Archive: Hungaroring

The Formula 1 world is bracing itself in anticipation of the unexpected when the travelling circus makes its next stop at Yeongam in Korea. The saga of the troubled construction of this new venue has been well documented. The latest setback came last week when newly published images appeared to show that a construction crane had toppled into the main grandstand.

After months of uncertainty, it now appears as though the Korean Grand Prix will go ahead, albeit in a facility that is not yet finished. The latest images seem to show that the circuit is finished, but the surroundings are far from perfect.

But as long as the circuit is there, a race can go ahead. The top layer of asphalt has only just gone down though, meaning that the F1 cars will have to cope with a very slippery circuit indeed next weekend. I can see it descending into farce, but it could be just the recipe for an exciting race weekend.

But what if there are still serious problems with the venue? It is unprecedented for F1 to head to a half-finished venue. You can think of Circuit de Catalunya, which held its first race in 1991 with its surroundings not looking in great nick — even though the circuit itself was perfectly usable.

The 1986 Hungarian Grand Prix also had a close shave. There are some incredible pictures of the warm-up races that clearly show the circuit still being worked on just weeks before the first Formula 1 grand prix was due to be held.

The problem is that the Korea International Circuit has not held anything in the way of proper racing yet. The circuit was “opened” on 4 September, with a demonstration run from Karun Chandhok in a Red Bull.

Clearly there was a lot of work still to be done. Multiple inspections have been cancelled. The FIA’s International Sporting Code (PDF), appendix O, article 3.4, states that a Formula 1 circuit must pass its final inspection at least 90 days before the race is due to go ahead. For other international events, the deadline is 60 days.

All of these deadlines have sailed past. An inspection due on 28 September was apparently cancelled by the FIA because there was nothing new to inspect.

Today, just ten days before F1 cars are due to go onto the track, the inspection is taking place. Now all indications are that the race will go ahead come what may. That seems to be because Bernie Ecclestone has decided it will do. To cancel the race now would be a disaster for everyone involved. It probably means cancelling next year’s race too, unless the FIA wants to overlook another of its rules.

I have no doubt that the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone know what they are doing. But surely all of those safety rules exist for a reason. Why have 90-day limits if, come crunch time, the money man decides a 10-day inspection will do the job?

What if something goes horribly wrong? I only ask because Bernie Ecclestone has gone on record during an interview with the BBC saying, “It’s quite dangerous what we’ve done, actually.”

It is true that this was Bernie Ecclestone’s way of giving the grand prix organisers the hurry-up in a public fashion. But to hear him describe “what we’ve done” as “dangerous” was surprising to me. It is a strong word that can be used against him and the FIA.

I know it says on the back of the ticket that motorsport is dangerous. But the FIA is supposed to ensure that dangers are eliminated wherever possible. It has apparently decided that this doesn’t matter in this instance. This is a precedent that surely shouldn’t be set.

The Hungarian Grand Prix lived up to its reputation for being a boring circuit in terms of overtaking, but always delivering action of some sort. Hungaroring may be dull as a spectacle, but there is never a shortage of talking points.

This year’s was provided by Michael Schumacher. His already infamous move to push Rubens Barrichello towards the pit wall while both were travelling at top speeds was one of the most vicious I have ever seen. I was yelling while it was happening.

I think I will forever vividly remember watching the onboard shot from Rubens Barrichello’s car live. I was cheering him on as he lined up to overtake Michael Schumacher. Then I was horrified when I realised what Schumacher was doing.

Not that it is much of a surprise. It is well known that Michael Schumacher is capable more than anyone else of pulling a dirty move out of his lowest drawer. His famous tainted legacy: Why does driver who is so good — a seven time World Champion no less — feel the need to pull off these extreme moves.

In a way, what he did to Barrichello in Hungary this year was worse than anything we have seen from him before. When he crashed into Damon Hill in 1994 it was to win the championship. When he crashed into Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 it was a last-ditch attempt to win the championship. When he parked his car at Rascasse in 2006 he was a championship contender. This? A futile fight for 10th position in a nothing year for him.

By now everyone knows that 2010 has not been the comeback Michael Schumacher was hoping for. In his recent interviews he has stated that he is only interested in winning championships. Scrapping away in the midfield is not interesting to him. He doesn’t like racing; he is only interested in winning.

I have always felt that his wheel-to-wheel abilities are actually quite poor. Schumacher’s speed cannot be in doubt — when he is out in front. But when he is on the back foot, he switches into panic mode. All of his most notorious moves have been snap decisions that he has made in a moment when he has suddenly been put under pressure. He is a quick driver. Unfortunately this means he often makes a move before he has engaged his brain.

This is what we have seen this year. Not just in Hungary, but also in Canada. He noticeably struggled in Montreal. He had a scrappy race and made a few panic moves, including a chop across Felipe Massa.

Unfortunately, an uncompetitive Michael Schumacher is no less ruthless. If anything, he is worse when he is on the back foot. Is it really the done thing to desperately try to push someone into the pit wall for the sake of one point?

One perspective is that this is good, hard racing. I also liked the viewpoint put forward by Axis of Oversteer — that this is the manifestation of genuine bad blood between two drivers. Schumacher and Barrichello have a lot of history, and it’s easy to imagine that this was all in the minds of both drivers.

But full credit to Rubens Barrichello for completing the move. He showed great bravery on the track, and immense integrity off the track. Barrichello’s behaviour after the race was exemplary. Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher complained that Barrichello is a whiner.

It is said that at Spa in 1998, Michael Schumacher stormed up to David Coulthard and accused him of “trying to fucking kill me”. I think Barrichello had cause to do a lot more than merely “whine”.

