Questions for the 2013 Hungarian GP
Will the revised Pirellis have a big impact? Can Hamilton halt his title slide? And will Massa just stop spinning?
By James Galloway, Mike Wise and Pete Gill
Last Updated: 25/07/13 1:22pm
Will the revised Pirellis have any effect - and will they withstand the heat?
Such was the interest at last week's Silverstone test in Daniel Ricciardo' Red Bull 'audition' and some of the eye-catching performances of motorsport's rising talents, that tyres - the dominant talking point in the sport all season - almost became an afterthought in discussion. The implicit meaning of that anonymity was undoubtedly good news for the sport: the new-look Pirellis appear to no longer be a safety concern for either teams or their drivers heading to Hungary and faster circuits beyond.
With the spectre of boycotts therefore cast to memory, the focus has now turned to what effect - if any - the revised tyres, which marry 2012 structures with existing compounds, have on the established pecking order. There certainly wasn't any obvious indication at Silverstone that there's going to be a sudden change around at the top, indeed Williams' Xevi Pujolar warned not to expect a "revolution", but the drivers in action were reporting that the new rubber was performing better over a longer stint. That's certainly good news for teams with strong race pace as they should now be able to push on throughout a race relatively unhindered.
But then there's the weather - and its effect on the tyres - to consider given that Hungary is one of many countries in Europe currently being gripped by a heatwave. The mercury is forecast to come close to hitting a rather too-sticky-for-comfort 40 degrees come Sunday, making it one of the hottest grand prix on record, and the 70-lap race certainly looks poised to a strategic exercise in heat management. Hardly the stuff of dreams for Mercedes, but likely to be welcomed by both Ferrari and Lotus.
So can Lotus win?
There's an immediate, and succinct, response to this question given Sebastian Vettel's recent form. And yet, in the aftermath of their improved showing at the Nurburgring, it doesn't require too great a flight of fancy to place either Kimi Raikkonen or (stop sniggering) Romain Grosjean on the top step of the podium on Sunday afternoon. Of course, the super-consistent Raikkonen would be most peoples' choice to stand there, but let's not forget that, both in the early laps of the German Grand Prix as well as during the early stages in Hungary last year, it was his team-mate who mustered the greater challenge. Grosjean summed it up well before the last race when he said that "sometimes we have a very good surprise: the car is amazing and the tyres are reacting well and it's going to be sort of easy to have a good result. Sometimes you go into the race and nothing goes right. It's a question mark but from what we have seen so far, there's a good chance it'll work well".
Work well it clearly did and one senses the Hungarian GP might be another race in which the variables that broadly suit the E21 will slot into place. But can the alignment be so perfect as to deliver victory? The track layout is a given and, according to forecasts, the weather promises to be even warmer than the conditions which proved so welcoming in Germany. That display confirmed that the advantage the heat hands Lotus was far greater than any performance loss from the stop-gap tyre Pirelli had introduced there for safety reasons - the use of which the team had previously vetoed with performance in mind. Can we therefore assume the new tyre to be introduced this weekend will allay such fears for good?
Victory would do that, of course, but Lotus are mindful that they will need more than their strongest suits. Another good Saturday performance will certainly be needed on a track that, although located in rolling countryside outside Budapest, could just as easily be carved from the city's streets. According to Raikkonen, however, even that is not enough. "Obviously you need to get to the front in the qualifying, but also avoid the dirty side of the track on the grid," the Finn said last week, referring to what awaits those occupying the even-numbered grid slots.
That Kimi got that part of qualifying right 12 months ago (he lined up fifth), lost ground at the start regardless, and yet still finished second indicates how well Lotus might perform this weekend; certainly it will be interesting to see whether the new tyre, or indeed the change in nominations to include the soft compound, will allow both drivers to wring even more life out of them than before. By definition, a winning weekend is a perfect weekend - Lotus are going to have to start summoning up a few more of those over the coming races.
Can Lewis Hamilton fire himself into the title fight before the break?
It was on July 29 last year when Hamilton rekindled his faltering title bid by holding off the feisty pursuit of Kimi Raikkonen - remember how he shoved team-mate Romain Grosjean off the track as he set off in chase of the McLaren? - to deliver a lights-to-flag victory in Budapest on the eve of the summer break. Then, as now, only victory was sufficient for Hamilton to depart the Hungaroring retaining a realistic hope of catching Sebastian Vettel, although both the prospect of victory and a title challenge seems far less likely this year than it did twelve months ago.
