The Hungarian Grand Prix returned the least predictable verdict on the eve of the Budapest race. A splash of water in the minutes that accompanied the start was enough to trigger a multiple rear-end collision at the first corner that shuffled the fortunes of the race and the championship. As if the dose of unpredictability and confusion wasn’t enough already, the Mercedes wall added further drama to the Sunday, becoming the protagonist of one of his rare strategic mistakes, with Brackley’s technicians guilty of not having recalled Hamilton to the pits to switch to dry tires like the rest of the grid.
With the multiple British champion relegated to the bottom of the group, Esteban Ocon and Sebastian Vettel emerge unexpectedly from the toboggan of the Hungaroring. Both the French and the German were very skilled in chasing each other in less than two seconds for almost 70 laps along the uninterrupted succession of curves of the Hungarian track, with Ocon never giving in to the pressure exerted by the constant presence of the AMR21 in the mirrors, avoiding making mistakes and thus going to win the first career success.
“I knowno a bit disappointed because I felt I was a bit faster for most of the race“, he has declared Sebastian Vettel. “Esteban didn’t make a mistake and I never managed to get close enough. It’s not a track where it is particularly easy to overtake, I pushed hard but in the end he always stayed on track ”. The Aston Martin rider was unable to capitalize on the slight superiority in the race pace, slowed down by the aerodynamic disturbance generated by Ocon’s car on a particularly guided track and therefore sensitive to this phenomenon. The succession of laps in the wake of the Alpine also did not help the management of the tires of Vettel’s single-seater, further preventing a possible assault by the German.
I overtake Alpine and Aston Martin, but AlphaTauri is alive
The unexpected result of the Budapest race invites us to linger on the cars of Alpine and Aston Martin, often neglected due to the attention catalyzed every weekend by the two teams fighting for the title. Although aware that the fortuitous combination of the episodes in the first laps contributed heavily to the podium in Hungary, both the cars protagonists of the Grand Prix showed significant growth throughout the season, getting closer in performance to AlphaTauri, the first rival for fifth place. in the league. Both the A521 and the AMR21 have been consistently developed at every race, with the provision of a long succession of aerodynamic upgrades. A detail of interest from the weekend at the Hungaroring is how narrow the Aston Martin’s rear hood vent was, especially when compared to other Mercedes-powered teams, on a weekend that was expected to be scorching. The British single-seater therefore shows a remarkable effectiveness of the cooling system, also the result of the overhaul of the bellies carried out between Imola and Portimao, which allows the opening of smaller vents, thus reducing the disturbance on external aerodynamics.
With the placings of Budapest, Alpine and Aston Martin overtake AlphaTauri in the fight for fifth place among the constructors. Net of the randomness of the episodes that occurred in the race, the Faenza team confirms that it has all the credentials to be able to aspire to the fifth world championship pizza. Over the course of the season the AT02 proved to be not only a particularly fast car on the straight, but also balanced and at ease on the most guided tracks such as Monaco, where Gasly took fifth place, and the Hungaroring, which saw the Frenchman start from the fifth box of the grid. The duo formed by Gasly and the Italian team can consistently aspire to the points, also having the potential to fight with Alpine and Aston Martin in the second half of the season.
The expected confrontation at the top between Mercedes and Red Bull did not go beyond qualifying, with Hamilton and Verstappen forced by circumstances to play two races at a distance from each other. Preparation for the weekend was affected by record temperatures recorded on Friday and Saturday, initially expected also for Sunday’s race. The peaks of over 60 ° C of the asphalt affected the thermal management of the tires and the search for balance, thus complicating the work of refinement of the set-up in free practice sessions.
All in all Mercedes has appeared more balanced and competitive than rivals since Friday afternoon, without the need to try different set-up solutions across the various sessions. The confidence in the form of the W12 at the Hungaroring was such that in the FP3 on Saturday morning the Brackley technicians sacrificed a qualifying simulation to try a short stint with red tire at partial fuel load, in anticipation of a possible strategy for two stops in the race.
Red Bull, on the other hand, highlighted difficulties in finding the ideal set-up, to the point of trying in FP3 two different hind wings, a work that if performed on Saturday morning does not show the ability to explore every possible way, but rather an attempt in extremis to correct the gaps that have emerged up to that point. While on Friday both RB16Bs had a high-load straight-profile rear wing (version 1), on Saturday morning Verstappen switched to a more unloaded spoiler wing (version 2). Perez even played the first half of FP3 with the first version, only to convert to his partner’s solution during the session in progress.