Michael Schumacher knows that in order to be successful you have to be ruthless, and at times aggressive. He is by no means the only aggressive driver on the grid. Mark Webber stands out. In fact, Webber was involved in quite a similar incident at Fuji in 2008 with Felipe Massa. But in this instance, Webber’s move across the track was made much earlier, much more gradually, and he did not push Massa nearly as far.

As such, Webber is respected as an aggressive driver, but also one who speaks about on-track safety with authority. As major player in the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, Mark Webber has made it his business to care about safety. This is the beauty of Mark Webber — he pushes it, but he knows exactly where the limit is, then stops. The problem Schumacher has is that he doesn’t know where the line is drawn.

Michael Schumacher is a hugely successful driver that many look up to as a role model. I would hate to think that he finds these sorts of dangerous manoeuvres acceptable. I am surprised that he did not receive a disqualification. He should also have received at least a one race ban. I bet if, say, Vitaly Petrov tried the same thing, he’d be sitting out the next few races.

The next race is in Belgium — where Schumacher’s fans turn out in force. The race after that is Monza, where the fans have quite a few fond memories of Schumacher as well. I would hate to think it is the case, but you would almost think the powers-that-be had one eye on the purse strings and the PR value of having Schumacher continuing racing — even though he is a known danger.

The final part of the factory tour was the chance to see the simulator. It is an impressive piece of kit. The driver sits in a cockpit, surrounded by a massive screen that curves round to take up his entire field of vision.

Little wonder it has been known to induce sickness. Drivers are advised that they may want to close eyes if they spin in order to avoid reacquainting themselves with their lunch. Apparently drivers have been known to be sick all over the place while driving the simulator. Come to think of it, I’m slightly suspicious because I remember that the cleaner was leaving the room just as we were entering it. We were told, though, that Kazuki Nakajima is amazing in the simulator and can spend all day in it with no ill effects.

The circuit models are said to be very accurate indeed, albeit some more accurate than others. For instance, someone else has exclusive rights to the best map of the Nürburgring. The maps are constructed using lasers. A van drives slowly around the circuit emitting laser beams at multiple angles, creating a map of millions of dots. This means that every bump on the circuit is accounted for.

An aerial image of the circuit is then overlaid on top of these dots to create the environment. But if you look at the circuit, some of the landmarks are not very accurately reproduced. In fact, some of it looks like bad virtual reality graphics. The idea is to reduce any confusion that might be caused by too many cues. If they don’t think something will give a driver an accurate cue, they won’t implement it.

Some teams have more sophisticated simulators. In some simulators the car will be on a moving platform to give the impression of movement — something clearly lacking from the still Williams cockpit. It is said that some simulators even have belts that tighten up to give you some impression of g-forces. Williams shun such devices, which they regard as off-putting.

I have to confess that I have been slightly sceptical about the Williams simulator in the past. McLaren’s is said to be amazing, but it is jealously kept under wraps from outsiders. Williams have no such qualms however. It is the only simulator that I have seen on television. See, for instance, this ITV video with Mark Blundell and this BBC video.

We were lucky enough to be in the room when occasional Williams tester Daniel Clos was driving it. He was there to acquaint himself with the Hungaroring in preparation for the GP2 races which were being held just a few days later. I have to say he didn’t look very good while we were there, and he even spun at one point. But those must have been his very first laps round the circuit and of course I am in no position to pass comment. In the real thing, he finished 11th in both races.

It is presumably a service that Williams are happy to offer young drivers in the hope of developing them into a Formula 1 star of the future. Whether Daniel Clos is one remains to be seen. But surely on his way to F1 stardom is another Williams tester, Nico Hülkenberg. Simulator Engineer Jeff Calam is adamant that the simulator is a worthwhile piece of equipment to invest in, pointing at Hülkenberg’s highly impressive GP2 results at circuits he hasn’t driven at before. This fact puts to bed my doubts about the quality of the Williams simulator.

Once the factory tour was over, we had a Q&A with Sam Michael. He was largely very open in his responses, and came across very well to me. I was impressed that he took the time out of his schedule to talk to a bunch of bloggers. You can hear audio of the Q&A session over at Brits on Pole once again.

After that, we went for a tour of the fabulous Williams museum. Here, we were expertly guided by Scott Garrett from Synergy, the company that arranged our visit on behalf of Philips. Although he now works for Synergy, he was previously Head of Marketing at Williams and now has links with a number of F1 teams. This makes him a highly knowledgeable speaker on Formula 1, and Williams in particular. It was a real pleasure to have this sort of insight.

For obvious reasons, photography was strictly forbidden in the factory, but we were free to take as many photographs as we wanted in the museum. And boy did we take the opportunity!

Early Williams cars The museum is impressive, with a range of cars from the full history of the Williams team’s existence. The first car you see is Alan Jones’s FW06 with its Ford Cosworth engine peering out the back. Cars are displayed, more or less a car for every year, right up to 2007′s FW29 — the very car that the competition winner will be driving.

All-in-all, the museum contains over forty cars. We are told that Frank Williams is a hoarder. The team still owns 106 chassis, while it only makes around six per year. Most of these cars are well looked after and can theoretically still be driven. The main exception is the Honda-powered cars, because they asked for the engines back!

For the most part, the cars are laid out in chronological order, and as you make your way through the museum videos are played telling us about Williams during the period of the cars in the vicinity. The relevant cars are lit up while the video is playing.

Unfortunately, this means that they are plunged into darkness once the video is finished, and you are supposed to move along to the next section. It is a pretty clever device to get us to keep moving and get rid of us quickly, but quite annoying for those of us who would have liked to have done it at our own pace. One person sarcastically remarked under his breath, “you have a lot of great cars, then put them in the dark.” It is for this reason that the lighting is not very good in some of the photographs.

