Saturday Night Fever: Hungary

The fallout from Buttongate is still dominating the paddock conversation in Hungary, but it's time to focus on the fact that we could have a race on Sunday. It's strange to say that of a track where overtaking is so hard, but that can often contribute to the overall fun. Adam Cooper looks at how the field shapes up

Saturday Night Fever: Hungary

You don't need me to tell you that this track is famous for providing interesting results. Remember Thierry Boutsen holding off Ayrton Senna, or Damon Hill in an Arrows passing Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari? Last year Fernando Alonso streaked off into the distance, helped by Mark Webber's Jaguar holding up the rest of the field for the first few laps. That gave him the breathing space he needed to guarantee victory.

Having said all that, the grid does not inspire confidence. Last year Ferrari had a terrible time in Hungary, and this time they've hit back by locking out the front row. While there have been races this year where one felt the opposition still had a chance, this time there's little reason to get excited. As someone said, "I think we'll see an assassination tomorrow..."

The Hungaroring is regarded by the teams as being Monaco without the barriers, and with the dusty surroundings providing an interesting natural hazard. The cars carry as much downforce as they can muster, and great attention is paid to cooling.

The surface, the hot weather and the endless sequences of corners mean that tyres have hard time, and keeping on top of degradation is a priority. The real hard work was done by Michelin and Bridgestone weeks ago in testing, and Friday was the last chance for the teams to gamble on which of the two tyres they had access to was going to be the ticket for race day. Last year Bridgestone clearly got it wrong, as it did in Monaco, and on a bad day for Ferrari Michael went through the pain of being lapped.

Multiple pit stops are encouraged by the tyre situation, and by the fact that this is one of the hardest tracks in terms of the effect that weight has on lap times. Indeed 10kgs of fuel will cost around 0.4s a lap.

Last year seven of the points scorers went for three stops, and we are sure to see the same again, although there is always possibility that someone might consider four, as tried so successfully by Schumacher at Magny-Cours. Here's what happened last year:

F Alonso 13-30-49
K Raikkonen 15-33-51
J Montoya 16-35-51
R Schumacher 17-34-53
D Coulthard 18-43
M Webber 13-31-50
J Trulli 15-32-52
M Schumacher 17-39-50

Alonso took a gamble and it paid off when he got pole, and Webber's role riding shotgun was a bonus. If this year's trend of earlier stop is continued, we can expect to see people coming in a lot earlier than lap 13. The big problem is of course that early stoppers might then come out into traffic for four or five laps, so it's a delicate balancing act.

From the start of the weekend it was pretty evident that Bridgestone had got its sums right, and qualifying simply underlined that. Despite his usual role as track cleaner in the first session Michael set a time that remained unchallenged until his team mate was able to beat it. The nearest anyone else came was Takuma Sato, who was 1.2 off Rubens.

Of course sometimes we've seen some mind games going on between the two sessions, as leading contenders make drastic changes to fuel loads. This time the psychological warfare was simply a total crushing of the opposition by Ferrari in qualifying proper. Again the quickest rival was Sato, but he was just 0.5s off - despite a mistake.

The interesting thing was that while Michael lost just 0.039s between runs, Barrichello's time dropped by a huge 0.887s, which put him behind the World Champion. Clearly that was not the plan, as was shown by his grim face when he alighted from the car. He is on the softer Bridgestone, and was thus expected to be faster. Michael's harder tyre is regarded as a better race prospect, and on Saturday morning he ran a series of consistently quick laps that gave rivals plenty of food for thought.

Despite all the recent aggro BAR hogs the second row, with Sato piping Button by just 0.007s.

"I think we're pretty happy," says technical director Geoff Willis. "Given the pace of the Ferrari yesterday and today, then the second row is pretty good for us. We certainly felt that the car was going to be quick here. There have been no big problems, and we're in a good position for tomorrow. However, both drivers didn't get particularly good laps. Jenson was struggling in sector one, and Taku had a big moment at the end of sector two. So they probably both lost two or three tenths there.

"We'll see tomorrow whether Ferrari is going longer or shorter than us, and that will explain how far we are from them. I guess that they're still a couple of tenths quicker than us. I think it will be a hard slog tomorrow. Rumours we're hearing about the tyre choice suggest that Michael is in a pretty good position."

Most people expected Renault to be front row material, so fifth for Alonso is a little disappointing, unless he has got some extra laps in his tank and last year's strategy has been swapped for a late stop. The ever-unlucky Trulli was hampered by light drizzle that last for just a few minutes, and is stuck in ninth.

Williams look pretty average in sixth and seventh - Pizzonia ahead of his senior team mate - but the most intriguing story is that at McLaren, where Raikkonen starts 10th and Coulthard 12th. The cars were quick earlier in the weekend, but are believed to be on the harder Michelin after suffering blistering problems. An obvious conclusion is that the team might have gone for a heavier load - whether it's enough to justify a two-stopper remains to be seen.

Giancarlo showed more evidence of a strong Bridgestone performance with eighth. Sauber's tyres are of the same construction but a harder compound than those used by Ferrari.

"I think we've got the measure of everybody else," says Willis. "Renault seem to have gone backwards this weekend, or we've gone forwards, and I suppose Williams have struggled a bit. Changing the nose hasn't made an obvious difference to them."

One interesting factor is that there was a heavy storm just before the F3000 race, and then more rain in the early evening, so the track will be fairly green. Dry weather is expected for the race, but it will probably be a lot cooler than the tyre companies were expecting.

So will we see much of a race? All depends on the first lap. Those starting on the dirty side of the track - Barrichello, Button and Pizzonia - might lose out. The Renaults are on the clean side, so expect to see them fly.

"Certainly we would prefer to see a hotter race tomorrow," says Geoff. "With a green track that might help us a bit. But I think we're in a good position to be best of the rest. Whether we can get past one of the Ferrari - we'll try, but I suspect at least one of them is too far ahead..."

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