Try as they might, Mercedes just don't seem able to find a solution to their car's longstanding habit of overheating its rear tyres, a characteristic which has consistently rendered their qualifying strength a race weakness. Better than all the rest at generating heat into its tyres for a single lap on Saturday, its that very same characteristic which hurts Mercedes so corrosively on race day when Hamilton and Nico Rosberg struggle so forlornly to keep their rubber cool when the going gets long.
With record-breaking temperatures forecast for the weekend, the heat will be on Mercedes in more ways than one in Hungary. Pre-season talk of finding his feet through a transitional year too quickly forgotten, Hamilton's frustration appeared on the verge of boiling over three weeks ago at the Nurburgring, and there's no reason to believe that the new range of compounds will suit Mercedes better than its rivals - especially after the team were barred from last week's Young Driver Test when the new compounds debuted. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, just keeping his cool may be as much as can be asked of Hamilton this Sunday.
Will Felipe Massa get out of his spin?
The accident that appeared to have put his Formula 1 career in jeopardy may now be four years old, but the Hungarian GP weekend will always remain a poignant one for Felipe Massa. It's also another reminder to the rest of us that the affable Brazilian was lucky to lead a normal life, let alone race on in the sport, after suffering serious head injuries when an errant spring pierced his crash helmet in qualifying. That very sobering fact always makes speculating about Massa's future more uncomfortable than it might otherwise be, but the reality heading to the Hungaroring this year is that the Brazilian needs to start delivering consistent results again after a spate of crashes over the past two months if he is to cement his place at the Scuderia for 2014.
The last four grand prix weekends have seen the 11-time race winner crash, or spin out, of sessions on five occasions and while it's fair to say one or two of those incidents have been curious, it's highly rare in this day and age to see a top driver making such apparently basic errors on a consistent basis. Speaking after his Silverstone testing appearance last week, Massa was adamant that his speed wasn't the issue - he outqualified team-mate Fernando Alonso in Germany - and "I know if nothing strange happens I will finish in a good position". His spinning exit from the Nurburgring was certainly 'strange' to the naked eye and the Brazilian's comments appear to imply that he doesn't think his driving has solely been to blame.
Whatever though, if Ferrari are to at least regain second place from Mercedes in the Constructors' Championship then both driver and team need to get the Brazilian back in the kind of form to reproduce his strong start to the year. Putting aside the events of 2009, the 32-year-old's record around the Hungaroring hardly offers much hope with the race one of seven on the calendar that he has yet to finish on the podium at. Indeed, in nine previous attempts, Massa has only ended up in the top five on Sunday once. This time round, simply keeping his F138 out of the circuit scenery would be a positive start if the vultures aren't again to start circulating over his seat.
Who will be first to break their 2013 duck?
With this weekend representing the halfway point of the 2013 campaign - or lap 35 of Sunday's race, to be precise, due to the fact there's an odd number of races this year - it's always a good time to have a full look at how both championship tables are stacking up. Glances at the bottom end of both are particularly telling in this instance as they show that seven drivers and three teams are yet to get off the mark heading into race ten of the campaign.
While it's no shock to see the respective representatives from Caterham and Marussia still scoreless, given the top ten has remained elusive for both teams since their 2010 debuts, back at the start of the year you certainly wouldn't have expected to see both Williams drivers and one Sauber driver still marooned on zero points. In fairness to Messrs Maldonado, Bottas and Gutierrez, their failures to get into the points largely reflects on their respective teams' falls from grace, although the latter's more experienced team-mate Nico Hulkenberg has still managed to garner seven points in the recalcitrant C31. However, there are signs that the second half of the season could offer promise for all three.
Williams tested a number of new parts at Silverstone and believe the fact the revised Pirellis introduced from this weekend degrade less will allow them to make more of the FW35's stronger race pace relative to its qualifying form. In turn, Gutierrez's hopes of a maiden F1 point have already been boosted by Sauber's apparent step forward at the Nurburgring with a return to 2012 Pirelli structures and constructions perhaps also helping the Swiss team to regain some of their momentum from last year. For the struggling young Mexican in particular, a top-ten breakthrough is fast becoming a matter of urgency.