Despite the chronological layout of the museum, there is still a fairly clear centrepiece. Two cars in particular are displayed on a higher plinth — the FW18 and the FW19, the team’s latest two championship-winning cars from 1996 and 1997 driven by Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.

FW19 and FW18

A great moment of F1 geekery occurred when Mr Garrett pointed out that the FW19 on display is the actual car which Michael Schumacher famously crashed into at Jerez in 1997. Everyone went “oooh” and inquisitively gathered to look at this particularly historic Williams F1 car. The damage is still evident. I had heard that Patrick Head liked the car to be displayed with the tyre mark still there, but it has since been restored and now just looks like a couple of holes have been punched in the corner of the sidepod.

“We never got on very well with Michael Schumacher,” Scott Garrett noted, just in case we didn’t get the clue. This prompted a cheeky question from someone else, “How did you get on with Ralf?”

There is a notable omission. The most distinctive F1 car in the team’s history, the FW26 with the “walrus nose” is nowhere to be seen. It is perhaps not the team’s proudest design.

One unusual design does proudly feature though. Williams were never able to race with their FW08B six-wheeler. It was banned by the FIA before the season started over fears that it would be too dominant.

FW08B - the unraced Williams six-wheeler

Keke Rosberg's record-breaking FW10 Go up the stairs, and you will see two cars that are clearly very special to the team. One is Ayrton Senna’s test car from 1994. The other is the record-breaking FW10, in which Keke Rosberg was the first person ever to set a lap at a speed of 160mph in 1985. The record was set at Silverstone and remarkably stayed in place until 2002!

All-in-all, it was an absolutely fantastic day. Although Williams are not among my favourite teams, they have got to be admired for being so accommodating to us. If you ever get the chance to attend such an event, I would highly recommend it. A massive thank you to those who organised it and invited me.

Below is the full slideshow of photographs from my visit to Williams.

Yes, yes, I know. This is a race that happened almost two weeks ago. Sorry. You should see the list of articles I still haven’t written yet but need to get round to!

In the intervening period I have received an email asking me what I think of Renault’s ban from the European Grand Prix. Now I have been accosted in the comments by Becken for failing to review the Hungarian Grand Prix. So I’d better do it then!

First of all, you have to give massive amounts of praise to McLaren for their stunning comeback. It was clear at the Nürburgring that this was a team very much on the comeback trail. At the time I said that they could be challenging for wins in the second half of the season. But I didn’t expect it to be so soon, or so emphatic when it happened.

I am not Lewis Hamilton’s biggest fan, but I was delighted to see him winning in Hungary. It is a testament to the huge amount of effort that the McLaren team has put into developing their car — what quite frankly looked like a hopeless task just a couple of months ago. The achievement is all the more incredible when you consider that testing is banned, removing a vital tool to track how the car is developing.

Hamilton’s run at the front was not down to luck. Nor was it with someone climbing all over his gearbox. Indeed, who could even have predicted that the second-placed car running 11.5s behind would be the Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen? Are McLaren and Ferrari now once again the front-runners? It could be that kers has come of age.

At times, the grand prix had a very retro feel about it. This season has been all about a new order. But for the first phase of the race the leaders were Alonso and Hamilton, with Räikkönen in 4th. Three names we should be familiar with seeing at the front, but it was most bizarre to see it happening this year.

I can’t help but notice at the same time that the unusual stewards’ decisions have come back just as the old guard have returned to the front. During the first half of this season, the stewards were noticeably quiet (with the exception, of course, of Australia). Not now. Is there something about McLaren, Ferrari and Renault that makes the stewards just lose their minds?

As you might be able to tell, I am not very impressed with the decision to ban Renault from the European Grand Prix for Fernando Alonso’s wheel coming off. On one hand, you can understand why they did it. In the week which saw the awful death of Henry Surtees in a Formula Two race after he was hit by a wheel, and a day after Felipe Massa was hospitalised after driving into a piece of debris, seeing a wheel bouncing around the track was absolutely the last thing anyone wanted to see.

But the decision to ban the entire team from the next race feels like a complete overreaction, leading to the suspicion that it was a knee-jerk reaction. I could have understood a heavy fine, or some kind of suspended ban. But the FIA’s justification for the ban seems quite odd to me. They say that the Renault team “knowingly” released Alonso from his pit box with the wheel not securely in place. Seems a bit odd to me. Which would deliberately release their car in such a state?

Nonetheless, the fact is that the team apparently took no action after that. They neglected to inform Alonso — who thought he had a puncture — what the problem was. That seems pretty incompetent to me, if not downright negligent.

That is why I think a fine would be justified. But to ban them from the race, when we have seen countless instances of wheels falling off cars going unpunished (including a similar incident involving Alonso driving a Renault in Hungary in 2006!), is over the top in my view. That’s especially the case when you consider that the next race is in Valencia, where much of the crowd will be wanting to see Fernando Alonso in action. Sometimes you think Formula 1 likes to shoot itself in the foot.

Meanwhile, both of the teams that are battling for this season’s championship will be worried for different reasons. Brawn must now be worried about the drop in their car’s performance. There is no hiding behind explanations about the temperature. Jenson Button’s bewildered radio transmission, “How — HOW? — can this car be so BAD?” sums it up. Brawn have put something on their car to destabilise what was an awesome package.

It is not a complete disaster situation. Jenson Button finished 7th. But it now looks like Brawn are behind at least five teams: McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams and Toyota. Their journey is the opposite to McLaren’s, and their challenge will be all the more difficult with testing banned.