The decision to unload the rear on a high load track such as the Hungaroring could be the result of the will of reduce the energy transferred vertically to the tires, which in anticipation of a hot race would have contained overheating. Already at Silverstone after qualifying the Milton Keynes technicians seemed worried about it, so much so that they decided to unload the rear of Perez’s car by taking advantage of the retirement in the sprint race. However, as also evidenced by Federico Albano, the least-loaded wing used in Hungary could likewise be a choice resulting from the need to aerodynamically balance the car after the understeer that emerged on Friday.
The verdict, however, was that of a confused Red Bull and a superior Mercedes in Hungary, capable of monopolizing the first daughter of the grid. Even in the case of a dry race it would have been difficult for Verstappen to worry the Silver Arrows, thanks to having had to pass the Q2 cut with a soft compound due to the improvements of the opponents, as confirmed by the Dutchman in the post qualifying. Furthermore, despite the more unloaded set-up, Red Bull suffered a decent delay from Mercedes also on the straight, highlighting a lower competitiveness of the Honda power unit contrary to the indications of the previous races.
It remains to be seen whether the motoring gap that emerged in Hungary is the child of a more conservative mapping chosen for Verstappen’s engine after the violent impact at Silverstone or whether Mercedes has progressed on the power unit front. In fact, following the trip to Austria, James Allison announced that intense work was underway at Brixworth to improve hybrid management strategies, capable of providing some extra horsepower to the W12. The alleged advancements of the engine are added to the aerodynamic updates introduced at Silverstone which contributed to the leap forward of the Mercedes, which in Hungary was able to make the most of the innovations introduced previously by exploiting the experience and data accumulated in the previous race.
Overall, leaving aside the considerations on the impact of the individual episodes on the championship, the impression is that so far between Mercedes and Red Bull a large gap has been found only in the double trip to Austria and in the anomalous city tracks. For the rest of the season, however, the gap in performance remained limited, suggesting that from now to the end of the championship the difference will not only be the characteristics of the different tracks, but also the goodness of the preparation work for each single Grand Prix, the importance of which is evidenced by what happened in the free practice of the Hungaroring.
Also weighing on Red Bull is the introduction of the third seasonal power unit for Max Verstappen already in Hungary. The Dutchman will now not be able to count on the reliability updates initially expected after the summer break, which would have allowed him to adopt slightly more aggressive and performing mappings, or, more likely, he will have to mount an updated fourth unit, while serving a penalty on the grid. starting in one of the next appointments.
It was difficult for Ferrari to expect an encore of Monaco’s performances, given the profound differences between the two tracks. In fact, both tracks require maximum aerodynamic load, but generated in different conditions, in particular in the medium-high speed curves for the Hungaroring, unlike the low-mileage curves of the Principality.
However, SF21 was expected from other findings in Hungary. Although Leclerc’s seventh place in qualifying was just 13 thousandths away from Gasly’s fifth place and Sainz was unable to express his potential in Q3, the characteristics of the Magyar track led to a foreshadowing of a Red capable of at least winning the center of the group. The Maranello technicians had also tried to increase the aerodynamic load at the rear on Saturday morning to improve the flying lap, in response to the difficulties that emerged already on Friday afternoon.
On a track theoretically difficult to the characteristics of the MCL35M, McLaren still managed to prevail over Ferrari in qualifying. On the occasion of the trip to Budapest, the Woking team has introduced the latest updates to the single-seater, which affected the area of the boomerangs in front of the air intakes of the side radiators.
With the arrival of the summer break it is possible to draw a picture in view of the second half of the season. The scenario is that of a championship that at the individual ranking levels appears particularly balanced, able to offer three challenges worthy of equal attention upon returning from the stop. To the duel at the top between Hamilton and Verstappen, perfectly reflected by the challenge between the manufacturers between Mercedes and Red Bull, are added the confrontation for the world podium between McLaren and Ferrari, separated by 3 points, and the three-way fight for fifth place between Alpine, Aston Martin and AlphaTauri, packed in 11 lengths. With the development of the cars now completed and the attention catalysed largely by 2022, starting with Spa the preparation work in the factory and refining on Fridays it will become the only factor with which teams can really make a difference.