After being put firmly on the back foot by Nico Rosberg at the start of the season, Lewis Hamilton has struck back with a vengeance, winning four of the last five races, to go into this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix just a single point behind his Mercedes teammate in the championship standings. A thrilling shootout between the two rivals looks set for the second half of the Formula 1 season. In Hungary, though, there is every chance that it will be more than just a battle between Hamilton and Rosberg.
In the past two years, as it has dominated the sport, Mercedes has won at every track, except for one: the Hungaroring. And the characteristics of the circuit mean that Red Bull, which has improved considerably since two engine upgrades, will believe it has a real shot at getting a victory. Even Mercedes head Toto Wolff has acknowledged the threat to his team’s superiority this weekend.
"This circuit has not been kind to us over the past two years and it plays to the strengths of our rivals," he said earlier this week.
"The Red Bull, for example, is a car that functions well where high drag isn't penalized as much as at other types of circuit. So, in wet conditions and at low-speed circuits such as the Hungaroring, they are a major threat. We will need to be flawless to come out on top at this track."
Already Red Bull is the only team other than Mercedes to win in 2016, when Max Verstappen became the youngest Grand Prix winner in Formula 1 history in Spain. But if Red Bull received a helping hand that day from a collision between Hamilton and Rosberg, it had genuine superiority over Mercedes in Monaco. On a track similar to the Hungaroring, slow and with plenty of corners, Daniel Ricciardo took pole position and in all likelihood would have taken the victory if it had not been for a pit-stop blunder from his team.
For Rosberg, the threat of Red Bull adds another concern as he attempts to preserve a championship lead that has been dramatically eaten away by Hamilton in recent weeks. Two weeks ago at the British Grand Prix his title hopes suffered another blow when, after coming in second behind Hamilton, he was demoted a spot for breaking radio transmission rules.
The German has struggled for success in Hungary throughout his career, never finishing higher than fourth. And his chances of improving that record this weekend are threatened by the potential for a five-place grid penalty.
Rosberg suffered a gearbox problem at Silverstone and will be penalized if he has to change the gearbox this weekend. Mercedes has said it is optimistic that a change won’t be required, although the gearbox will be put to the test in practice on Friday.
Currently, there is no question that the momentum is with Hamilton, as he looks to win a third consecutive drivers’ championship.
“I'm feeling fresh, feeling powerful and feeling confident heading to Hungary,” Hamilton said upon arriving in Hungary. “It's a track that for some reason has always suited my style and I have incredible support there, so I can't wait to get to out on track. The past couple of years I haven't had the smoothest weekends in Budapest, of course. But I know I've got the pace, so I'm gunning to turn that around this time.”
Prediction: Red Bull, and particularly Ricciardo, who has been unlucky on a couple of occasions this season, should make it an exciting weekend. On a track where opportunities for passing are few and far between, qualifying promises to be key. And no one is better in a single-lap shootout than Hamilton. Back him to take pole and the checkered flag on Sunday.
Lewis Hamilton – 11/10
Nico Rosberg – 3/1
Daniel Ricciardo – 5/1
Max Verstappen – 11/2
Sebastian Vettel – 14/1
Kimi Raikkonen – 40/1
Hungarian Grand Prix Schedule (all times EDT)
Practice 1: Friday, 4 a.m.
Practice 2: Friday, 8 a.m.
Practice 3: Saturday, 5 a.m.
Qualifying: Saturday, 8 a.m.
Race: Sunday, 8 a.m.