Button actually only lost four points of his lead, which is still 18.5 points. And that is the reason why Red Bull should be worried. Because if they are to have a hope of challenging for the Championship, they need to stay at the sharp end, and they can’t afford to have the third fastest car. They need to be at the front, collecting 18, 16, 15 points when they can. Their tally from Budapest was just six.

It must be remembered that Hungaroring is a rather unique circuit, and many of the following circuits are very different indeed. But if McLaren and Ferrari are able to leapfrog Red Bull in the long run, Red Bull need to rely on staying ahead of Williams, Toyota and Brawn if their championship battle is to come to anything.

In this sense, despite only scoring two points, Jenson Button now looks like even more of a shoe-in for the championship. I’m sure he doesn’t feel like it. I can’t wait to find out how the rest of the season unfolds.

I will review the Hungarian Grand Prix soon, but I have a couple of other articles I need to get out of the way first. I didn’t want to do any of that before mentioning Felipe Massa.

It goes without saying that I deeply hope that Felipe Massa makes a full recovery, and that it won’t be too long before he is racing again.

I was shaking during qualifying as news of what had happened to Massa had emerged. I don’t think I have ever felt that bad in all the time I have been watching Formula 1 since 1995, although Robert Kubica’s accident at Montreal in 2007 came close to that feeling.

I said last week following the death of Henry Surtees that the greatest risk that faces racing drivers is not having a heavy impact with a wall, but being hit by a wheel. This week we must extend that to debris in general. The spring that fell off Rubens Barrichello’s car is said to have weighed around a kilogram, not the sort of thing you want to be approaching at upwards of 160mph. Meanwhile, his car’s heavy impact with the tyre barrier does not appear to have caused or exacerbated any serious injury.

Martin Brundle has rightly pointed out that the term “freak accident” is inappropriate in motorsport. When you are travelling at speeds regularly approaching 200mph, there is only so much you can ever do to make it safe.

But there is no doubting that Felipe Massa was extraordinarily unlucky. The part that failed on the Brawn had never failed before. The spring then bounced around for four seconds, before just happening to be in exactly the right position to hit Massa’s helmet. You couldn’t aim it like that if you tried. Had Massa arrived a second earlier or later, or been a few inches further to the right, we probably would never have known about the spring flying around on the track.

That this should have happened just six days after the death of Henry Surtees adds further to the sense of tragedy. When you have one tragic accident it might be easy to dismiss it as a freak one-off, but to have two similar incidents in close succession rings alarm bells. Rubens Barrichello has compared this week to Imola 1994.

There will be a renewed look at safety, which I sense has taken a back seat since cost cutting became the more fashionable cause. Many are asking, is it time for Formula 1 to consider closed cockpits? The debate has been started by Ross Brawn, F1 Fanatic and Checkpoint 10. But there are no easy answers. This weekend during an IndyCar race we saw a perfect demonstration of the extra dangers that a closed cockpit may create, when Tony Kanaan’s car caught fire following a refuelling problem.

Going back to Felipe Massa, ever since the second he hit the tyre barrier the reports that have come out have been conflicting and confusing. Thankfully, the latest news appears to be positive. Let us hope that Massa will make a full and speedy recovery.

Forza Felipe.

By the end of 2006, I was thoroughly fed up with the tyre war. When Michelin left Formula 1 I was glad. This wasn’t because I have anything against the French company, but because I was simply fed up with championships seemingly being decided almost entirely by tyres — literally black boxes. Formula 1 had become a glorified tyre championship.

Two years on, and I’m beginning to wonder if anything actually changed. Even with a single tyre manufacturer, the performance of the teams seems to fluctuate wildly for seemingly little reason. And what is that reason? Tyres of course.

This seems to be the stock excuse that explains just about everything in F1. If Sébastien Bourdais is not performing, it’s the tyres. If Nick Heidfeld is struggling in qualifying, it’s the tyres. If Kimi Räikkönen is trundling around in 6th place, it’s the tyres.

Now Ferrari have been complaining about the compounds that Bridgestone have chosen in recent races, claiming that Bridgestone have tended to edge towards the harder end of the range. Hard tyres, we now know, suit McLaren well, whereas Ferrari prefer softer tyres.

Ferrari’s technical director, Aldo Costa, complained in particular about the compounds that Bridgestone took to Hockenheim — a race that the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton dominated:

I think the last race for us was very difficult for finding the good grip from the tyres, but we were not the only team. Most of the drivers were having, during the race mainly, a lot of problems to find grip.

The tyres were very, very hard, probably too hard for that kind of circuit, especially the hard tyre. There was no wear at all; the tyre just was not working for that kind of circuit. This was valid for us and it was valid as well for most of the teams.

It is a bit rich for Ferrari to be complaining about Bridgestone. The Japanese tyre company has spent the best part of the past decade pandering to the Scuderia’s every need while every other Bridgestone runner was told to suck it. At least Bridgestone are now treating their role as sole tyre supplier to F1 without favouring their old partners any more.

Bridgestone’s Hirohide Hamashima has backed up the theory:

“Basically the Ferrari has more of a tendency to understeer than the McLaren,” Hamashima told autosport.com. “The McLaren is a little bit oversteery. When the tyre has good grip, the car with the oversteer tendency will be quicker over a single lap than a neutral or understeering car.

“But when you think about racing conditions – especially with the temperatures we had at the Hungaroring – then an oversteering car will have heat generating at the rear much higher than the understeering car.

“Looking at Hungary and (Lewis) Hamilton’s car behaviour, after a few laps he struggled with oversteer – so he was making lots of counter-steering movements. On the other hand the Ferrari had a good balance after a few laps.

