Irvine were up ahead, in that order. And that is precisely why Ferrari brought Michael in.

"We became more concerned about keeping David behind," said Brawn, "And I think the way we ran the pit-stops was quite good. We could see the traffic coming, we guessed that while he maybe had a few more laps' worth of fuel, within that traffic he wasn't going to do anything with it, so we called the car in, and it worked perfectly."

McLaren could see the same scenario unfolding, and allowed David just one lap in which to try to make up the time. He nearly did it - his 'in' lap was actually 0.7s quicker than Michael's, which was no mean achievement. But as he exited the pits, Michael, with the momentum on his side, swept past to regain second. For the rest of the race the pair sat virtually nose-to-tail, and there was nothing David could do about it.

"Today I should have been second, that's the bottom line," he explained afterwards. "You sometimes have a good run with traffic, sometimes not. I found it difficult out there to get the space that I needed, but it's just an observation really, I can't change anything now. A couple of times I got close to Michael and then dropped back, and I had to pit early on my last stop, because there were three cars in front of me, and there was no way I could have done another three or four laps even with the fuel I had, because all I would have done is driven in traffic. So I just had to do that one lap, and hope that that was enough. Had I been closer to him when he pitted, then I think we could have sneaked out in front, and that would have been six points."

Tyres were obviously a key factor. Everyone except Pedro de la Rosa had chosen extra softs rather than the softs, and since a first lap shove from Jacques Villeneuve ("I was trying to get away from Zonta") put the Arrows rear suspension out of kilter, we'll never know how the Spaniard's choice would have panned out.

But as we've seen, even those on the same compound had different options. This year we've often seen the leading teams experiment with running scrubbed extra softs on the front, and fresh rubber on the rears. In qualifying this has sometimes worked surprisingly well, when logic suggests that new tyres would be quicker. But this odd combination can provide a better balance.

However, even those who preferred to run four new tyres, like Mika, had to compromise. When he made his second stop he had no fresh sets left, so he had to use a set of scrubbed tyres for his third and final set. To re-cap, this is how the top three guys ran their races:

I'd love to be able to come to some accurate conclusions as to exactly how this all helped to determine the pattern of the race, but I haven't got a clue. And the guys who really should know were themselves scratching their heads a bit at the end of the race. Ferrari did not know why Michael was slow. "No good reason yet," said Brawn. "We're obviously going to think about the problem; it seems there was quite a swap round between yesterday and today. The car was quite good this morning in the warm-up, so we're quite puzzled at the moment."

What is obvious is that Coulthard clearly had a problem with his first set, but Mika, on the same choice of all-new tyres, did not.

"I was surprised with Mika's pace at the beginning of the race," rued David. "But then I would have liked to have known what his pace was and my pace was on the second and third set of tyres. I had a different car after I changed. The first set was a new set, and I'll have to see where we were on pressures.

"I put the second set on and bang, I was back up there again. All it takes is one tyre not to be quite right, and then you're in trouble. I think if you look, I was dropping back from Michael on one set, I put the other set on and suddenly bang, I'm back in the race and pushing him all the way."

David was absolutely right, and when he got back to the McLaren debrief, he learned that the pressures of his first set were not at the optimum.

"The rears had come a little bit high," admitted Adrian Newey. "The problem is that you're trying to judge the pressures to quite fine values. The ambient changes, or the fuel load changes. The way the tyre handles will affect how the pressures build up, so it's difficult to get it spot-on."

Brawn said that Michael was not able to push on the tyres he'd chosen: "They could do one quick lap, and then the next lap was slow. The balance was quite good." However, he felt that Mika's choice would have been even worse for Ferrari: "For us the new fronts were there for one lap and then they weren't there for five laps."

"On Friday we were reasonably happy," said Newey, "and on Saturday morning we seemed to lose the balance, so we worked hard to try and get that back again today. We made some changes through the weekend, and we made a final small adjustment on the grid. I lost count of the number of big changes - you're just evolving a set-up. You're trying to optimise the package around the driver and the tyres and the circuit."

Complicated stuff indeed. And that's why Adrian and Ross get paid shedloads to suss it out, and we just watch...

There wasn't a lot of action to be seen down the field. Good pit strategy got Rubens Barrichello ahead of Ralf Schumacher for fourth, but the Brazilian was not too happy with his afternoon:

"I have to be content, because I paid the price for starting so much on the back," he said. "I had a trouble qualifying with the car, and even more with traffic. When I was in clean air I was definitely very good, I could do really good times. As you can see I did second fastest lap, which wasn't bad. But then something happened with my last set, maybe because I had two new tyres and then I didn't have new tyres at the end, so that was the problem. The only thing I could have done better was to be closer to Coulthard, but I wouldn't have finished higher than fourth from the position I started in."

Ralf's drive to fifth was a good, solid performance, as was Frentzen's lonely run to sixth. But particularly noteworthy was Jarno Trulli's move from 12th on the grid to seventh, helped by a brave single-stop strategy - virtually unheard of in Hungary. He actually did 43 laps with his first set of tyres, but said it was the only decent option.

"Starting from where I was, yes. After qualifying we found out the problems we had on the car, and it was the only way to try to be as close as possibly to scoring points. Unfortunately for me today it was one of the few races where we had no retirements in front! It was very hard, especially because of tyres. At the end of each stint, it was really difficult. We must say it wasn't at all the strategy which should have played out best, but starting from where I was, it worked out well."

What a shame he didn't get at least a point.

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