“That’s why the temperature is making a difference.”

I have learned this year that even with just one tyre manufacturer in F1, tyres still make a huge difference to a team’s performance. You could argue that, when everyone is given the same tyres to use, it is up to the teams to find a way to maximise the performance of the tyres themselves. However, with four compounds for Bridgestone to choose from, the teams simply have to build their cars not knowing which tyres they will end up using most often.

Perhaps F1 could bring in a genuine control tyre, where Bridgestone make just one compound of tyre for all circuits so that the teams will know exactly what to expect all season. However, Bridgestone would be dead against this because they want people to talk about the tyres more often. Also the performance of the tyres would probably vary from team to team depending on the weather conditions and the characteristics of each circuit.

I suppose I should just accept that tyres will always play a huge role in motor racing. With tyres being the only part of the car that really propels the vehicle, their importance ought not to be such a surprise. But I’d even rather be talking about how important silly aerodynamic pieces like shark fins are than talk about these dull, dull, dull tyres.

Felipe Massa remains, to me, the most mysterious driver on the grid — perhaps even more mysterious than Kimi Räikkönen. He has a reputation of being a highly erratic driver. And yet, had his engine now blown in Hungary he would be leading the championship. Indeed, as things stand he is only eight points away from the lead — not a million miles off.

He can have more spins than you can count in Silverstone, leave out the welcome mat for overtaking cars in Germany, then pull off one of the most amazing starts you have ever seen in Hungary. This repeats a similar pattern at the start of the season. He had a pair of embarrassing spins in Australia and Malaysia. Everyone was writing him off. And then bang, bang, bang — 28 points from three races.

The constant fall and rise, fall and rise characterises Felipe Massa. Is he genuine championship material or just a mediocre driver who is simply lucky enough to have a great car?

I was developing a theory about what was going on. Last week Bridgestone boss Hirohide Hamashima seemed to confirm it.

Hamashima has also shed some light on the fight at Ferrari between Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen — claiming the Brazilian is superior when the car is perfect, but Raikkonen excels when the driver has to overcome some technical deficiencies

“When the car conditions are very suitable for Felipe his abilities are 110%, but once the car is not so good his abilities are 90%,” he explained. “But Kimi could get the package performance at 100% even if the car condition is not so good.”

That fits with what is becoming clear about Felipe Massa. If conditions are not quite right, he is simply all over the place. Think of the rainy conditions at Silverstone, for instance. But when the car is well hooked-up, Massa is a machine. In Budapest, the warm temperatures suited the Ferrari down to the ground and Massa had an amazing start and drove a great race until his engine expired.

So, Massa excels when conditions are perfect for him, but can’t cope if the slightest thing is wrong. This begs the question though. Does this sort of driver deserve to win the World Championship? Should a Champion really be the sort of person who can cope with some drizzle? Someone who can cope with a bit of adversity? Or does his superiority in perfect conditions excuse his mishaps?

This season just seems destined to provide excitement. The Hungarian Grand Prix is usually among the most boring races of the year. The tight and twisty configuration would make it tough to overtake anyway. But the geography of the Hungaroring, which is situated in a natural bowl near Budapest, means that all the dust from the city descends upon the circuit.

This means that even after a weekend of practice sessions and support races, drivers must keep to the racing line like a slot car or risk getting bogged down. The dust problem is so bad that the dirty side of the track is so dirty that it is often, perversely, advantageous to start from 3rd or 5th on the grid than 2nd.

No-one told that to Heikki Kovalainen. The Finn started 2nd on the grid but went on to win the race. However, his start was poor. You might suspect in the back of your mind that Felipe Massa was aiming to start 3rd on the grid rather than 2nd. What was surprising about the Brazilian’s start was not that he passed Kovalainen, as this was to be expected. But he got a superior start to widely-fancied pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton panicked as his mirrors filled with red. The Brit went to the inside to try and defend his position into the first corner. But this only meant that he got bogged down in the dust. Massa, after getting a bit of a slipstream from Hamilton, stuck more closely to the cleaner racing line and had superior grip into turn 1.

Massa’s move was incredible for its bravery and aggressiveness. Massa threw caution to the wind but appeared to have it all under control the whole way through. He smartly forced Hamilton onto the dirty side of the track, knowing that even if Hamilton maintained the lead into turn 1, the Brit would get worse traction and would also be on the outside for turn 2. Massa the mediocre driver continues to show flashes of brilliance.

What was even more surprising was that Massa began to pull away from the McLarens. This was supposed to be a McLaren walkover. McLarens are meant to suit tight and twisty circuits, and this certainly wasn’t going to plan.

I read a good theory which is that the old wheelbase explanation — whereby Ferraris suit circuits with fast, sweeping corners while McLarens prefer twisty circuits — no longer cuts it. As Ferrari moved to a shorter wheelbase and McLaren moved to a longer wheelbase configuration, this seems to make sense. After all, McLaren were dominant at Silverstone which is a pretty fast circuit with long, sweeping corners. Now Ferrari have (or at least Massa has) excelled in Hungary.

Instead, we should look to the weather as an explanation. McLaren prefer cooler conditions, whereas Ferrari cope better in the heat. If that theory is true, I guess, therefore, that McLaren should be worried that the remaining European races take place in the height of summer, with the other non-European races taking part in hot places like Singapore and China.

Things went from bad to worse for Hamilton as a puncture towards the end of his second stint thwarted what little hope he had of catching Massa. The puncture developed on turn 1 of the circuit, meaning that Hamilton had to go round the whole circuit with it. He lost a lot of time and emerged from the pitlane in 10th place. Moreover, he was the first driver in the entire field to make his second stop and had to spend 28 laps on the softer tyres which don’t suit the McLaren.

Nonetheless, Hamilton was able to move up the standings as people in front of him pitted. In the circumstances, a salvaged 5th position is not a bad result. However, it bodes badly for Lewis Hamilton’s ongoing tyre management issues. Just when I thought he had got over his tyre problems, another Hamilton tyre has popped. This is clearly Hamilton’s Achilles’ heel. Having said that Bridgestone’s initial assessment is that the tyre damage may have been caused by debris.

Despite the bad result though, Hamilton has, somewhat perversely, extended his lead in the Drivers Championship. Because while Hamilton’s race was bad, Massa’s was even worse. Nothing to do with the Brazilian’s driving, which was about as great as I have ever seen it. But, agonisingly, Massa’s Ferrari engine blew just two laps from the end. You could see how distraught he was as he emerged from his car, which came to a stop on the pit straight, and walked around the pitlane like a headless chicken.

I am no fan of Massa or Ferrari, but you had to feel sorry for him. Massa should have had this race wrapped up, and he was robbed. I’ll give you that about the Hungaroring — at least it springs the odd surprise in the form of sudden retirements from the lead. Who could forget Damon Hill in 1997 or Fernando Alonso in 2006?

So Hamilton’s blown tyre and Massa’s blown engine meant that McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen became the unexpected victor. I don’t think Kovalainen deserved to win this particular race. But to win a race you need both a reliable car and the good driving skills, and Kovalainen had the best balance of that today — even though his race was rather anonymous.

The likeable Finn will be a popular winner. It is also this season’s second new winner after Kubica took the chequered flag in Canada. Kovalainen will enter the record books as the 100th driver to win an F1 Grand Prix.

Special mention should go to Timo Glock. Following his heavy crash in Germany two weeks ago, Glock has bounced back in the strongest way possible. He was looking good throughout practice and qualifying. He outshone team mate Jarno Trulli and had the measure of Räikkönen’s Ferrari at the end of the race.

Renault also had an excellent race which suggests that they are coming back into form. Alonso finished 4th, not too far behind Räikkönen. Meanwhile, Piquet continued his strong run by finishing 6th. There is no doubt about it. After an immensely difficult start to the season, Nelsinho Piquet has put the jitters behind him and is now performing well.

It’s amazing to think that just a few races ago Renault were struggling to keep Honda at bay in the Constructors Championship. The Enstone-based team have more than doubled their overall points haul in just two races.

Toyota and Renault are currently the two teams on the up in the intense midfield battle. Red Bull were alarmingly off-key in Hungary. They were not in contention for a decent points finish at all in Hungary, which is unusual for Red Bull this year. The team today slipped from 4th to 6th place in the Constructors Championship at the expense of Toyota and Renault.

Meanwhile, BMW should be looking for answers in response to their alarming drop in form. Kubica qualified well but simply did not have the pace in the race, managing to score just one point. Meanwhile, Nick Heidfeld was absolutely nowhere all weekend and never placed higher than 10th. For a team that was second in the Constructors Championship until today, this is quite a disaster. Let’s hope it’s because they are concentrating on 2009.

There is a three week break now. Next up is the European Grand Prix at the brand new Valencia street circuit. By that time you might notice something else new as well…

I knew the streak of exciting races had to come to an end sooner or later, and sure enough it came to an end at Hockenheim. Or so I thought.

Then Timo Glock had a massive shunt that changed the race. Glock’s crash was quite worrying. The result of an apparent suspension failure on the kerb at turn 17, the impact was heavy and Glock appeared to be severely winded. Thankfully he seems to be okay, though he’ll be kept in hospital overnight as a precaution.

Inevitably the wreckage caused the Safety Car to come out and all the teams were ready in the pits. The cars all streamed in. All, that is, except for Lewis Hamilton. Whaaa?

Hamilton was looking supremely comfortable all race. He easily had the speed and the consistency to make everyone else on the circuit look silly. The Safety Car brought his lead down to almost zero. And to make matters worse, he still had to pit. Massa didn’t. Nor did Nelsinho Piquet.

While the Safety Car seemed to ruin Hamilton’s race, it played straight into the hands of Piquet’s one-stop strategy. Inevitably in a Safety Car period there are winners and losers, and a lot depends on whether Lady Luck is smiling on you. Piquet’s luck was certainly on his side.

But luck alone does not get anyone leading a grand prix. This was a strong message that Piquet is now upping his game. It’s the third race in a row where he has actually made Fernando Alonso look rather ordinary. I’m not saying that Piquet is better than Alonso by any stretch. But this is a far cry from the bumbling, nervy embarrassment that began this season. This was a lucky but assured drive to the front of the pack.

Meanwhile, McLaren were hoping that Hamilton was good enough to pull out enough of a lead to enable him to take a pitstop and rejoin in the lead. McLaren didn’t bank on the Safety Car staying out so long. Once Hamilton had pitted, Piquet had the lead. For a period of time, it looked as though Piquet might, outrageously, take a lucky win.

Hamilton actually came out of the pits way back in fourth, behind his team mate Heikki Kovalainen. Perhaps predictably, Kovalainen didn’t make it too difficult for Hamilton to overtake him. Hamilton let slip that team orders were at play, which was dangerous of him given the current paranoia about McLaren always receiving penalties for the slightest reason. Thankfully for McLaren, they got away with it — and fair enough too.

The next target for Hamilton was Massa. Hamilton was on fire on those soft tyres. Would Hamilton wear them out too quickly? He didn’t seem too concerned. It didn’t take long to reach Massa.

Hamilton was able to line Massa up to take advantage of Massa’s slipstream through the massive Parabolika corner (effectively a straight). Massa should have stayed on the inside to make it difficult for Hamilton to pass at the hairpin. Instead, Felipe Massa not only opened the door, but he threw out the welcome mat and offered him tea and biscuits. Massa realised what he had done and attempted to come back, but Massa only ended up compromising himself.

Hamilton had only one more car to take, and that was Piquet’s Renault. That was always going to be even easier than passing Massa. True enough, it turned out to be a near identical pass as the one on Massa — but this time Piquet didn’t fight back. The pair were rivals in GP2 a couple of years ago, but Hamilton looked like he was on another planet.

I don’t think anyone else in the field could have done it like Hamilton did today. For the second race in a row, he has left me as effusive and sycophantic as the media luvvies who sickened me last year. But you simply have to take your hat off to performances like this that simply make everyone else in the field look like complete amateurs.

The cliché is to call Hamilton Senna-esque. I don’t think it was a Senna-esque drive today. However, it very strongly reminded me of a Michael Schumacher drive. The way Hamilton coped with a very bad situation by simply outclassing everyone could have come straight out of the Red Baron’s textbook.

As for Ferrari, there is nothing else you can say — they are without a doubt on the back foot now. Their car wasn’t good enough around Hockenheim, particularly in sector 3. The next two circuits will probably suit the McLaren as well. The tight and twisty Hungaroring and the Valencia Street Circuit are ideal for a car that likes riding the kerbs and tight corners.

Ferrari’s car advantage is perhaps not so bad though. Kovalainen looks pretty equal with them, if not worse (though a special mention should be made for his amazing overtaking manoeuvre on Robert Kubica). Where Hamilton and McLaren have the real advantage is in the driving department. Hamilton is cutting out the mistakes and is on absolutely scintillating form at the moment.

Meanwhile, Ferrari’s drivers both look like real disappointments. Felipe Massa is not very good. This is no secret. Everyone but Felipe Massa and Nicolas Todt knows it. He is dire in the wet (five spins in Silverstone — a complete embarrassment) and no better than mediocre in the dry (a poor attempt at defending against Hamilton in Hockenheim).

Kimi Räikkönen, meanwhile, simply is not on the boil at the moment. He was ragged all weekend in Germany, seemingly never looking comfortable in the car. There was a period for a lap or so where he looked like he had the hunger as he overtook two cars quite impressively. But the result says it all. He qualified 6th, finished 6th and never looked in contention. No wonder it is rumoured that Räikkönen is fed up and wants to retire — you can see that he is not interested when he’s on the racetrack.

Ferrari must be wondering how it all went wrong. Räikkönen was meant to be the best driver in the field. Maybe a few years ago he was. In fact, last year he almost certainly was. Today he certainly is not. Massa, meanwhile, is nothing less than a complete joke. Ferrari probably have the best car and we don’t know it. How frustrating it must be for Ferrari just now to have two drivers who simply are not up to the job.

Firstly — apologies for the lateness of my review of the Japanese Grand Prix. Another busy weekend spilled over into Monday, and is spilling over into Tuesday and Wednesday as well. (I am being very naughty by writing this post.)

There are so many talking points that it is difficult to know where to start.

I guess I should start by noting that it looks as though Lewis Hamilton will be this year’s World Champion. On the basis of his performance in treacherous conditions at Fuji, he fully deserves it. I still think that Fernando Alonso deserves to be World Champion more because I think he has been on balance the better driver. But it’s points that matter.

Hamilton’s drive at Fuji was solid and impressive. In a lot of ways it was a basic pole-to-flag drive for Hamilton. Besides a little run-in with Kubica, he had no real challenges to face. Not much impressive in that, dreadful conditions aside of course. This does not rank alongside, for instance, Senna at Donington in 1993, or even with Alonso at Hungaroring in 2006.

But Hamilton’s race showed firstly that he can drive in the wet. As his engineer noted at the end of the race, he has ticked the “driving in the wet” box that he so conspicuously failed to tick earlier this year at the Nürburgring. It also shows just how quickly he is learning. He made no obvious clangers at Nürburgring, but it was overall a pretty scrappy and unimpressive race. Fuji put that to bed.

It was exactly the opposite for Alonso. It is difficult to know exactly what was wrong with Alonso at Fuji. The conditions should have worked in his favour. Driving in the wet is a major strength of his, as last year’s Hungarian GP demonstrated. At Fuji, though, he was all over the place (certainly in comparison to Hamilton). Seemingly, Hamilton got pole with a heavier car as well.

For another reminder of how well Hamilton is doing, you just had to look from the back of Hamilton’s car on lap 45. Behind the safety car, Sebastian Vettel caused one of the most embarrassing crashes of the season. Mark Webber was running second for Red Bull, and he felt like he was in with a chance of winning. Sebastian Vettel was in third for the Red Bull sister car, Toro Rosso. It would be a historic finish for Red Bull, and for Toro Rosso who were on line for their first ever podium, and their first points of the season.

Then Vettel lost his concentration behind the safety car and slammed straight into the back of Webber. Both cars had to retire from the race. Vettel was distraught — crying in the garage upon his sheepish return to the pitlane. How does he explain to the boss what happened?

Webber was noticeably furious, and threw the steering wheel from his car as though he were an Olympic shot put competitor. ITV reported that early on in the race Webber had been sick in his helmet. Lesser men would give up when their stomachs empty themselves. That’s what separates us from Grand Prix racing drivers. The decision to continue was being paid off in the form of second place.

I bet while he was running in second he had forgotten all about the vomit in his helmet. Being slammed in the rear by a driver of his sister team was probably enough to make him sick all over again. Take a sip of water to calm yourself down. Oh no, you were sick into your straw.

Furious Webber stormed back to the pitlane and blasted Vettel in the strongest possible terms. It provided the funniest moment of the race. On live Saturday morning television, in the same slot where Pocoyo is normally shown, he blasted, voice noticeably trembling with rage:

It’s kids, isn’t it. It’s kids with not enough experience, and they just go and FUCK IT ALL UP!

Here it is on YouTube — enjoy it while you can, before FOM remove it.

Vettel has probably lost a lot of his reputation with that moment. Usually it would be forgiven as a rookie mistake, but the problem is that this year there is a rookie who you cannot envisage making that kind of mistake. More evidence of what a good job Hamilton is doing. (Having said that, I can’t think of Kovalainen dropping any similar clangers either.)

Someone else who lost a lot of reputation — as if he had any left to lose — was Ralf Schumacher. During qualifying 1 he was seemingly worried about not making the cut. For whatever reason he felt the need to take an ambitious move alongside a Spyker. Unfortunately, instead of going alongside the Spyker, he just went straight into it and damaged his car so badly that he wouldn’t have been able to go into Q2 anyway. To rub salt into the wound, he qualified for it. Yesterday, Ralf Schumacher was sacked left Toyota.

I suppose this is the thing about wet races. It makes some people look like complete idiots. It makes other people look like superheroes. So many drivers put in amazing performances at Fuji. I have already noted Hamilton, Webber and Vettel (before his boo-boo moment).

But Kimi Räikkönen was probably the most impressive driver on the track. He suffered badly from Ferrari’s strategic (and rule-breaking) blunder to start the race on intermediates while everyone else was on full wets. It was a nonsensical decision in the first place, and after just a few laps behind the safety car both Ferrari drivers had to pit in to change to full wets, relegating them to dead last.

Despite this, and in those crazy conditions as well, Räikkönen and Massa both managed to get themselves into potential podium positions. Räikkönen in particular had a stunning race, with a notable move on the outside of David Coulthard being the highlight. It really is the stuff that champions are made of. I hope Räikkönen’s career won’t finish as a case of “if only” as it has been so far.

Kudos also to Massa who was ahead of Räikkönen which is really inconvenient for Ferrari’s hopes in the Drivers’ Championship. And team orders don’t exist, especially from Ferrari. So it was time for a suspicious “splash n dash” to let Räikkönen ahead of Massa, who dropped straight back to 7th.

I suppose we shouldn’t be so cynical. It did let us see a truly amazing last-lap ding-dong battle between Massa and Kubica. There was an uncomfortably high amount of the run-off areas being used. I feel that Massa’s wide line through the run-off at the final corner is what gave him the edge over Kubica in the end, but they were both guilty of using the run-off areas. It provided some damn fun racing, but you can’t help feeling that they were both… cheating?

Ah yes cheating. What about that business with starting on intermediates when they were told to go on wets? Ferrari didn’t get the email apparently! Hah! Yeah right. All of the other teams and even the commentators knew the deal, but Ferrari didn’t. Likely story. Of course, FIArrari believed them.

I should also mention Jenson Button. After his torrid season in a shitbox Honda, he qualifying performance was truly encouraging and I was hoping that he could get a good result. Unfortunately he lost his front wing early on and had to get it replaced.

Rather alarmingly, though, he ran sans front wing for a few laps without any major drop-off in performance. An illustration of just how bad that Honda is — it can lose its front wing and you wouldn’t be able to tell from the times being set.

Liuzzi almost scored a point for Torro Rosso. It would have been scant consolation for Vettel’s lost podium, but it would have been something. Yup, it would have been, had he not passed Sutil under a yellow flag! Doh!

So instead, Adrian Sutil scored his first point, and Spyker’s first point as well. Just in time to impress their latest new owner (they must have had four owners in as many years!). In seriousness, Sutil is seriously impressing this season. A drive at a better team for 2009 surely beckons.

History also for Heikki Kovalainen, who took Renault’s first podium of the year, and his first podium of the career. Apparently it is also the first time two Finns have been on the podium, so a good day to remember for Finland.

A shockingly awful day for Japan though. On their home territory, all of the teams with Japanese links did awfully. I have already mentioned Schumacher and Button. Barrichello was 10th, Trulli finished dead last of the runners, both Williams-Toyotas and both Super Aguris failed to finish. Sakon Yamamoto was 12th. Who would be a Japanese F1 fan?

This is just a bit of what I have been thinking. I could go on and on and on about that race, but I have to stop somewhere. The championship looks like it’s nearly over, but I can’t wait for the Chinese Grand Prix. Luckily, we only have to wait a few days for it.

Update: As soon as I published this, I spotted this on Sidepodcast. It provides very convincing evidence that Hamilton could have caused the collision between Webber and Vettel. It also backs up Vettel’s post-race comments about how he was being put off by Hamilton. Commentators noted Hamilton’s erratic driving behind the safety car, and it does look a little bit like Hamilton was taking things rather over the line with his excessive start–stop driving.

You can only assume that he was deliberately trying to cause an accident, or rattle his opponents. (As Sidepodcast notes, it can’t have been warming brakes, because that involves abrupt changes in speed, not the gradual halt that Hamilton comes to.) What do you think? Watch quickly, before FOM take it down.

I have to say, well done to the person who took the footage. It’s better than anything the actual TV director took of the incident, and reveals a whole lot more of what was going on in the incident.

Update: The original video has, as predicted, been removed by FOM. For the benefit of the many visitors still reading this post, here is another copy of the video. This will probably get pulled down as well.

Via Telegraph Technology.